Amtrak Coast Starlight – San Francisco ๐Ÿ‡บ๐Ÿ‡ธ to Los Angeles ๐Ÿ‡บ๐Ÿ‡ธ by train – the most scenic route in the US?

Across the world, the Coast Starlight will ring a bell with many and evoke scenes of travelling long distance on the rails in America. After-all, the route has existed in its current form since 1974, when it was formed from an amalgamation of two former Southern Pacific routes: the Coast Daylight and the Starlight.

The full route of the modern day Coast Starlight begins in the Pacific Northwest city of Seattle, running down the West Coast of America to Los Angeles in Southern California, making calls in the cities of Portland, Sacaramento, Emeryville and Santa Barbara. The full duration of the train trip is in excess of thirty-five hours for the impressive 1,377 mile journey.

For me, I opted to take it for the southern daytime part of the journey, only travelling from Emeryville to Los Angeles, taking in excess of twelve hours – still an all-day commitment. However, is this route and the Amtrak experience really what it lives up to be, and is it worth taking the Coast Starlight over flying? Let’s find out, as I bought a ticket for Amtrak’s cheapest accommodation option in Coach Class.

Departure from Emeryville

As there isn’t an Amtrak railway connection from San Francisco, the first part of the journey is by coach to Emeryville station, where the Coast Starlight would take us directly to the City of Angels. When booking with Amtrak it is possible to book a through journey from San Francisco to Los Angeles, which includes both the leg on the Amtrak Thruway Bus to Emeryville and the train to Los Angeles in one go.

The bus departed San Francisco promptly at an early 06:55 in the morning, arriving at Emeryville station soon after at 07:14. This arrived in plenty of time to wait for the train in Emeryville, which is scheduled to depart at 08:39.

Part of the reason for the early departure of the bus is that you can take advantage of the complimentary baggage check-in on the train. This is only possible up to forty-five minutes prior to the train’s departure time and must be done at the railway station (Emeryville in this case). It’s not the end of the world if you do miss the baggage check-in time as you can take the bag onto the train with you – as I found out on my trip on the Capitol Limited.

Facilities were limited at Emeryville station, though there was a waiting room with comfortable chairs, vending machines, an ATM, a cafรฉ, which opened at 08:00, and toilet facilities.

The platform was announced shortly before departure and the train rolled in, albeit on a different platform than what was announced. This led to a mass sprawl of passengers, once the penny dropped that the train arriving was indeed the Coast Starlight. Having located the Coach Class car indicated on the side by the entrance, our car attendant appeared at the door. There was some confusion and giggling amongst passengers as the door was not on the platform, but the car attendant soon whisked out a yellow step to solve the problem.

Onboard the Coast Starlight

Coach Class Accommodation

Coach Class on the Coast Starlight entitled me to my own reserved reclining seat for the duration of the journey, in addition to access to the Sightseer Lounge and the Cafรฉ Car on the train – more details of these areas below. This is more than enough to get by for the duration of the journey, especially if you’re travelling from San Francisco to Los Angeles, which is exclusively during the daytime. For those joining at the train’s origin in Seattle, this may be a different story, depending on preferences, as the train proceeds to travel through the night before its arrival into Emeryville.

Amtrak provides seat reservations on this route; however, unusually for the train provider world, you don’t find out what your specific seat is until the train has arrived into the platform. The specific seat number is scribbled down on a coloured piece of cardboard and handed to you by the car attendant. The same as my trip on the Amtrak Capitol Limited, customers are grouped together according to their destination.

By chance I was handed seat 61, which was an honour, as it would be for all of those who follow The Man in Seat 61 and his helpful DIY train travel website. I headed upstairs to locate my seat, which turned out to be a good one, of course, with a window view.

The seating in Coach Class is in a 2+2 configuration, so, if you’re a solo traveller, as I was on this trip, you’ll be seated next to another passenger going to the same destination. My seat-mate had disappeared soon after departure before we had a chance to say hello, which I tried not to take personally. As it happened, I only spent about 10% of the journey seated in Coach Class accommodation as soon after departure I decided to take a walk down the train and just like my seat-mate, we both had the same idea…

Sightseer Lounge

The Coast Starlight is one of the selected Amtrak routes to have a Sightseer Lounge โ€“ a good indication of what sights are on offer on the trip. This car is available for all customers and is the place to enjoy the scenery on offer with its panoramic windows. It’s also one of the best places to meet fellow passengers and has handy nearby access to the Cafรฉ on the lower deck of the same car. The car has a variety of seating configurations, including seats facing the windows on each side as well as tables for four โ€“ perfect for admiring the views on offer on this trip.

