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Trip Report, San Diego to San Jose, September 17, 1999


Trip Report, San Diego to San Jose, September 17, 1999
by Ron Goodenow

For Friends of Amtrak

edited by Craig S. O'Connell

Travel on San Diegan, Train #769, scheduled departure San Diego 6:15am, scheduled arrival LA 8:40am. Travel on Coast Starlight, Train #14, scheduled departure LA 9:30, scheduled arrival San Jose 7:47.

The 6:15 San Diegan consisted of a superliner coach, for custom class passengers, and a set of bilevel California cars, including coahces and a cafe. The train departed from San Diego's Santa Fe station, now a hub of activity serving the San Diego trolley system, and Coaster commuter runs. An ideal place for train watchers, it's busy and well laid out.

Here, to the right, is a San Diego Trolley passing in front of the station.

Amtrak has done a great job on the station, preserving much of the original Santa Fe ambience.

My train, one of three daily runs scheduled between San Diego and Santa Barbara; one of 11 between San Diego and LA; a conventional Amfleet one seen to the right;   was spotless.

Unfortunately, it was too dark for external photography of the high level California cars, but as can be seen by the photos below, they are, on the inside, tastefully designed, a combination of commuter efficiency and long-distance design, graced with some distinct features including large windows, brass lamps, power strips for laptops, cool lighting and a mixture of standard and table seating. Nice mix of food, well presented, in the cafe. For riders accustomed to Amfleet and Eastern commuting they are a radical improvement in comfort and ergonomic design. Cool and airey.


I rode in business class, where the steward, B.T. Washington, took good and at times light-hearted care to get us coffee and a roll or pastry immediately after departure, and a refill before arrival.

Overall observations:

This extremely pleasant run, which features spectacular Pacific Ocean scenery mixed with endless Southern California sprawl, was right on time. The ride was smooth, announcements to "ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls" clear, and the equipment in excellent condition, save the broken bulb on my reading light. I was particurly impressed with all the new and refurbished stations along the way, and the overall growth of Amtrak and San Diego and Los Angeles suburban services. Were I to take the trip again, I would probably forego business class, which was dark, crowded and unblessed with laptop connections in favor of the bright and cheerful California cars. But as corridor runs go, this is about the best I've experienced.  In terms of customer friendliness, cost, and efficiency and design, Amtrak and the State of California deserve high marks for this service.

The Coast Starlight was on an adjacent track when we arrived. It, too, was gleaming and spotless. Absolutely bustling with pre-departure activity -- not seen in this photo, taken minutes before departure.








With 30 minutes to spare, and notice that we  would depart at least another 30 minutes late, I had an opportunity to look over the massive and busy Los Angeles Union Station and photograph some Metrolink commuter runs; (lower right);.











The packed to the gills Starlight departed an hour late due to the delayed arrival of the Sunset Limited, which had been adversely affected by Hurricane Floyd. Having been assigned an aisle seat, I got myself well situated in what looked like a spanking new Superliner II Horizon Lounge car thanks to the friendly advice of the coach attendant, where I remained for most of the trip. Unlike many of the airlines I frequent, Amtrak kept us fully informed about our delay and estimated departure.

I haven't ridden Amtrak outside the Northeast Corridor for many years and so didn't know what to expect. What I got was a very pleasant surprise. Elizabeth Peterson's crew was about as friendly and helpful as one could hope -- I compared them quite favorably to the staff of the San Diego Marriott in which I spent almost a week, and where on one morning all department heads and a large number of employees lined the lobby area corridors to greet customers and get personal  comments on the quality of service. The comparison with Northeast Corridor on-board personnel, who still act all-too-often as though they work for the old Penn Central, was marked. And, I have just written a letter to Delta Airlines, on which I just took an international trip, suggesting invidious comparison with, of all things 'a railroad.' Other pleasant  surprises included the ready availability of route literature, menus and other materials. The Starlight is truly branded -- its name etched everywhere. Like trains of yore it has a "name" and most folks on board acted as though they worked for it, not Amtrak.

