If you’re a regular reader of my primary blog, “Planes, Trains, and Running”, then you are probably aware that I’m slowly writing a series called “Amtrak Service and Fares“.
Similar to the “Airline Fare School” series, which I finished early last year, “Amtrak Service and Fares” is an effort to shed some light on the technical background of how Amtrak fares work. But different from the airline fare series, “Amtrak Service and Fares” started with seven chapters of introduction about Amtrak’s history and the routes it operates now.
I didn’t do that for the airline series because I didn’t see any need for it, but I’ve found over the years that many would-be Amtrak passengers really don’t know much about Amtrak’s routes.
Since I live in Chico, I thought a post on my Chico-centric blog specifically about Amtrak’s service from Chico would be useful. I just finished a chapter about Amtrak’s short-distance corridors in the west, so that’s a good point to pause and write about “Amtrak in Chico” for the NorCal Blogs. (My credentials on this subject are solid: I worked for Amtrak for 5.5 years as an employee, and then for 3+ years as a consultant.)
So in three bullet points here is the key information; read beyond that if you want more, a lot more.
– The only train service Chico has is the Coast Starlight that runs daily between Los Angeles and Seattle.
– The northbound train (# 14) stops at 1:55 a.m., and the southbound train (# 11) at 3:50 a.m.
– Four Amtrak Thruway buses operate daily between Chico and Sacramento and Stockton to connect with the Capitol Corridor and San Joaquin trains.
OK, all who continue from this point have been warned about the excruciating detail to follow. Please note, too, that anything here about schedules, policies, fares, etc., is subject to change, and certainly will change over the course of the years.
COAST STARLIGHT – where it goes directly, and where you can connect with other trains
There is only one passenger train that goes through Chico and that is the Coast Starlight. The Coast Starlight runs daily between Los Angeles and Seattle. Long-distance passenger trains are timed such that to the best extent possible, major cities are served during convenient hours. However Chico is not a large city, so the train’s departure times are in the middle of the night: the northbound train (# 14) stops at 1:55 a.m., while the southbound train (# 11) stops at 3:50 a.m.
The first city that train # 14 stops at north of Chico is Redding, followed by Dunsmuir, Klamath Falls, and others all the way up to Eugene, Portland, Tacoma, and Seattle. The arrival time in Seattle is 8:45 pm, about 19 hours after leaving Chico.
The first city that train # 11 stops at south of Chico is Sacramento, followed by Davis, Martinez, Richmond, Emeryville, Oakland, San Jose, Salinas, Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Oxnard, Simi Valley, Van Nuys, Burbank airport, and finally Los Angeles. The arrival time in Los Angeles is 9:00 p.m., about 15 hours after leaving Chico.
Click here for a link to Amtrak’s website with route and schedule information about the Coast Starlight.
The Coast Starlight is considered one of Amtrak’s best long-distance trains. (The other is the Empire Builder that runs between Portland/Seattle and Chicago.)
The coach and sleeping car accommodations on the Coast Starlight are the same as others in Amtrak’s long-distance Superliner (double-decker) fleet, but the Starlight has something none of the others do: the Pacific Parlour Car. This car is exclusively for the use of sleeping car passengers, and functions as their private lounge and restaurant.
Sleeping car passengers (whose meals are included in the price of their tickets) have the choice of eating in the Pacific Parlour Car or in the regular dining car. In addition, sleeping car passengers enjoy wine tasting (for a small fee), snacks, a movie room (downstairs), and complimentary wifi. The Pacific Parlor Car equipment long predates Amtrak; the cars were built for the Santa Fe Railway in the 1950s as Hi-Level lounge cars for the El Capitan, but then extensively remodeled when introduced on the Coast Starlight in 1995.
