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By Jack M. Turner

Sunday, September 20, 2015 kicked off with a smooth drive to Los Angeles Union Station.  I dropped off my rental car at the underground parking garage below the station and a redcap picked up some other passengers and me at our cars along with our luggage.  He drove us to the back door of the first-class Metropolitan Lounge and waited while we returned our rental car paperwork at the counter directly downstairs then took us directly to our Coast Starlight sleeping cars which were spotted on Track 10. 

Car 32050 was the third of three sleeping cars and was located directly ahead of Hi-Level Pacific Parlour Car 39973 “Santa Lucia Highlands”.  Roomette 2 was  located in the center of the car on the left hand side which was ideal since that was the side facing the Pacific Ocean.  Although Superliner sleepers were constructed with even numbered rooms intended for the left hand side, in recent years it is the luck of the draw as far as which rooms will be on the right or left. Having boarded at 9:30am, I had ample time to relax prior to our on-time 10:10 departure.

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The northbound Coast Starlight prepares for departure from Los Angeles on Sunday, September 20, 2015


Heritage baggage car 1757, a former passenger coach, is making one of its last runs.


The Pacific Parlour Car is a former Santa Fe Hi-Level lounge car serving first class passengers


This decal on the exterior of car 39973 bears the Pacific Parlour Car logo

I headed to the Pacific Parlour Car to enjoy the run through Burbank, Van Nuys, and Simi Valley while sitting in a comfortable swivel seat.  Lunch was called at 11:45 as we stopped at Oxnard and I made my way to the dining car which was one car to the rear.  The panko crusted chicken breast proved to be a winner and I made a mental note to order it for lunch on subsequent days.  Just north of Oxnard we passed a pumpkin patch on the left and moments later joined the Pacific
Ocean near Ventura.  Campers filled the beachfront parking lot as their owners soaked up the weekend sunshine on a hot, sunny day.  The view was outstanding with the Channel Islands clearly visible in the distance and surfers riding the waves just offshore.  Soon we passed Solimar Beach where an ultralight soared above the beach.  The rails followed the coast for several miles with Coast Highway 1 (US 101) between us and the sea.


Looking rearward in the Pacific Parlour Car


The Santa Susana Pass area between Van Nuys and Simi Valley offers unique topography and several tunnels


Surfers and the distant Channel Islands are visible near Ventura


Coast Highway 1 approaching Solimar Beach


An ultralight flies above the surf at Solimar Beach


Plush swivel chairs welcome sleeper passengers to the Pacific Parlour Car

Several passengers boarded at the magnificent Mission Style railway station in Santa Barbara at 12:40pm.  The station is notable for its rounded arches and the stately Moreton Bay fig tree that stands to the left of the station when viewed from the train.  This tree has been documented as the nation’s largest tree from the Ficus family and is one of the city’s beloved sights.  A former Southern Pacific office car stands in front of the massive tree. 


The Santa Barbara train station is noted for its beautiful Spanish architecture


The famous Moreton Bay fig tree and a former SP office car stand adjacent to the Santa Barbara station

North of Santa Barbara the former Southern Pacific route hugs the Pacific coast for nearly three hours offering spectacular views, often perched on the cliffs overlooking the deep blue sea.  The northbound journey usually provides the best viewing due to better sun angles during the early afternoon hours.  A roomette is typically an affordable way to travel between LA and the Bay Area as lunch and dinner is included along with access to the Pacific Parlour Car, a beautifully restored vintage rail car than once served as a Hi-Level lounge on Santa Fe streamliners between Chicago and Los Angeles and later was a part of Amtrak’s Southwest Limited through much of the 1970s.


Looking southward along the Pacific coast north of Santa Barbara

One half hour north of Santa Barbara we crossed Gaviota Trestle, one of the iconic structures on the route of the Starlight.  The popular beach in Gaviota State Park was being enjoyed by a large crowd.  As the train passed above the beach I had a good look at Gaviota Pier which was badly damaged in a storm on March 1, 2014 and has been closed ever since. Numerous beaches came into view over the next several miles with many displaying the curved shoreline so prevalent along the Pacific coast. 


