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Coast Line

Started: 2022-01-15 15:16:30

Submitted: 2022-01-15 20:06:03

Visibility: World-readable

Taking the train north from Los Angeles to San Jose, this time (mostly) in daylight

On New Year's Day we took the Coast Starlight north from Los Angeles to San Jose.

Microwave tower in DTLA
Microwave tower in DTLA

We left our hotel in DTLA and took the metro two stops north to Union Station. (This was somewhat more complicated than it ought to have been because Calvin lost his metro card from the time I asked if he had his metro card when we left the room to the time he showed up at the fare gates. This was further complicated because Calvin was the last person in our group to attempt to enter the fare gates, so Kiesa had to leave the paid area to go buy him a metro card at the vending machine, and then she had to add more value to her own card to pay the $1.75 metro fare.)

I got coffee at Union Station (which took much longer than it seemed like it should, for no obvious reason) then we headed down the concourse tunnel to find our train on track 12. Along the way we passed the commuter rail service to Pasadena, which was attracting people wearing sports jerseys and other apparel identifying themselves as supporters of one of the two teams playing in the Rose Bowl, Ohio State and Utah.

We found our track and joined the scrum of people trying to figure out where they were in the train. Most people were in the coach carriages further down the train, but we had emerged onto the platform right in front of our own sleeper carriage. (If the train ran according to its timetable we ought to arrive in San Jose before bedtime, but given our multi-hour delay on the way down it seemed prudent to not take too many chances.) Kiesa and Julian rode in roomette #10 on the upper level of the carriage. Calvin and I rode in roomette #12 on the lower level of the carriage. There were a few tiny differences in the finishings in the room (the over-the-shoulder light control panel was a bit different, and the coat closet was enclosed and seemed like a good way to forget things on the train) but overall the room was almost identical to our room on the train down.

We rolled out of Los Angeles right on schedule at 09:51, heading north along the Los Angeles River into Burbank and Van Nuys and Simi Valley. Somewhere around our station stop in Van Nuys I saw "Keep your hopes up" painted on the side of a building next to the train tracks, which seemed to be an auspicious sign to start 2022.

"Keep your hopes up" graffiti

As we approached Oxnard and Ventura I left my roomette and headed in search of the cafe car and observation lounge. Our rooms were on the right-hand side of the train, which would face inland for the duration of our trip north; the most spectacular views on the route were on the left-hand side of the train as it traveled along the Pacific Ocean. I found the snack bar on the lower level of the cafe car (which would have been our only source of food on the train if we had not bought sleeper tickets), then headed back up to the observation area to wait for the scenery to appear.

Coast Starlight observation car
Coast Starlight observation car

All of the seats on the left-hand side of the train were taken by people who were ready to watch the scenery, so I found a right-hand seat and kind-of-awkwardly looked sat sideways in the chair so I could look over the shoulders of the people opposite me and see the waves breaking on a narrow strip of sandy beach with the Channel Islands looming in the haze just over the horizon. The sunlight glinted off the Pacific Ocean and the whole scene was spectacular.

Channel Islands from the observation car
Channel Islands from the observation car

As the train wound its way up the coast we played leap-frog with US 101, also running along the same narrow strip of flat land below the dry scrubby hillside. Sometimes I saw RVs parked for camping next to the beach, just above the high tide line. I could see evidence of recent wildfires and evidence of the regrowth after the fire.

Looking out at the beach from the Coast Starlight
Looking out at the beach from the Coast Starlight

After a half-hour in the observation car I returned to my roomette. At 12:30 we went to the dining car for our lunch reservation. We were seated on the right-hand side of the train but we could look out on the Pacific coast as the train continued northward.

After lunch the train entered Vandenberg Air Force Base, traveling through coastal scrub between widely-spaced launch complexes. I spotted a large launch complex above us, with a couple of large buildings that seemed like the sort of buildings one would use to assemble rockets for launch, and my map identified it as Space Launch Complex 6. Several of the buildings we saw were identified as SpaceX.