One of the great travel bargains available on Amtrak pretty much year round is using sleeping car accommodations on the Coast Starlight boarding in northern California (usually Sacramento or points south). You’ll enjoy all of the benefits of first-class travel, but for a small price. I wrote about this in detail two years ago in another NorCal Blogs post and little has changed since then. You can board in Chico, too, but most likely you’ll have to get a coach seat as far as Sacramento or Martinez, and then switch to a sleeping car accommodation.
Besides the cities served directly by the Coast Starlight itself, where else can you connect to if you board the Coast Starlight in Chico?
If you head north, the Coast Starlight makes a nice connection in Portland with the Empire Builder (train 28). (Train 14 arrives in Portland at 3:40 p.m, train 28 leaves at 4:45 p.m.) From Portland, the Empire Builder runs clear through to Chicago through Washington, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Popular destinations along the route include Spokane, Whitefish, Mont. , Glacier Park, St. Paul, and Milwaukee. The connection works the reverse direction, too, though wisely with a longer connecting time in Portland (4 hours 15 minutes: arrive train 27 at 10:10 a.m., depart train 11 at 2:25 p.m.) to allow for delays on the westbound Empire Builder.
You can get to points north of Seattle, specifically Vancouver, BC, in one of two ways. A connecting Amtrak Thruway bus leaves shortly after the arrival of train 14, though the arrival in Vancouver is late: 12:20 a.m., later if the Starlight is late into Seattle.
But a more genteel way to get to Vancouver would be to simply stay overnight in a hotel in Seattle, and then take one of the two daily Cascades trains the following day (departures at 7:40 a.m. and 6:50 p.m. for a beautiful 4-hour ride on a great train.) While not as much fun as the train, there are also two midday Amtrak Thruway bus departures from Seattle that provide nice arrival times in Vancouver.
Another variation on this theme would be to break the trip to Vancouver in Portland with an overnight there, then take the one Cascades train that runs all the way through to Vancouver. This option results in a fairly late arrival, as train 516 leaves Portland at 2:50 p.m. and arrives Vancouver BC at 10:50 p.m., but it also gives you almost a full day to enjoy Portland.
Even for passengers only going as far as Seattle I offer the suggestion of breaking the northbound trip in Portland overnight or longer. The Starlight’s arrival time in Seattle even if it’s on time is pretty late at 8:45 p.m. On the other hand even if the Starlight is several hours late in Portland, the arrival will still be convenient, as its scheduled arrival time is 3:40 p.m. Stay overnight (or longer) in Portland, and then use one of the four reliable Cascades regional trains that operate daily at 8:30 a.m., 12:15 p.m., 2:50 p.m., 6:15 p.m. The scenery is lovely during the day, and the trains (Spanish Talgo equipment) are among Amtrak’s best.
Heading south on the Coast Starlight, you could theoretically connect in Sacramento with the eastbound California Zephyr, but it wouldn’t be worth it. You would have to get up very early, only to spend more time than necessary waiting at the shabby Sacramento train station. (The better option is to take a later Amtrak Thruway bus from Chico at 7:55 a.m. with a nice, short connection in Sacramento.)
Due to the late arrival in Los Angeles for train 14, there aren’t any meaningful opportunities for same-day connections. The two other long-distance trains that originate in Los Angeles, the Southwest Chief (Chicago via Flagstaff, Albuquerque, and Kansas City) and the Sunset Limited/Texas Eagle (Tucson, El Paso, San Antonio, Houston, New Orleans/Austin, Dallas, St Louis, Chicago), leave before the Coast Starlight arrives. It is possible to connect to a Pacific Surfliner train from an on-time Coast Starlight, but the San Diego arrival would be 12:50 a.m.
While a same-day connection from Chico via L.A. to the Southwest Chief is conceivable using the Coast Starlight to Sacramento, bus to Stockton, train to Bakersfield, and then bus to L.A., this is something only the most die-hard travelers would do. (I wouldn’t do this; it sounds dreadful.)
