When Will Jones switches to his favorite form of travel—an Amtrak long-haul train—it’s not for speed or convenience. In a world obsessed with hyper-connectivity, he spends days at a time in a massive metal tube that’s often plagued by lag, lacks WiFi, and is one of the slowest forms of motorized travel of the 21st century.
“When I ride Amtrak, I tell people to just chill,” Jones said as the Santa Ynez Mountains rolled by in the distance. “Because you will be exposed to America.”
Amtrak drivers should take note of Jones’ leisurely approach to rail travel in the United States. Its fleet of huge diesel-powered locomotives is often slower than it was 85 years ago. The Coast Starlight, an epic 1,377-mile journey from Seattle to Los Angeles, takes over 12 hours to complete the portion of the Bay Area connecting Oakland and San Jose to Los Angeles. In 1938, the now-defunct Daylight train traveled to Los Angeles in less than 10 minutes.
For the foreseeable future, California’s train drivers will get stuck on the cumbersome connection. The state’s beleaguered high-speed rail project is decades behind schedule in hopes of connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles through the Central Valley. And even as President Joe Biden, known for his love of Amtrak trains, pours billions into passenger rail infrastructure, no major speed improvements are planned for the Coast Starlight — though the train’s outdated snack bar menu was recently updated to mixed reviews.
Avid Coast Starlight drivers say that jumping on the $54 one-way trip from Oakland to LA isn’t about saving a few hours. It’s about finding a rare place where travelers from all over the world can come together and disconnect from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
“I don’t care much for speed,” said Nicolaos Zafiriou, a Greek filmmaker. On a weekday in July, Zafiriou went to bed in Oregon and woke up in Sacramento. On a trip from Chicago to Seattle, he spent a night chatting with a rock band exec and a truck driver. “It’s so long that you don’t have to keep track of the passage of time.”
And the antiquated Coast Starlight, long known for its breathtaking views, is even turning heads with a whole new generation of train riders, who have been posting viral videos of the train’s massive route.
Highly recommend traveling with @Amtrak instead of flying every now and then!! We had such a great time, we will definitely do it again #amtrak #coaststarlight #bayarea #socal #vlogger #baytok
♬ Original Sound – zivsoundz
But why does the first train connection in California take twice as long as the journey?
Steve Roberts, president of RailPAC, a train advocacy group, said the train’s slow speeds are linked to the nation’s 20th-century love affair with cars. In the heyday of rail travel in the 1900s, before automobiles and freeways supplanted local transport, private railway companies operated a vast network of luxury passenger trains. That’s when rail travel came along with ornate Art Deco taverns and wood-paneled coffee carts.
Dubbed ‘The Most Beautiful Train in the World’, the Daylight’s tracks and technology have been upgraded over the last century to allow trains to zoom around corners at higher speeds. “The train can travel 90 miles per hour in some places along the coast,” Roberts said.
But when passengers started jumping the rails for their steering wheels, private rail companies downgraded their faster infrastructure because it was too expensive to maintain, Roberts said. In 2022, Coast Starlight’s top speed is 79 miles per hour, but that speed is rarely reached.
“Basically, it was society’s decision to build the interstates,” Roberts said. “And the railroads remained static.”
While lackluster infrastructure means slower trains, Amtrak’s biggest problems are rampant delays caused by the nation’s economic workhorse: freight trains.
At the Coast Starlight in 2021, only 54% of passengers arrived within 15 minutes of their scheduled time. The dismal performance stems from a longstanding and bitter competition between Amtrak and freight train operators, both of whom are forced to coexist on the country’s rail network. While Amtrak is said to have priority on the rails, passengers often have to wait hours for passing freight trains. Last week, in one of the latest dust clouds, Amtrak announced mass cancellations of its long-distance trains, including the Coast Starlight, because freight workers threatened to go on strike.
If you can brave the Russian roulette of delays, the Coast Starlight offers a journey through some of the state’s most historic landscapes as it meanders south through rich farmland immortalized by John Steinbeck and then along an estuary north of the famous coast from Monterey with views of otters and seals. Following an old Spanish missionary route, the train travels inland past Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo.
Now that it’s fall, the sun sets before 7 p.m., just as the train meets miles of ocean views south of Santa Barbara.
“I’m just here to see the view,” said Kalen Chang, a UCLA graduate student, as he alternated between grading papers and looking out the window. “It really feels like the time isn’t wasted.”
TIPS FOR THE SLOW TRAIN TO LA
When traveling, here are some tips gleaned from this reporter’s 12-hour journey and other drivers:
- Make sure you’re booking the right journey: passengers have mistakenly booked a “mixed service” connection that includes a train from Oakland to Bakersfield with a bus connection to Los Angeles. The route is faster but far less scenic.
- Go to the Observation Car: After finding your reserved seat, head to the Observation Car, where large windows offer the best views and a lively atmosphere. The car often fills up, especially during the later half of the route from the Bay Area to Los Angeles.
- Get a seat on the right: If you’re going south, the right side of the observation car faces the sea.
- Watch out for dining options: As of COVID-19, the train’s formal dining car is only available to passengers traveling in Business Class or with a sleeper cabin. A snack bar with drinks, chips and slim microwaveable options is available for all passengers. You won’t regret bringing your own meals for the 12-hour drive.