The popular beach at Gaviota State Park


Gaviota Pier, damaged by a storm in March 2014, as seen from Gaviota Trestle


Another beach just north of Gaviota State Park


The Coast Starlight offers views of the Pacific between Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo


An isolated beach with a typical curved shoreline and cliffs offering excellent views


Weekend visitors flock to many beaches along the Coast Starlight route


The rolling surf washes on to this remote beach

At 1:52pm train # 14 passed the Pacific Surfliner stop serving Lopac/Surf then passed through Vandenberg AFB where launch pads for unmanned NASA rockets were plainly visible.  In the early days of the space shuttle program, NASA planned to conduct occasional space shuttle launches from this base into polar orbits.  However, the plan was scrapped following the Challenger accident, leaving Kennedy Space Center as America’s sole manned spaceport.


A launch pad and NASA facilities are seen as the Coast Starlight passes through Vandenberg AFB

The Coast Starlight cooled its heels in a siding for 15 minutes waiting for southbound Pacific Surfliner # 723 near Guadalupe then sailed northward toward San Luis Obispo.  Our southbound counterpart, train # 11, left SLO just before our arrival and the 25 minute stop allowed time to walk the platform and watch the detraining of passengers and boarding of replacements.  The Cal State San Luis Obispo football stadium passed on our right as we left town and at 3:57pm, just nine minutes after departure, we rounded a sweeping horseshoe curve to the right as we tackled Cuesta Grade.  The right side of the train continued to offer stunning sights as Stenner Creek Trestle and the winding tracks we had just traversed appeared in the valley below as if part of a model railway. 


Agriculture fields north of Vandenberg AFB


The Pacific Parlour Car at San Luis Obispo


The stop at San Luis Obispo offers time to stroll the platform


Sleeper 32050 and the Pacific Parlor Car at San Luis Obispo


The author’s sleeper poses beside the station platform sign


The rear coaches are seen as train # 14 navigates a tight curve north of San Luis Obispo


P42 engines 202 and 94 lead the Starlight around another sweeping curve


Stenner Creek Trestle and the winding route we have just traversed are visible as the Coast Starlight climbs Cuesta Grade


US 101 is visible below heading toward Santa Margarita

North of the next stop, Paso Robles, large oil fields appeared followed by a multitude of agricultural fields where lettuce, squash, grapes and other fruits and vegetables are grown.  Dinnertime provided an opportunity to choose between eating in the dining car or the Pacific Parlour Car.  Noting that the parlour car tables seemed to be a tight squeeze for larger adults, I opted for the diner which in hindsight was not the best decision.  A beautiful sunset washed away the memories of a somewhat disappointing dinner experience as we stopped at Salinas and made our way through Watsonville Jct.  An almost on-time 8:20pm arrival in San Jose closed out a relaxing ride along the California coast aboard one of Amtrak’s most scenic routes.


Fields of grapes and barren mountains on the east side of the railway


California’s dry summer climate is reflected by these mountains


Oil fields north of San Miguel


Agricultural fields and the other world appearance of adjacent hills


A colorful sunset enjoyed from roomette 2


Marshlands seen at twilight

Upon arriving in San Jose I sampled Uber for the first time, finding my ride to be timely, clean, and affordable.  My destination, the San Jose Marriott, was an excellent lodging choice as it was not far from the railway station and offered contemporary accommodations overlooking the light rail trolley and other downtown sights.  The trolley actually stops close to the hotel and offers a good way of seeing the city during one’s stopover.  The area surrounding the Marriott is excellent for walking with the convention center and numerous stores in the immediate vicinity.  This is the perfect stopover for anyone wishing to make a day trip into San Francisco via Caltrain, ride the Altamont Commuter Express, or rent a car and drive the scenic Big Sur region and Monterey Peninsula.


The San Jose Marriott provides an excellent stopover convenient to the train station


The San Jose light rail line passes close to the San Jose Marriott

The Coast Starlight connects in Los Angeles with Amtrak’s scenic Pacific Surfliners from San Diego as well as the Southwest Chief from Chicago and Sunset Limited from New Orleans and multiple Metrolink commuter train routes connecting a host of southern California communities.  At San Jose one can connect with Caltrain commuter trains to Palo Alto and San Francisco or make a next day connection to the Altamont Commuter Express commuter trains to Stockton.  Amtrak Thruway busses also link the Starlight to San Francisco at Oakland as well as providing a connection to numerous other destinations accessed at stops on the Coast Starlight route.  Overnight the Coast Starlight travels through northern California and serves various points in Oregon and Washington before its evening arrival in Seattle. 


First Leg of this Rail Journey:  FLORIDA TO NEW MEXICO BY RAIL By Jack M. Turner



Amtrak Pacific Surfliner roundtrip Fullerton to Oceanside
and NCTD Sprinter ride to Escondido, California.
  September 17, 2015

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