Realistically the best choice if one wishes to connect to another train in Los Angeles is to simply stay overnight and travel the following day. Or if the idea of staying overnight in L.A. doesn’t thrill you, consider this alternative. Take the Coast Starlight only as far as Santa Barbara. Stay overnight there, and then use a Pacific Surfliner regional train the following day to connect to one of the long-distance trains, or continue on the same train to points south of L.A. in Orange County and San Diego County.
Surprisingly, going the reverse direction, from either the Southwest Chief or the Sunset Limited the connections to the Coast Starlight are well timed.
If you’re traveling by train for a long-distance, clearly you are not doing so in order to get somewhere fast, so why not make the experience pleasant?
You might consider this same approach even when the connection is “legal”, that is, Amtrak sells the connection such as train 14 to 28 (Coast Starlight to Empire Builder) in Portland. By booking an overnight instead of a same-day connection, you are insuring that realistically no matter how late the inbound train is, you won’t have to worry about making your next train.
Though my business is focused on booking hotels for business travelers, I have planned some long-distance trips on Amtrak for clients and I especially recommend this course of action for those traveling cross-country and therefore connecting in Chicago. Though Amtrak’s timekeeping has been better over the last couple of years, many of the long-distance trains still run late.
It’s a point worth repeating: if you’re traveling long-distance by train, then speed is clearly not important to you. You can build a much less stressful trip by making your long-distance train-to-train connections overnight instead of same-day.
One last note about connections: Amtrak Thruway bus service connects the Coast Starlight with some other intermediate offline points including Santa Cruz (via San Jose), Monterey (via Salinas), Ashland (via KIamath Falls), Bend, Ore., (via Chemult), and Astoria, Ore. (via Portland).
AMTRAK THRUWAY BUS CONNECTIONS FROM CHICO
Chico is connected to the Capitol Corridor and San Joaquins, through four Amtrak Thruway bus departures daily from Chico: 7:55 a.m., 11:40 a.m., 2:20 p.m., 4:05 p.m.). These departures connect well with westbound (toward the Bay Area) departures from Sacramento on the Capitol Corridor, and southbound (toward Fresno and Bakersfield) departures from Stockton and Sacramento of the San Joaquins.
All but the 2:20 p.m. departure stop in both Sacramento and Stockton. The 2:20 p.m. departure goes no further than Sacramento, because it connects with the 4:55 p.m. departure of the San Joaquin that originates in Sacramento. The 7:55 a.m. Thruway bus is also the logical way to get from Chico to Sacramento to connect with the 11:09 a.m. departure of the eastbound California Zephyr for Reno, and other points east to Chicago.
The bus schedules allow for a 2 hour 5 minute ride to Sacramento, but if they leave Chico on time (which they usually do) they’ll often arrive 15-20 minutes early in Sacramento. They make two stops (Oroville and Marysville) en route.
Northbound the buses make the same stops, but if there are no riders getting off in a city they will skip the stop because the bus does not pick up local riders. Amtrak Thruway buses headed to a train station to deliver passengers to a train make all of the en route stops to pick up passengers, but buses headed away from a train station only stop to let passengers off who transferred from a train.
The Thruway buses run north as far as Redding, but every time I’ve been on the bus by far the greatest number of people have disembarked in Chico.
The Thruway buses stop in front of the train station on Orange Street.
Can you buy a ticket only for the Amtrak Thruway buses? Officially: no; but yes, kind of.
State law prohibits Amtrak from selling bus-only tickets. This wasn’t always the case, but as the Thruway bus network expanded, bus operators like Greyhound objected to what they considered unfair competition from a state-supported entity. Except for a modification that allows bus-only tickets to be sold on the Thruway buses between Sacramento and South Lake Tahoe, you cannot buy a ticket only for use on Thruway buses in California without a connecting train segment.
