Rail – Los Angeles to Portland on the Coast Starlight over the Tehachapis

In my last post I sang the praises of using the Burbank Airport rail station as a gateway to southern California. For me it was simple. I hopped on a Metrolink train and about 25 minutes later I was getting off at L.A. Union Station, where my Big Ride on Amtrak would originate about an hour later. By the way, the cost of the short hop on Metrolink was only $5.50.

First, some words about Union Station. This is the grand gateway that every train ride should start from or end at. It opened in 1939 and was the last of the great railroad terminals built in the United States. For more history and interior photos here’s a good account on Wikipedia.

In addition to its grand indoor spaces in the Mission Revival style, the gardens on either side of the main waiting area are splendid examples of why southern California’s climate attracts so many visitors and residents.



Union Station has become a true public transportation hub.

Three Amtrak long distance trains (Seattle, Chicago, New Orleans) originate and terminate here, plus the regional Pacific Surfliner service. The southern California rail commuter system, Metrolink, is centered here as are the light-rail and subway trains of Metrorail. Finally, many bus lines and shuttle services (including one to LAX) call at the station. You can also rent a car from Hertz here.


Northern Californians like to sneer at L.A. but there has been a real renaissance of public transit in the City of Angels over the past 15 years. The photo above was taken in the tunnel that leads to the many rail platforms at Union Station. Just because L.A. is rightly famous for its freeways and car culture don’t assume that you can’t get where you’re going by train or bus!

Final touristic notes about Union Station. If you find yourself with time on your hands waiting for a train, keep in mind that you’re right across the street from Olvera Street, where L.A. began. It’s hokey in an old-style tourism way, yet picturesque and fun. And a few blocks to the north is L.A.’s original Chinatown. It’s cool and completely different from San Francisco’s. And a short distance in the direction of Chinatown is that L.A. institution, the restaurant Philippe. Grab a roast beef sandwich here for your train ride.

Amtrak’s Coast Starlight, Los Angeles to Seattle, left on-time at 10:15 a.m. Here it waits on the platform in L.A. receiving passengers.


The train had 3 sleepers, the Pacific Parlour Car (for sleeping car passengers), a diner, a sightseeing lounge car, and three coaches. I was in Sleeping Car 1431, the middle car. My accommodation was a roomette (formerly called an economy bedroom) that will accommodate one or two passengers. It’s cozy (really cozy for two people) but quite comfortable. No bathroom facilities in the room but down the hall or downstairs are bathrooms and a shower.

Each sleeping car has 14 roomettes: 10 on the upper level and 4 on the lower level. (Mine was upstairs.) A sleeping car also has 5 bedroom accommodations (much roomier for one or two people, and with its own washroom facilities) all located on the upper level. Finally, on the lower level are one each of the family bedroom (up to 2 adults + 2 relatively small children) and the accessible bedroom. No pictures but take a look at Amtrak.com for comprehensive information.

Besides simply looking to enjoy a train ride, the reason I specifically wanted to ride this train was the chance to experience what Amtrak described as the “relaunched” Coast Starlight. In the late 90s and early 00s, mostly thanks to the inspiration and work of Brian Rosenwald, then Amtrak’s product line manager for the Starlight, service dramatically improved on the train, especially for passengers in the first-class sleeping accommodations.

A key element of this first transformation was the introduction of the Pacific Parlour Car. These lounge cars were originally built in the pre-Amtrak days for the Santa Fe Railway’s passenger trains. Brian’s idea was to refurbish these cars, add lots of amenities (including afternoon wine tasting!) and make them the focalpoint of the experience for first class passengers. In addition, the meal service on the Coast Starlight in this period was elevated to a new level for Amtrak. The food back then wasn’t merely good, it was excellent. (Meals in the diner then and now are included in the price of the ticket for sleeping car passengers; coach passengers pay for meals.)

But it had been over 7 years since I’d been on the Coast Starlight and from what I had heard time had not been kind to the service. The Pacific Parlour Car no longer was reliably part of the consist, and meal servce had suffered in the nationwide wave of economizing at Amtrak (“Diner Lite”).

In general I would say that what I experienced on this trip was quite good, although the meal service is not yet back to the level I enjoyed between 1998 and 2001. However one new feature that was not a part of the first rebirth of the Starlight in the late 90s is a real enhancement: optional meal service for sleeping car passengers in the Pacific Parlour Lounge itself. The meals are lighter and the menu choices limited but they’re perfectly adequate and tasty.

Here are two pictures of the Pacific Parlour Car.



I’m overjoyed to report that the wine tasting is back in the lounge, too!

A nominal $5 fee for four tastings is required and includes a small fruit and cheese plate. Since the entire trip from L.A. to Seattle (or vice-versa) includes two afternoons, the tastings are arranged to complement the region traversed. Although we were detouring via the Tehachapis and San Joaquin Valley the wines served the first afternoon were from origins along the train’s normal route through the Central Coast (San Luis Obispo/Paso Robles/Salinas Valley) as well as Napa and Sonoma. The following afternoon’s tastings (in Oregon’s Willamette Valley) appropriately featured wines of Oregon and Washington.

Another improvement I liked was seeing that the sleeping cars have been refurbished with more modern appointments. The bathrooms are much more attractive and the shower really works well. Good job, Amtrak!

Each sleeping car has an attendant who makes up the rooms for nighttime use, restores them to seating in the morning, keeps coffee and beverages available all day long for the car, and generally sees to it that his/her passengers are happy. The gentleman responsible for my car did a fine job. Because of the long layover in Sacramento in order to get back on the train’s regular schedule, he made up the bed for night use while I was off the train.

