I’m going the wrong way. It’s 8 a.m., the beginning of a 1,377-mile, 2,216 km journey north by northwest, and I’m going south by southeast. At least I’m on the train.
Well, a train, and one I had to run to catch. This is not a good start.
I’m headed to LA’s Union Station to catch the Coast Starlight, Amtrak’s long-distance cruiser that should, with any luck, deposit me at King Street Station in Seattle sometime tomorrow night. Hopefully it’s on time. I have a busy week planned and the hotel I booked turned out not to be a hotel, and I’m unsure if I’ll be able to check in after 9 p.m. The train is scheduled to arrive at 8. I’m wouldn’t be optimistic about that arrival time even if Seattle hadn’t just been deluged by early February snow.
Why take a train when I could fly in a few hours? It’s all about the adventure. Long distance rail travel in the US is never going to compete with the speed of flying, and for me that’s not the point. It’s travel as an end in itself, a journey through the class and romance of an earlier age. When you consider the price of airfare, a hotel, transport to and from airports, and in the case of the sleeper cars, food too, there’s only a few hundred dollar premium to take the train. I hope for an increasingly rare travel experience: an opportunity to relax and enjoy the ride.
Now departing, track 10A
Amtrak 14, Coast Starlight to Seattle, pulls into Union Station early. Nine coaches driven by two locomotives. At the front is a GE P42DC, the so-called Genesis Series I. It’s an aerodynamic model built in June 2001. Inside is a 175.2-liter turbocharged V-16 that produces 4,250 hp. Behind that is a “Pepsi Can” GE Dash 8-32BWH. These look far older, but date from only 10 years earlier. I’m not positive, but I assume this one is for head-end power, and maybe for a bit of extra kick for some of the mountains up north. It’s a huge beast of a thing, and standing next to it, loud. Amusingly, both of these trains, despite their much larger prime mover displacements, have less power than the new.
We leave on-time at 10:10. I’m excited to learn I’ll have my cabin to myself. Santee, the attendant for my car, is delightful. She answers all my questions about the train, then informs me that my fears of delay are well-founded: Snowmageddon up north is causing havoc. The Coast Starlight ahead of us, the one that left yesterday, has been stuck for hours and might not make it through. The one headed south had to head back to Seattle, which isn’t as bad as what could happen in the mountains. We’ll know more later, she tells me, but if it stays this way we might only get to Sacramento. With SeaTac closed, my trip to Seattle is in jeopardy.
Hour 2: Of stowaways and downed trees
Apparently, we had a stowaway. I missed it, but it’s amazing how fast info makes its way around a train. Someone had tried hiding in one of the empty sleeper cabins, was found and kicked off at Oxnard. I thought that only happened in the movies.
Lunch is served. Having paid for a sleeper cabin, all meals are included. The menu isn’t huge, but there’s good variety. I had chilaquiles. Not bad, actually.
We slow to a stop just outside of Santa Barbara, and the conductor comes on the PA. There’s a tree down on the tracks ahead. We have to wait for a crew to come inspect if there’s any damage. My phone decides to commiserate with the tree, and with a full charge, dies. This is… concerning.
Hour 3 to 4: Tree (and phone) looking up
The crew arrives, but determines the tree is too large to move themselves. They need to call in a tree removal service. I’m convinced now that even if we make it to Seattle it’s going to be after 9 p.m., and without my phone I have no way to let the hotel know I’m still coming. I ponder how cold King Street Station will be.
We start moving again. I decide to take a picture of the offending tree… and fall asleep instead.
Later, I’m able to resurrect my phone. I assumed some combination of buttons would force a reset, and on thethat’s holding the power and volume down buttons for about eight seconds. Deep in the Santa Ynez mountains with no internet and no way to research how to fix my phone, I’m lucky that intuition (OK, guesswork) solved the problem. It shows no signs of additional issues, so I assume it was just flustered and needed to be turned off and back on again. Don’t we all, sometimes.
Maybe I’ll be able to get into my hotel after all.
Hour 5 to 7: Walking tour
As lovely as my cabin is, I decide to go for a wander. We’re south of San Luis Obispo now, the tail end of the Pacific Surfliner route. The Coast Starlight typically has nine coaches. Up front, behind the two locomotives, is a baggage car. Then there are three double-decker sleeper cars, the first is for the crew. These all have a mix of full suites like mine, and the smaller roomettes. There are also Family Bedrooms that swap the shower and toilet for two additional beds.