So a Chico-Sacramento bus-only ticket isn’t possible, right? Well, it is but you have to buy it to the closest point beyond Sacramento that is served by a train. That would be Lodi (LOD) or Davis (DAV). You can throw away the unused SAC-LOD or SAC-DAV ticket coupon, give it to Amtrak if they’ll take it, or frame it as a souvenir. Everyone knows that passengers who only need the bus ride are buying tickets for bus-only use like this, but until the law is removed altogether, this is the only way to get around the prohibition on bus-only tickets.
By the way, the buses are not actually operated by Amtrak. Amtrak contracts with bus charter operators who in turn supply the buses and drivers. The buses I’ve been on have been clean and quiet. And because they exist purely to connect from or to trains, you do not need to be concerned about missed connections unless a bus has mechanical problems, which I have yet to encounter.
CHICO’S TRAIN STATION
Chico’s train station is a classic Southern Pacific depot for a medium sized agricultural city of the late 19th century. Thankfully it wasn’t torn down as the stations were in most other Sacramento Valley cities. It is located at the corner of West Fifth Street and Orange Street.
As already mentioned, there are no Amtrak employees based in Chico. Greyhound’s Chico ticket office makes its home in the station (they have nothing to do with Amtrak), as well as the Chico Art Center in what was the one-time baggage and freight office. Empire Coffee (in an original Great Northern Empire Builder coach) is a good place to wait for an Amtrak Thruway bus, but keep a close eye on the time so you don’t lose track of your bus’s arrival.
B-Line Transit does not directly serve the train station, but the # 5 bus stops at 5th and Ivy, about 2 1/2 blocks away. Taxis do come to the train station, but I recommend storing a taxi company’s phone number in your cell-phone so you can call ahead when your bus or train is 20-30 minutes away from Chico.
The station’s platform area was dramatically improved recently with an infusion of ARRA stimulus funds. A raised concrete platform with attractive lighting makes for a safer and more user-friendly beginning or end to a train trip in Chico.
Because Chico is not a staffed Amtrak station, you cannot check luggage. On the Coast Starlight that means carry-on and on the buses it means that you can bring small items on board, but suitcases are stowed in the cargo hold of the bus, which you then claim when you arrive in Sacramento or Stockton. When you board a long-distance train in a staffed city (such as Sacramento) your luggage can be checked in much the same way as when you fly, except there isn’t a charge for the service.
SACRAMENTO’S TRAIN STATION
If you take the Amtrak Thruway bus you will switch there between the bus and train (or vice-versa when headed to Chico). Even if you are connecting in Stockton with the San Joaquin trains you’ll still likely have time in Sacramento as the bus stops there for a while.
Years ago the Sacramento train station (the former Southern Pacific depot) was a jewel, but those days are long gone. (It is similar in design but larger than the San Jose train station, which was my hometown train station growing up in the 60s and 70s. The 1935 San Jose station was beautifully restored and modernized about 15 years ago, while the Sacramento depot languishes.) The interior of the station is rundown and haphazard, though you can sense its faded glory in the mural above the waiting room depicting the building of the transcontinental railroad which began in Sacramento. If time allows and you don’t have an excessive amount of luggage, go to the handsomely restored old Railway Express Agency building (immediately east of the station) where you’ll find a Starbucks and a couple of other quick-food places. Keep track of your train’s departure time as you cannot hear station announcements. Even in the station the acoustics for announcements are poor, so you should rely on your own knowledge of your train’s (or bus’s) departure and be on the platform.
If you have a really long layover, more opportunities to eat and shop are just slightly further away in Old Sacramento and the mall south of J Street.
Sacramento RT’s (Regional Transit) light-rail Gold Line goes right into the train station for very easy transfers. If you are inbound to Sacramento on a Capitol Corridor or San Joaquin train you could layover in Sacramento and take advantage of the free round-trip transit transfer. See Chapter 7 in my “Amtrak Service and Fares” series.
The Stockton train station, where most connections are made for the southbound San Joaquin trains, is in a bad area. Seldom will you have to spend much time here because the bus-to-train or train-to-bus connections are closely timed, but if you wish to go into the downtown center of Stockton (about 10 blocks north) use a taxi, don’t walk.
