8088 Miles by Train – Part I: San Luis Obispo, California, to Los Angeles, California (221 Miles)

Pacific Surfliner: San Luis Obispo to Los Angeles

From the Trainwacko Files

The Trainwacko Files are stories from the journeys that I took by rail between 2005 and 2008. I had discovered model railroading in the early 1990s, and the logical progression from that was to become a certified Trainwacko. I took a total of eight train trips between the mid 1990s and 2008, and fully documented five of them for my website Trainwacko.com. Even though they’re a bit old, I decided to include my stories and photography from those travels on this site. Each post will have recordings that I made on the trains along the way so you can listen to the ambiance while you read. I hope you enjoy the pictures, and the tales. Perhaps it will give you a taste of what it was like to travel by train in the first decade of the 21st century.

8088 Miles by Train will be a six part series from my 2006, 11-day rail odyssey around the western United States.

Planning The Trip

On Wednesday May 3rd, 2006 I took my fifth long distance train trip, and at eleven days it turned out to be the longest of all my train travels. I planned this trip less than two weeks in advance. All I knew for sure was that I wanted to see Chicago.

My desk at work was covered with schedules and maps downloaded from the Amtrak web site. There were yellow highlighted lines on the Texas Eagle from Los Angeles to Chicago via Texas, the City of New Orleans between Chicago and Mississippi, and the Heartland Flyer into Oklahoma, among others. My plans for a southern route were changed because I wasn’t interested in a ten hour layover in San Antonio. Then I decided to go to New Orleans, but there wasn’t a room to be found on such short notice at a rate I was willing to pay. So it would be the Southwest Chief from LA to Chicago. But then where? Mississippi would be nice in the spring, but it would be a night trip from Chicago and I wouldn’t be able to see anything on the way. I also wanted to take the California Zephyr across the Colorado Rockies and the Sierras of California, but the inn in Essex, Montana, was calling to me.

I discovered the Izaak Walton Inn a few years before on one of my first train trips. A friend and I wanted to take a train trip and we only had six days. He called Amtrak and asked where we could go and be back “by Thursday.” The Amtrak representative suggested Essex, Montana. The train would arrive at the crack of dawn and we could pick up the return train at sunset. We figured that we could get something to eat in Essex, hang around town for the day, and both of us being train wackos we would be entertained just wandering around the train station watching trains go by. When we got to Essex we knew those plans weren’t going to work out. You can read more about Essex in an upcoming post, but it’s enough to say here that we ended up at the Izaak Walton Inn and I fell in love with the place. I’ve wanted to return ever since.

So now I had decided it would be the Southwest Chief to Chicago, and the Empire Builder to Essex, Montana. Where to from there? I really wanted to take the California Zephyr, but I was already going to be way up in Montana and on my way home. Besides that, there were no connections with the Zephyr between Sacramento and my home station in San Luis Obispo. Then I got an idea. My brother lived in the Bay Area, so if I could just get to San Jose on Saturday night perhaps he could get me home on Sunday. I called him and he agreed, so I would travel from Essex to Sacramento via Portland, then from Sacramento to Denver and back. It wouldn’t be the whole route, but I figured that Kansas and Missouri couldn’t be that much different than Nebraska and Iowa and it would be at night anyway. As an added bonus, I’d get to go through the Sierras and the Rockies twice! I bought the tickets and I was ready to go. The Pacific Surfliner would take me from San Luis Obispo to Los Angeles. Then it would be the Southwest Chief to Chicago, the Empire Builder to Essex and then on to Portland, down to Sacramento on the Coast Starlight, and finally to Denver and back to San Jose on the California Zephyr.

I got a ride from from home to the San Luis Obispo depot at 5:45am, with a backpack full of clothes and power adapters, my Canon S2IS digital camera, a PDA (Personal Data Assistant – the forerunner to the iPhone/Android) with a GPS card and full of mp3s and books, and a deck of eight train tickets. I wish I’d have thought of joining Amtrak’s Guest Reward’s program. Eight-thousand and eighty-eight miles is a lot of miles!

6:21am: The Pacific Surfliner in the SLO Yard.
Preparing F59PH #462 to take the Pacific Surfliner to San Diego.
Waiting to board train number 774.

San Luis Obispo to Los Angeles on the Pacific Surfliner

The Pacific Surfliner rolled out of San Luis Obispo at about 6:45am on Wednesday, May 3rd on the first leg of my trip around the western and central United States. Not being a long distance train, the cars were laid out more as commuter cars and there wasn’t as much legroom as on the Coast Starlight that runs from L.A. to Seattle. The Surfliner also makes many more stops along the way.

Most of the rail lines are single track, so if something happens along that line then trains need to stop until the problem is resolved. In our case it was a problem with a Union Pacific freight train. The locomotive broke down, so we had to stop just past Guadalupe and wait. If you’re going to ride the train, patience is a requirement. It’s not a matter of if the train will be late, but by how long. This was a lesson that the guy sitting across the isle from me hadn’t learned. He kept getting crankier and crankier the later we got. I have patience for just about everything except impatience itself, and he was driving me nuts with his constant complaining, going on and on about how he’d never ride Amtrak again and how driving would have been faster. He just wouldn’t stop, and I wanted to push him out a window and let him walk. We sat there for an hour and a half or more. Then a single Union Pacific locomotive passed by us on the siding and the moron says “We were held up for just that???” – like we they could have just pushed it off the tracks or we could have gone over it or something. I don’t know why people don’t get that you can’t pass an obstacle and blame Amtrak. By the time we got to the Lompoc-Surf stop, we were two hours behind schedule.

San Luis Obispo to Los Angeles
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The Lompoc-Surf depot sits practically on the beach. It only consists of a concrete platform and a few benches, and sand from the dunes fills the space between the rails. After a brief stop the train continued south along the edge of the Pacific Ocean. There are some unique views from Amtrak’s coastal route as it travels through Vandenberg Air Force Base. As far as I know, it’s the only way to see the rocket complex without actually being in or working with the Air Force. From there the Pacific Surfliner continued on the edge of the Pacific Ocean until it got to Ventura, where it worked its way away from the coast and into to Los Angeles, where I got off the train to make my connection.

At the "Station" in Surf, California. I guess this is why they call it the Pacific Surfliner.
Launch towers at Vanderberg Air Force Base.

Interior of the Pacific Surfliner coach car.

Los Angeles

Dancing on Olvera Street.

We arrived a couple of hours late into Los Angeles, cutting my layover down from about six hours to four. That still gave me plenty of time to wander around downtown. Right across the street from Union Station is Olvera Street, and about three blocks away is City Hall. Downtown Los Angeles surprised me. I’d been to LA a few times as a kid, but now I generally don’t go south. I don’t know if I just happened to get there on a good day or if all that annoying emissions equipment on our cars is actually doing the job, but there wasn’t a sign of smog in the air.

I didn’t want the story of my trip to start with how I got stranded in Los Angeles, so I didn’t wander too far away from the station. I shot some photos around city hall, explored the Mexican market on Olvera Street and listened to some musicians playing in the plaza. To round out my visit I got to watch the LAPD haul off a homeless guy.

"Broken Blind" [Los Angeles Hall Of Justice, California]
"Red White and Blue, and Black" [POW-MIA Flag at City Hall at Los Angeles, California]
"This is the City" [Los Angeles City Hall in Los Angeles, California]
A conversation in the plaza.
Seeing the LAPD in action makes any trip to LA complete.

Stand by for my next entry, LA to Chicago.

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