The roomettes are especially adorable. They’re small rooms with two seats facing each other. These fold together to form the lower bunk, with the upper bunk folding down from above. For couples I bet this is a great way to travel for not a lot of money. I wouldn’t, however, want to be in this cramped space with a stranger.
Next in line is the dining car (reservations only) then the business class car. These seats are a bit larger than what you’d find in the business class on a smaller or older aircraft, but with significantly more legroom. It wasn’t crowded, and almost everyone had two seats to themselves.
Then there’s the lounge car. It’s a stunner: Huge windows, with curve-over skylights. It’s exactly what you’d hope for on a train like this. Perfect for relaxing, watching the scenery scroll by, and waiting for Hercule Poirot.
The last two cars are coach. These seats are still quite large by airline standards. There are more people here than in business class, but even still it seems most have two seats to themselves. The best part is getting all the way to the back. The door at the rear of the train, what would otherwise have connected you with another car, has a window letting you see the track as it disappears into the distance.
I return to the lounge car because, well, wouldn’t you? As I approach, something seems afoot. You know how you can tell, from a distance, when something’s up with a group of people? Well this is what I see when I approach the lounge car. Lots of people with phones, out, twisting in seats. As I get closer, many are leaning towards the right-side windows.
On platform next to the train, in the isolated station of Lompoc, a tall blond man is being instructed by two police officers to put down his bag. It seems, I find out, that this gentleman had seemed a bit off, imbibed more than he could process, and had been creating a ruckus. Well off you go.
One passenger lighter, we continue north.
Hour 8 to 14: Eat, chat, sleep, snow
Dinner. I’m seated with a couple from Phoenix, who flew to LA just to take this train. It’s her gift to him for his birthday. They prove to be excellent dinner companions.
It’s midnight. I make one last sweep through the cars. The train feels different at night. The lights are dimmed, and most people are in their cabins. A few night owls populate the lounge car, working or watching movies. The lights from their laptops illuminating their faces. I spy a few more people, curled up on the sofas and floor, probably finding more comfort than the coach seats farther back.
We stop for a while in Oakland, my guess is to take on fuel for the journey through the mountains in the northern part of the state. By the time I’m in bed and I turn off my light, we’ve set off. I fall asleep to the quiet repetitious rumbles of wheels on rails.
I awake to snow-covered trees and mist-covered mountains. We’re still in California. It’s a long state, but we’ve progressed far enough north, and increased in enough elevation, that there’s snow. Wilted snow that’s clearly seen some rain and melt, but snow none the less. It’s like Fluff that’s been in hot chocolate a little too long. It’s also the first I’ve seen in many years. Despite all my travels, I typically avoid the cold and snow. Four winters in Ithaca, New York were enough for this lifetime
I skip breakfast and instead, stay bundled in bed, staring out the window and writing these words.
Hour 24: The joy of taking it slow
You’d think I’d be going a bit stir crazy having been on the train for a day, and yet, I’m not at all. The constantly changing and gorgeous scenery outside, the comfy and cozy cabin, I could stay here for days.
Santee comes by to give me an update. We have dodged a bullet. The train ahead of us couldn’t get past Redding, so they turned around, but due to flooding had gotten stuck in Salinas. Amtrak had been out all night with snow removal equipment, so our train had already made it through the problem section with no issues. In fact, she told me this with the sun shining on the mountains and valleys of Shasta-Trinity National Forest right where we would have gotten stuck.
We’re still going to be late, the question is by how much, and will I be able to get into my hotel. There’s no cell service in most of the mountains and valleys along the route, and the train’s internet connects via cell towers. I resolve to call when I can.
Hour 26: Across the state line
As we pass into Oregon, 26 hours after we left LA, I’m reminded of other long train journeys I’ve taken, of which this is about to become the longest. Eleven others, across three continents, reveal that I’m a bit of a fan. The five in China were a blur, not least for the excellent companions, but mostly due to the copious amounts of $2 Chinese wine we all imbibed. That was seven years ago. These days. A trip from southern Thailand to Bangkok was a surprise: comfortable beds and delicious foods.
Europe has long been the home to the romantic ideal of overnight trains. Few of these routes remain, however, and those that do are often far truncated from what they once were. Several companies, like OBB, have started offering updated trains and overnight routes for the romance and charm. Technology has progressed though that many of these trains are so fast that you board late at night, and get off early in the morning. There’s little time to enjoy just being on the train. That’s something that Amtrak’s remaining long routes still offer and are rapidly becoming one of the few places where such multi-day train routes exist anywhere.