Passengers who board the bus in Chico without a ticket, and intending to transfer to a San Joaquin train in Stockton purchase tickets in Sacramento during the bus’s stop there.
TICKETING AND OTHER OPERATIONAL DETAILS
If you board an Amtrak Thruway bus in Chico and you do not already have a ticket, you must surrender your driver’s license or passport to the bus driver to get on the bus. He or she then gives them to Amtrak upon arrival in Sacramento, and you go to the ticket office inside the train station to buy your ticket, where your I.D. is then returned to you. (You must have an official government issued ID to board. If you do not have a state driver’s license or state ID, or passport, then don’t bother – the bus driver will not let you board.)
The process is a lot easier if you have already called Amtrak’s call center (800 USA-RAIL or 872-7245) to make a reservation before you travel. That way, when you are at the ticket counter in Sacramento the ticket agent simply has to retrieve an existing reservation and take your money, instead of having to go through the more time-consuming process of creating a reservation.
Hint: if you call for a reservation even if you know that you are going to take the bus to Sacramento and then connect to a Capitol Corridor train to the Bay Area, do not press “1” for the Capitol Corridor when your call is first answered. (You get transferred to an information-only office staffed by BART employees that are not able to make reservations.) And don’t try to talk to “Julie”, the robotic agent that Amtrak uses to try to reduce call volume. Say “agent” or press 0 until you get to a live agent. As of now, Amtrak does not charge a fee to book through a real reservations agent. Ultimately you’ll have to get to a live agent anyway, and it’s much simpler and faster to do so at the start of the process.
You can use Amtrak.com to make reservations but only if there is time for the tickets to be mailed or sent via FedEx. Current policy requires booking at least 9 days in advance for mailing your tickets (no fee) or 4 days for FedEx ($15 fee). There is little point in paying to have your tickets FedExed if you’re connecting to a San Joaquin or Capitol Corridor train, since you can make a reservation on the phone and pay for the tickets when you get to Sacramento. You can also go to a travel agent, but they will charge a you transaction fee because short-distance travel on Amtrak is not commissionable to them.
For travel on the Coast Starlight most of the foregoing applies with an exception. If you are boarding in Chico and make your reservation 3 days or less before travel, you may be able to pay the conductor when you board. Naturally you will need a government issued ID and your reservation number in order to board the train. To set up reservations in this manner, you must call Amtrak’s call-center; it cannot be done on Amtrak.com.
Amtrak doesn’t have true electronic ticketing yet (they’re working on it), but for all staffed Amtrak stations or unstaffed stations with a self-service Quik-Trak machine, reservations can be made and paid for on-line (or with the Amtrak call-center), and then picked up on the day of travel.
However Chico is neither a staffed station nor does it have a Quik-Trak machine, so these are not possible. Amtrak.com does not allow “book and hold” reservations; if you make the reservation online it needs to be paid for at the same time, just the same as when you book flights on airline or online travel agency websites. For those boarding in Chico you can book on Amtrak.com only if there is time to mail you a ticket or you are willing to pay to have it FedExed. If there is no time for either of these but you want to have your ticket in hand, you can call Amtrak’s call center to make a reservation and then go to a travel agency for ticketing, but all agencies will charge you a transaction fee for the service.
(One of the best things Amtrak could do for Chico is to install a Quik-Trak self-serve ticketing machine, unless true electronic ticketing is really and truly soon to be launched. When the Amtrak Thruway bus from Chico reaches Sacramento, it can unleash a flood of unticketed passengers that overwhelms the ticket office. Other unstaffed stations in California including Roseville, Suisun-Fairfield, and Richmond) have Quik-Trak machines.)