I tucked myself in and slept soundly after we left Sacramento at midnight. I set my alarm for 6:00 a.m. in order to shower before anyone else was up and then enjoyed a spectacular sunrise as the train crossed from California (near Dorris) toward its first Oregon stop in Klamath Falls.

Speaking of service, the woman who ran the show in the Pacific Parlour Lounge did a great job. On duty from probably around 6:00 a.m. until 9:00 p.m. – maybe later – she was on her feet serving meals, drinks, conducting the wine tasting, setting up the movie in the movie room on the lower level – you name it. Except for a few meal breaks she was “on” the entire time.

She was a travel industry veteran and it turned out, worked for Air California years ago (when there was an Air California). You have to be of a certain age to remember Air California, later renamed Aircal and ultimately bought by American Airlines many years ago now. I also enjoyed eating lunch with a couple, the gentleman of which was an Alaska Airlines pilot but who seemed to be more of a rail aficionado than an airline enthusiast. Another woman at our table had been a United flight attendant years ago when they were “stewardesses”. I shared my own airline background so it was certainly a “planes and trains” moment.

Speaking further of people, I ran into two friends of mine from my Amtrak days, Bruce Heard and Curt Bormann.

Bruce worked for Amtrak for 29 years and 10 months, retiring from Amtrak in 2001. Bruce was part of Amtrak’s public relations team. He was originally based in San Francisco, then Washington, D.C., and finally in Los Angeles. Bruce was riding the train up to Sacramento to take part in a San Joaquin Valley Rail Committee meeting.

Curt has worked with Amtrak since 1980 and for many years has been training Amtrak ticket agents. Curt is part of a small, tight-knit group of Amtrak trainers I worked with fairly closely when I was doing consulting for Amtrak between 1998 and 2000. There are times when Amtrak seems on the verge of a meltdown for one reason or another but long-term dedicated employees like Curt and his colleagues keep the system running despite the scarcity of resources they have to work with.

It was great to run into Bruce and Curt and enjoy a long chat with them on the train. As a reward or punishment I told them I’d put them in the blog. Here they are on the platform in Sacramento where they detrained.


The highlight of the trip itself, besides getting to see the improved onboard service, was the unexpected detour via the Tehachapis. As previously described in earlier posts, the Coast Starlight normally runs from L.A. to the Bay Area via Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Salinas, hence the “Coast” part of the name. Due to maintenance work on tunnels near San Luis Obispo the train operated from L.A. to Sacramento without any intermediate passenger stops over the Tehachapi Mountains and up the San Joaquin Valley.

By the way, “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” reader (and North State Symphony Executive Director) Keith Herritt alerted me that my assertion in an earlier post about the Starlight’s last reported pre-2008 Tehachapis detour being 1974 was wrong! I was shocked, shocked to learn of my error, but Keith’s right; the southbound train (# 11) detoured once in 2005. Click here to read the article Keith found. (If you click on the link move to the bottom of the page then look five paragraphs up.) Thanks, Keith!

I’d never been by train over the Tehachapis so I was really looking forward to the ride. The scenery is very rugged. If you’ve driven in the area the railroad’s route basically parallels California Highway 58. Probably the best known feature of the train’s path is the Tehachapi Loop, an elaborate piece of engineering where the train makes a circle and goes under itself in order to gain (or lose) elevation.

Here are two photos I took.



Not long before we reached The Loop we passed the southbound Coast Starlight, train 11. Here she is.


When the train reached Bakersfield there was a short stop in order to change crews then we continued north up the valley to Sacramento. As reported in an earlier post, the train did not use the route of Amtrak’s regular San Joaquin Valley trains along the BNSF (ex-Santa Fe) tracks but rather along the Union Pacific (ex-Southern Pacific) not used for regular passenger service since 1971. I was prepared for a fairly slow operation and a rather bumpy ride, since track used exclusively for freight isn’t normally maintained to the same standard as that for passenger traffic. Surprisingly and happily, the train moved at a brisk pace and the ride quality was good.

Not long after I returned from the trip I was digging around on the net and found an outstanding picture taken in April 1971 of Southern Pacific’s San Joaquin Daylight just a short time before Amtrak took over the operation of long-distance trains and this train was one of the casualties. The photo was taken by Drew Jacksich, who over many years has taken fantastic railroad pictures including of the recent Feather River detour I blogged about in September.

Here’s a small rendering of the photo, but I strongly suggest you double-click it to enjoy it in all its glory. It is a 40-year trip back in time for both the train and the human element.

San Joaquin Daylight (Drew Jacksich)- March 1971.jpg
(Thanks for letting me use the photo, Drew!)

All in all, it was a fine train ride. We arrived in Portland about 40 mnutes late on 30 October which for Amtrak long-distance train timekeeping isn’t bad.

In a few days I’ll conclude my account of the trip with a post about my brief stay in Portland.

A reminder. Amtrak is rerouting the Coast Starlight northbound and southbound again on 8, 10, 12 and 14 November. See my 1 November post for details. If I hear of further Coast Starlight detours or other detours involving trains in the West I’ll report them in the blog.

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2 Responses to Rail – Los Angeles to Portland on the Coast Starlight over the Tehachapis

  1. tod day says:

    Nice review… I have only done Hanford to Sacramento… but want to do Chico to Portland

  2. Keith says:

    Fun to read, and thanks for the mention! You’re a good writer Greg (and you spell/use “complement” correctly, which is practically unheard of)

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