Another pleasant surprise was the dining car. Service was efficient but friendly, and the lunch menu, which consisted of California motif cooking ranging in cost from $6.00 to $6.50 -- dinner entrees ranged from $10.25 - $15.00 -- was quite thoughtful. Items, which came in huge portions [my Coastal Wrap was an enormous portion of beef, black beans, Spanish rice and cheese wrapped up in a wonderful torilla], and all was served on spotless white tablecloths, very nice china and, yes, were accompanied by real silverware. The visiting students from Japan at my table and I had a fine time. Never hustled along, we were given friendly service and I thought the waiter was especially thoughtful of my companions when they needed  menu translation help.

After lunch I wandered into the first-class Pacific Parlour car. I was pleasantly shocked. The former Santa Fe high level is simply the finest piece of railroad design I think I have ever seen -- and I include equipment on many of the great trains I rode in pre-Amtrak days. Fine woods, brass, Startlight branded crystal room dividers and a well-stocked and designed bar.



I fell into a conversation with the car's attendant, Michael Esparza, and when he found out I provided photos for the Friends of Amtrak Photo Gallery, he graciously invited me to remain in the car for the afternoon's wine tasting and performance by the the train's entertainer, a magician. The wines presented by Michael were fine, as was the accompanying cheese. The wine was sold at fair price and the bottle I selected before leaving the car came in a very attractive Coast Starlight branded canvas bottle bag. Throughout Michael doted on the full car and made sure that the experience was a good one. Two weeks ago I flew in Delta's business class to Europe and, as noted above, there is simply no comparison in service. The airline service was confused and somewhat negligent, the attendants knew very little about what they were serving, and there was hardly a smile to be found. Yours truly enjoyed himself!



The rest of the trip was pretty uneventful. We arrived in San Jose fifty minutes late.

If there is any better mix of overall service and scenery in the world on a daily regularly scheduled run, I've yet to experience it [I've not yet done the Canadian transcon]. The Starlight is NOT the restrained elegance of a 20th Century Limited or the more exhuberant kind one might find on the Santa Fe in its glory days. Itís something like a rolling theme park befitting our popular culture in pre-Millenium America. Bustling, filled with folks on tours, college kids and the odd business person, it evoked considerable friendly conversation and, to my ears at least, hardly a complaint.

A few observations:

Not all is perfect on the Starlight. There seemed to be an inordinate use of the public address system -- dining car announcements, crew pages, etc. The dining car was under enormous pressure; some passengers in rear coaches could not get reservations for lunch [the chief steward walked the train making reserverations for coach passengers on a ëfirst come, first accomodatedí basis; meals are included for sleeper passengers, who got seating priority] and could only get in after everyone else was served. Though the food in the cafe located on the lower level of the lounge car was of far greater variety than one would fine in the East, several passengers grumbled that they to the train to enjoy the diner. I was fortunate because I was in the lounge adjacent to the diner and, at that, the steward got my name wrong and I almost missed my meal. Putting on a movie on 7:00, while it was still light and passengers seemed very happy to sit and look at the glorious California scenery, didn't make a lot of sense. And, it seemed to me that, while we did not get put in the hole but once for a freight, more might have been done to make up for lost time -- for long stretches we seemed to just crawl along. It would be great, as well, if Amtrak could provide a first-class coach between Los Angeles and the Bay Area for the business people and others who would pay a bit more peace and quiet than in the standard coaches. One could only imagine what Amtrak could do with more equipment.

But all in all, from the very friendly agent who took my reservation and explained all services and pricing carefully [the cost of my ticket from San Diego to San Jose, with business class from San Diego to LA came, with AAA discount, to a whopping $70!], to the coach attendant who stopped and talked to me every time she passed me in the Horizon lounge, the human face of Amtrak made a big difference. The agent's suggestion that Amtrak's new policy was to guarantee good service was welcome, if unneeded.

Here are a couple of more pictures from the trip: a Coaster train photographed from my hotel room in San Diego, and a Peninsula commute, photographed in Burlingame. For photographers who might be interested, all the photographs on this page were taken with an Olympus R340D digital camera.