Vandenberg AFB Space Launch Complex 6
Vandenberg AFB Space Launch Complex 6

The track moved further inland and it grew harder to catch a glimpse of the ocean between the low hills. I walked out of my roomette and into the hallway to stand in front of some of the windows on the left-hand side of the train where I could see more ocean. I took this picture below of the second track running along our track, and my phone camera captured the image at a much higher shutter speed (1/703 sec, according to the metadata) than I was capable of perceiving with my eye. To my eye the track blurred as we zipped by around 65 miles per hour, and I could only barely make out the details of the ice plant on the slope opposite; but the fast shutter captured the scene differently, picking out individual ties and the details of the rock ballast below the track.

Coast Line through Vandenberg AFB
Coast Line through Vandenberg AFB

We left Vandenberg and turned inland to travel through a series of farming valleys before finally stopping at San Luis Obispo in the middle of the afternoon.

Amtrack locomotive 174 at San Luis Obispo
Amtrack locomotive 174 at San Luis Obispo

San Luis Obispo was our longest station stop, and I took the opportunity to step out onto the platform to walk the length of the train front to back. At the lead engine at the front of the train I saw people studying and photographing the engine's nameplate, and my first instinct was to dismiss them as train nerds before I felt irrationally jealous that they'd gotten there first. Other passengers on the train had taken the opportunity to take a break on the platform; one passenger was doing yoga before returning to the train to continue our northward journey. After boarding the train we waited a couple of minutes at the station for the southbound service to meet us at the station, clearing the line ahead so we could proceed.

This time we had the chance to see the train's ascent up the serpentine track to Cuesta Pass in daylight. In the light I could see the train curving around the long ascending track to the pass, stretching out ahead of me and behind me. (I was in the second sleeper carriage in the train; ahead of that were the baggage car and two locomotives. Most of the train was behind me.) I wondered about the design of the track and what design rules it followed for maximum grade and minimum turn radius, what that implied for the maximum speed of the train ascending and descending the track, and what one might be able to do to increase the track speed and at what cost.

The afternoon wore on as we reached the pass and descended into the Salinas Valley. Somewhere between Paso Robles and San Miguel I head a loud banging under me, as if the train's wheels were flinging up rocks or debris onto the undercarriage. After a minute the train slowed and stopped; then the HVAC powered down (noticeable only as an absence of noise) and my train compartment was completely quiet. Our sleeper car attendant said things in the hallway to reassure passengers, and after a few minutes the conductor came onto the PA to tell us that everything was fine and we were probably stopped for a train on the track ahead of us. After five minutes the train started moving again, and the banging on the undercarriage did not resume.

Night fell as we rolled through the Salinas Valley. We returned to the dining car for our dinner reservation at 18:00, and found the same menu that we'd eaten from on the way down. I would have preferred more variety; there was only one vegetarian entree on the menu. They even served the same tamales as the train did on the way down; I wondered about the logistics of sourcing and transporting the tamales on the bidirectional train service. Did they have one supplier in Los Angeles and the tamales that we ate on our southbound trip make a stop in Seattle on the train and then head south again?

I tracked our position on my phone as we climbed out of the Pajaro Valley into the Santa Clara Valley and passed Gilroy and Morgan Hill on our way into San Jose. We pulled into Diridon Station almost on time, and I joined the scrum of people in our sleeper car waiting to get off in San Jose. (It seemed that half of our train car was waiting in the train lobby to disembark.) But the train stopped short of its intended position on the platform; from my door I could see the platform, but most of the train had stopped before actually entering the station. We waited impatiently as the train waited to reposition itself on the platform. After an interminable wait (it felt like forever; it was probably ten minutes but might have been five minutes) the train crept forward and the conductor gave our sleeper car attendant clearance to open the door, and we spilled out onto the platform at San Jose Diridon Station.

I envisioned our short train trip to Los Angeles as mostly an excuse to take the train somewhere, and by that respect, we had the train experience I was hoping for. As a means of transportation, though, American passenger rail leaves a lot to be desired; the next time I feel compelled to go to Los Angeles or elsewhere in Southern California I'll fly instead. (I'd be more favorably inclined to the train as a method of transportation if were faster (four or five hours would be great), more reliable, and more frequent; all of these are explicit goals of California's high-speed rail megaproject, and I hope I have the opportunity to take the high-speed train somewhere meaningful sometime in my life.)

Kiesa wrote a parallel account of our train trip north from Los Angeles to San Jose: Train Adventure: Part 2.

Whoa! Now we can always know exactly where we are at every
moment...and still have no clue what is going on.
- Willy, upon learning about Ted's GPS acquisition, 11 November 2003