My California Rail Pass Adventure Trips 1 and 2

Report and PHOTOS by Noel T. Braymer

california-rail-map-08.jpg For $159 dollars with the California Rail Pass you can travel on Amtrak trains and buses in California for 7 travel days over a period of 21 days!

I had wanted to use the rail pass to travel around California for some time and the April 19 RailPAC/NARP meeting in Sacramento was just the excuse I needed to try it.

My adventure started just trying to get the rail pass. You can’t order a rail pass over the internet and make reservations for your tickets. You must either call Amtrak or a travel agent. On a Sunday morning I called Amtrak and was on the phone for over a half hour, most of it on hold. I was told there was a computer glitch and finally told to call back on Monday. On Monday I called and in less than 10 minutes I had my reservations for the SAN JOAQUIN on April 19th and my rail pass. On Tuesday I went to my local Amtrak Station and it took almost a half hour to set up my California Rail Pass and print my tickets. It all seemed needlessly complicated. It is easier to book international airline flights on the internet which no longer issue paper tickets. But I was happy to be ready to go.

I drove my car to Santa Ana to pick up the AMBUS to Bakersfield. I could have caught the bus in my home town of Oceanside, but I wanted to return on the 704 train out of Sacramento for Bakersfield. This would get me home sooner and allow me to ride a train instead of the bus connection to Stockton. The problem is the bus connection for the 704 out of Bakersfield only goes as far as Santa Ana. I suppose the expectation is no one will ride a bus that late at night. Well no one told the passengers on the very full buses connecting with the 711, the first train out of Bakersfield at 4:55 in the morning.

3:56 AM in Bakersfield. Three San Joaquin trainsets wait for morning departures. My train leaves at 4:55 AM and the bus wasn’t scheduled in until 4:40!

On all my trips the buses and trains ran mostly on time or early. There is a lot of padding in the bus schedules; you can for example expect to sit at LAUS on the bus for at least a half hour. The only time I was late was on the bus from Stockton which was late and got into Sacramento 10 minutes late so I was late for my meeting.

The back of the Sacramento station The tracks in the foreground are for the RT light rail. Ambuses connect with stations all over Northern California, a part of the Caltrans Division of Rail’s good work.

The ride out of Sacramento on the 704 was a relaxing joy. It was so nice to ride a train instead of a bus out of Sacramento. I wish I could do it more often, but the connection to Oceanside doesn’t work. The 701, the morning Sacramento train out of Bakersfield has no bus connections south of Los Angeles. The only mishap occurred in Fresno when the train hit a shopping cart left on the tracks which knocked off an airbrake hose. Despite this the train still arrived in Bakersfield a little early.

My next train trip was from Oceanside to San Luis Obispo and back.

To get to LAUS I rode Metrolink, leaving Oceanside at 5:22 AM to arrive in Los Angeles by 7:20 AM to connect with Amtrak train 799, the 7:30 AM departure to San Luis Obispo. I was a little nervous about making my connection but there was no need to worry.  The 799 is a joint Amtrak/Metrolink train and the two trains connect with each other. The time slot for the 799 belonged to Metrolink. For Amtrak to run this train it agreed to carry Metrolink pass holding passengers as far as Oxnard making all Metrolink stops in between. Most of the passengers who got on with me at LAUS also rode the same Metrolink train I did into LAUS, but were Metrolink riders. On the Surfliner trains running north and south of LAUS there is a 15 minute layover compared with the 10 minute connection between Amtrak and Metrolink. It would be nice if Amtrak had through ticketing and advertised this and other possible connections to the 799 with Metrolink.

Just before the 799 left LAUS at 7:30 AM a Superliner train arrived. It was the inbound Southwest Chief 45 minutes early. It had been some time since I had ridden a train on the Coast Line north of the San Fernando Valley. Too long, since I had forgotten what a great trip it is! The best part is north of Goleta where you have miles of open coastline and almost no development. It is almost hard to believe there is still that much open space next to the coast in California. You can only see this area by train since there are few roads in this area.

This is the station for Lompoc. Set near Vandenberg AFB, which is a major rocket launch area. There is lots of beach and open space.

The 799 was running early until we had a long meet near Carpinteria, which we never recovered from arriving in San Luis Obispo a few minutes late.
San Luis Obispo is a pleasant town to walk about, with many Victorian Homes in the area by the train station. I was able to eat lunch near the train station and take pictures in the area.

Just south of the San Luis Obispo train station, this statue in the historic section of town honors the Chinese track workers who built most of the railroads in California and most of the West.

This is train 798 getting ready to leave San Luis Obispo.

It’s not a locomotive, it is a cab-baggage car. Amtrak uses this converted F-40 on the Coast Daylight trains between Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo.

It had been a long time since I had ridden on a Superliner Train, let alone the Coast Starlight. The one long distance train you can ride on the California Rail Pass is the Starlight from Los Angeles as far as Dunsmuir. In May of this year the Starlight was not just on time but early.

Inside of the SLO station, ready for Train Day.

Metrolink has been placing ticket machines outside of its normal service area, capable of selling both Amtrak and Metrolink tickets as seen here in San Luis Obispo. More connections to come?

Train 11, my train going south arrived in San Luis Obispo by 2:43 PM and had to wait to leave on schedule at 3:20 PM. When we finally left Train 14 was coming into San Luis Obispo and couldn’t leave until 3:40.

The Starlight at San Luis Obispo.

The trains were Starlights, not Starlites, with 2 locomotives, a baggage car, 3 sleepers, diner, lounge and 3 coaches. Something I hadn’t seen before the coach attendant assigns seats before you board the car and keeps a record of what seats are available.

The trip between San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara has no stops and could be upgraded to at least 79 mile per hour running in many places for long stretches. Even with the current top speed limit of 75 in a few places and 60 mile per hour for most of the line, the Starlight on the day I rode it was very early into Santa Barbara. We had to stop just outside of Goleta by 5:30 PM and wait at a siding for a Surfliner due in Goleta at 5:47. We still got into Santa Barbara by 6:01 and couldn’t leave until 6:17.

An early Starlight in Santa Barbara which gave smokers a long smoke break.
The train did get into Van Nuys about 5 minutes late, but we still got into Los Angeles by 8:40, which was 20 minutes early. That was still too late to catch the 8:20 Surfliner from LAUS to Oceanside so I had to wait for the 10:10 PM connection on train 796.

This report is continued in Trip 3 on the next post.

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