I’m an airline guy through and through, but I was very much looking forward to this trip up to Los Angeles on the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner. For those of you not familiar with trains and Southern California in general, the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner gets its name from the fact that it literally follows the coastline during it’s journey from San Diego to Los Angeles (and beyond, all the way up to San Luis Obispo). In some places the tracks are right on the beach, and the views are better than what you could get from driving on Interstate 5 between these two cities.
The Pacific Surfliner arguably offers some of the most scenic views of all train routes in North America, so I was more than eager to get on down to the train station that morning and experience what it’s like to be a hardcore train geek (I believe “railfan” is the proper term). I’ve already got the AvGeek thing well-covered, so adding rail experience to my repertoire sounded like a pretty good plan.
Amtrak California Pacific Surfliner No 579
San Diego, CA (Santa Fe Depot) – Los Angeles, CA (Union Station)
Friday, June 23, 2017
Locomotive: EMD F59PHI
Locomotive Number: 464
Duration: 2 hours 45 minutes
Seat: 72 (business class)
Note: Although the Pacific Surfliner offers direct service from San Diego to Los Angeles, there are actually 13 stops along the way:
- Old Town
- Sorrento Valley
- Solana Beach
- Carlsbad (2 stations)
- San Clemente
- San Juan Capistrano
- Santa Ana
Every stop was very brief though, and still a whole heck of a lot better than driving up interstate 5.
The Santa Fe Train Depot in downtown San Diego is one of the most interesting (and beautiful) buildings in this city. I’m actually a bit ashamed to admit that I’ve never once been inside despite living less than a half mile away from it at one point ten years ago.
I’m pretty sure that’s why my mind was completely blown the moment I saw the interior with my own eyes. I’m not all that familiar with train stations, but I’ve always imagined them to be grand structures with tons of interesting history and the Santa Fe Depot does not disappoint.
The downside of entering a train station as a total newbie that morning was the fact that I truly had no idea what to do. I already had my printed ticket in hand, but we had a large suitcase with us that I did not know what to do with. Do we check it in or carry it onboard with us?
I’ve been told that it’s perfectly OK and acceptable to bring a large suitcase inside the train, but as a seasoned airline traveler, that just seems weird to me. We decided to check it in to avoid any hassle.
The check in process was smooth as butter, and the friendly desk agent confirmed that no, we did not actually need to check the suitcase in if we didn’t want to. All right, good to know. We willl check it in this time, but on the way back to San Diego tomorrow we will just bring it on the train with us. Man, I felt like a newb and totally out of my element!
Once checked in and ready to go, I quickly discovered the joys of the simplicity of train travel. Scheduled departure time was not for another 30 minutes, but it was still plenty of time to exit the terminal and walk across the street to get a bagel from the bagel shop and a coffee from Starbucks. By the time we got back, the boarding queue had started to form and we simply took our place in line and waited to board. No security check, no excessively long lines, no shenanigans. Just easy and simple travel – the way it used to be.
Walking up to a large locomotive and standing next to it for a moment is always an overwhelming experience. I almost didn’t even want to get on board at first – this train was impressive, and I could’ve spent hours walking around it looking at it and taking pictures. But there was no time for that, especially since my wife was with me, and she always does a good job of keeping me focused and not too distracted with geeky man stuff.
Another advantage to having my wife with me was the that fact that while I was distracted as an eight-year-old boy on his first train ride, she was laser-focused on finding us a seat on the upper deck of the business class car that was on the left-hand side (the ocean side with the best views). She succeeded admirably, with two seats on the left-hand side of the upper deck about 3/4 of the way back. Score!
We had been seated for all of 15 seconds and we were already very impressed with this experience. The seats were large and comfy, there was tons of legroom, we had a big window to ourselves to watch the view, and the business class attendant was one of the nicest and helpful individuals we had ever met. We hadn’t even left yet and things were already looking good.
Just before pushback – well, I guess you can tell it “pushback” since the locomotive was in the front and we were going to be pushed all the way to Los Angeles – the attendant came through the aisle offering a very impressive amenity kit / snack box stuffed full of snacks and treats that was big enough to be considered a full meal. It even had Pacific Surfliner branding on it, which the travel geek in me thought was really cool. I was quickly starting to understand the fascination many people have with train travel.
One of the things my wife and I were looking forward to the most about this particular train ride was the fact that we would be rolling right past our house. We live on the edge of a canyon that has train tracks running through it, and we see these trains go by every single day. Hey – it was kind of neat to see our house from the perspective of the train that we’ve seen so often from our living room window.
The attendant came through offering free alcohol in the form of bottled wine and beer, and we took him up on the offer because, hey – this is business class after all end it would be inappropriate not to accept. Right?
Our eyes were glued to the windows all the way north through San Diego, and we were simply in awe once we passed Oceanside as the train ran along the beach for miles. I mean like literally on the beach. If we were any closer we would’ve been wet.
Majestic ocean views slowly morphed into urban sprawl the further we pushed north, and by the time we passed through Irvine it was nothing but city. That was a little bit disappointing, but I was relieved that the motion sickness that I was feeling earlier on in the trip (from facing backwards on a forward moving train) had completely disappeared and I was quite enjoying seeing parts of Los Angeles that I had never seen before.
Our approach into Union Station was slow and lazy, no doubt a result of all the congestion of this massive train station. I really had no idea what to expect from Union Station, but I was hoping it would impress me as much as the Santa Fe Depot in downtown San Diego did. After all – this is the main train station in Los Angeles. This building is where travelers have been arriving and departing Los Angeles for over 80 years, so it had to be grand. It just had to.
My first impressions of Union Station weren’t all that great honestly. The arrival platform and the hall to the main terminal building was a little bit, shall we say…sterile. But once we got out of that and into the main hall, the word “grand” was simply not enough to explain the historical significance and nostalgia I felt while gazing at this very amazing train station. Union Station is impressive.
So there you have it. My first ever train experience of this magnitude within the continental US. The Amtrak Pacific Surfliner is an excellent way to travel between San Diego and Los Angeles, and you can bet that I will be doing this again – as often as I can. I love to drive, but this train is so convenient that it’s hard to resist.
I was feeling pretty good walking out of Union Station that afternoon, especially since I felt like I was an experienced train traveler now and the trip home to San Diego the next day would be even easier than this. I was also starting to feel a bit like a true railfan, which didn’t bother me one single bit.