Some other details about Amtrak tickets worth knowing. Let’s imagine you’ve had time to buy a ticket that is mailed to you from Chico to Oakland using the Amtrak bus to Sacramento and the train from there to Oakland. Something comes up that requires that you change the times or dates of your trip. Can you still use the ticket? Yes.
Theoretically, seats on the Thruway buses from or to Chico are reserved, and tickets consequently must show the date and train (bus) number on your ticket. In practice, only once in 13 years has a bus driver not accepted a ticket of mine that had the correct city pair but a different date or bus number on the ticket.
At busy times such as Thanksgiving and Christmas, you should have a reservation however. The buses may sell out, and if do not have a ticket that shows the same departure as the bus you wish, or at least a reservation for it, the bus driver might not let board.
Tickets on the Capitol Corridor are sold purely as unreserved, which means that Amtrak does not keep a tally of seats sold on a specific train and date. It also means you can use them pretty much any time you want. So if you wanted to break your trip in the connecting point, Sacramento, you could do so. Technically this is not allowed – the fare from Chico to Oakland does not allow a stopover – but there is no mechanism for Amtrak to enforce when you actually use the coupon from Sacramento to Oakland or vice versa. When Amtrak makes the move to full electronic ticketing this subterfuge will probably no longer be possible.
Seats on the San Joaquin trains are reserved and you should have a ticket with the exact train and date you are on. If you make a change to the reservation after the tickets have been issued, you can exchange them at the ticket office in Sacramento. Even though you are riding the bus all of the way to Stockton, Amtrak wants to have all passengers arriving in Stockton already holding correct tickets.
CHICO’S PASSENGER TRAIN HISTORY
Chico was not a mainline Southern Pacific city. The mainline that connected Oakland (San Francisco) with the Pacific Northwest ran up the west side of the Sacramento Valley. All of the passenger trains between Oakland and Portland- both expresses and locals – used this line which did not serve Chico. (This is the railroad you see that largely parallels I-5.) A branch line local train ran from Sacramento via Roseville and up the east side of the valley through Marysville, Gridley, Chico, etc. as far as Gerber where passengers from the branch line could connect with trains between Oakland and Portland. At some point in the late 1950s the local train was discontinued and passengers would have taken a bus to Gerber instead.
By the time Amtrak was created in 1971, the only passenger train left on this route was the overnight Cascade between Oakland and Portland, which ran without stops between Davis and Gerber. The Cascade was absorbed into the Los Angeles-Seattle Coast Starlight and continued to operate over the west valley mainline. In the late 1970s Amtrak added a middle-of-the-night stop in Orland for the purpose of serving Chico. In 1983 Amtrak rerouted the Coast Starlight to run from Davis to Sacramento and then up the east valley line with a stop in Chico. The main advantage of this was to directly serve Sacramento. The Coast Starlight has run via the east valley line ever since then.
(The schedule to the left is of the Coast Starlight effective 25 October 1981. Note Orland stops at 4:13 a.m. southbound, and 12:13 a.m. northbound.)
CHICO’S PASSENGER TRAIN FUTURE
Even if the troubled California high-speed rail project does come to fruition, it will never serve points north of Sacramento due to a population in the northernmost part of the state that is far too low to justify such a huge outlay.
What would make sense and what is envisioned by the California Division of Rail (part of Caltrans) is daytime conventional rail service between Sacramento and Chico and Redding as an extension of the San Joaquin or Capitol Corridor service, or as a stand-alone train. The state’s 2008-2018 rail plan calls for the service to begin in 2015-2016. I would love to see this take place, but considering the financial straits the state is in, I’m not counting on it. Still, the state has placed a firm order for additional passenger cars and locomotives so it’s not out of the question. But winning the necessary cooperation from the Union Pacific Railroad can be a challenge of biblical proportions. In other words, don’t hold your breath that you’ll be able to get on a daytime train to Sacramento or Redding in 2016.
Here’s a link to the State’s passenger rail plan. (It’s a big file so give it plenty of time to download.)