Two standouts, if you’re curious, are the Caledonian Sleeper from London to Scotland, and the NightJet from Venice to Vienna. Incredible service and food for the former, gorgeous cabins for the latter.
Night trains elsewhere in Italy are a mess. Loud, uncomfortable and I don’t just hate them because I got robbed on one. OK, also that.
Hour 27 to 34: Mountains outside, civilization inside
Lunch. I’m a little disappointed the menu is the same. No worries, I try something different. The burger is… fine.
As gorgeous as the lounge is, I’m drawn back to my cabin. Santee has converted the bed back to a sofa, and the view out is sublime. There’s more and more snow as we go farther north. The sun breaks through the clouds once and a while, though more and more it’s hidden behind clouds and dustings of snow. As we crawl our way through mountainous national forest in central Oregon, the view turns a bit boring for the first time. Tall, skinny pine trees grip steep slopes as the track carves its way along mountainsides. Thick and green, one tree looks the same as another. The only sign of civilization is an occasional muddy logging road partially covered in snow. It’s still relaxing, however, and I have plenty of work I can do.
And by work I mean nap.
At dinner I’m once again joined by the Arizona couple. We discuss, among many things, the colorful characters we’ve met on this adventure. A shared experience and confined quarters do wonders to even the most chronic introverts (i.e. me).
They mention they’ve never been to Portland, so we resolve to hop off for a few minutes when we arrive. According to the conductor, we’ve got 30 minutes to explore. No problem. Plenty of time. What could go wrong?
Hour 35: Five minutes in Portland
Portland Union Station is a beautiful, and old, train station. My friends and I jump off and into the cold. They’re from Phoenix. I live in LA. It’s in the 30s (3 to 5 degrees Celsius) and that’s cold to us. I’m a genius and leave my jacket in my cabin. We start exploring, heading through the hall and outside the station to take some photos of the 123-year-old building. I can’t see the train.
“One of the earliest ‘train’ movies I remember,” I tell my new friends, “is Silver Streak. Classic. Richard Pryor, Gene Wilder. I remember being scared about how he gets left behind by the train. Even now I –” I’m interrupted by the station’s PA.
“Last call for the Coast Starlight to Seattle. Last call. If you’re not on board when the doors close, you’ll be sleeping here.”
Seriously? It hasn’t been more than five minutes. What happened to 30? What was I just saying. We three sprint through the station, around benches and barriers. I’m the first to get through the gate and see our train. I frantically wave at the closest conductor. He’s standing there, unfazed by my flailing gibbon-like approach.
“What happened to 30 minutes?” I ask breathlessly when I get within earshot. He shrugs.
The train leaves…15 minutes later. So it goes.
Hour 36-38.75: The end of the line
I fight to stay awake. I’m ready to arrive. I’m not sick of the experience, but I’m ready for it to be done. I think this is partly due to the fact that we were supposed to arrive several hours ago, and partly due to the fact that we are arriving. I’d happily spend another night on the train, but since I’m not, and I can’t fall asleep or get too comfortable.
We finally arrive in Seattle, 15 minutes shy of 39 hours after we left LA. I bid my friends goodbye and walk the block to my hotel. I’d gotten a message to the hotel, and as I was told, I was greeted at the entrance by the poor guy who had to come in at 1 a.m. to let me in. I feel OK, though, because he tells me I’m not even the last to arrive.
I fall asleep immediately.
The price of adventure
Everyone I spoke to on the Coast Starlight loved the experience. Most were interested in trying another of Amtrak’s long routes.
I splurged a bit, getting the most expensive cabin on the train. Prices vary, but I paid $880 (roughly £665, AU$$1,235). Other days it’s as low as $700 (£530, AU$985). However, if I were to do it again, I’d get one of the roomettes, which cost as low as $378 (£285, AU$530). Adding a second person to either adds around $124 (£95, AU$175), which is roughly the average price of the coach and business class seats.
Amtrak gets a lot of grief,. I’ve certainly had my fair share of issues on the Pacific Surfliner. But this trip was entirely delightful. Even stories from people who got trapped headed south on this route a few days after my trip, talked of how great the other passengers and crew were on their very extended delay.
If a train adventure like this seems like something you’d enjoy, I think you probably would. If it’s not in the budget right now, or you want to see more, check out the gallery above. I also created and saved an extensive Story on my Instagram during the trip.
As well as covering TV and other display tech, Geoff does photo tours of cool museums and locations around the world including, , , and more.
You can follow his exploits on Instagram, Twitter, and on his travel blog BaldNomad. He also wrote a bestselling sci-fi novel.