This is where I ended up spending the remainder of the journey (90% of it) and sat on the right hand side in the direction of travel for the best scenery. This car became the hub of activity on the train; every so often new people would drop by to sit and chat, people from all walks of life, residing in all types of accommodation on the train โ€“ from a retired couple returning from a cruise in Alaska about to head to dinner to a local gentleman who seemed to know every landmark we were passing. The Sightseer Lounge is available to everyone after all and it was a great place to be.

Business Class Accommodation

There is a second type of seated accommodation on the Coast Starlight: Business Class. I was very glad that I hadn’t chosen to upgrade my Coach Class ticket to this class since the car was identical to Coach Class, other than a rather dull brown leather upholstery on the seats. There is very little to differentiate between the two classes in terms of service offering too, with the only perk being free bottled water provided at a station in the centre of the car. The Business Class car was only about 50% occupied during the trip, unlike Coach Class, which was fully booked; so that could be a hidden benefit.

Dining Car and Cafรฉ Car

A trip on the Coast Starlight is a long one, so being able to purchase food and drink throughout the journey is important. Situated downstairs in the Sightseer Lounge is the Cafรฉ Car, which was open, for most of the trip, for all passengers and closed only for staff breaks and to cash up at the end of the journey. On offer were some hot selections, sandwiches, salads and snacks.

Passengers with sleeping car tickets (for Superliner Roomettes and Bedrooms) have their meals included in the cost of the ticket and provided in the Dining Car on the train. This serves Amtrak’s Traditional Dining menu. However, since I was travelling in Coach Class, I only had access to the Cafรฉ Car. I hope to review the Traditional Dining menu in the future.

In the Cafรฉ Car I developed a love-hate relationship with the characterful lady serving in there. My first encounter of the trip with her was when she came upstairs to the Sightseer Lounge. She yelled down the carriage instructing us to use the trash boxes for rubbish โ€“ we were being too messy and leaving rubbish lying around! She then proceeded to splash me with a half cup of coffee she was clearing away after her rant with no apology, just an โ€œoopsโ€.

I allowed her some time to cool down and then walked downstairs to order something to eat. She thanked me for my order, wondered where I got my crisp $10.00 notes from and said that I talk funny (yes I have a north-east England accent that many Americans struggled to understand). She wished me an enjoyable trip and jokingly told me to “don’t get too fat on American foodโ€.

Later on, there was a casualty on the trip (not a human one thankfully) but I did manage to lose my wireless headphones case. In the hope of locating it, I went down to my friend to see if anyone had handed it in. Itโ€™s not there, so the same lady told me it’s highly unusual for anyone to steal anything, and so she happily put an announcement out to the train for me: โ€œplease, have a good look around, the young man is in tearsโ€. I proceeded back upstairs and became the subject of the trip. People said โ€œwas it you?โ€, โ€œwere you really in tears?โ€, โ€œdid you find them?โ€. I didnโ€™t, but I admired the Cafe Car Ladyโ€™s sense of humour.

Sleeping Car Accommodation

As the Coast Starlight runs overnight in the northern part of the route, there is a choice of sleeping car accommodation which is also available for the day part of the journey, these are Superliner Roomettes and Bedrooms. Photographs of the same Superliner Roomettes can be found in my Amtrak Capitol Limited post.

Scenery

Quite contrary to the expectations, for the first seven hours of the journey there is no coastline visible from the train at all. But this isn’t all bad as the views are sublime of the passing hills and countryside. Think of a crop and it’s likely to be there right next to the railway line as the train will pass fields of lettuces, grapes, avocados, onions and strawberries โ€“ to name a few. Not only that, but you’ll pass through what are the garlic and artichoke capitals of the world at Gilroy and Castroville and you can catch a whiff of garlic as you pass Gilroy.

At San Luis Obispo, the southbound Coast Starlight met its northbound counterpart and soon after the train would join the coast. The timing of the trip was perfect for seeing the sunset over the Pacific Ocean.

Arrival in Los Angeles

After twelve hours and thirty two minutes the Coast Starlight arrived into Los Angeles on time at 21:11. As we approached, there was an amusing announcement to ask “can all staff please ensure they take their items out of the fridge”. Baggage was soon available after arrival from the Baggage Reclaim section of the station.

Conclusion

I had a great time on the Amtrak Coast Starlight. The trip offered a highly memorable experience with great views throughout โ€“ and surprisingly only coastal views towards the end of the trip. There was a friendly ambiance onboard with passengers from all walks of life to pass the time with. For me, purchasing a Coach Class ticket for this trip was more than enough and I was happy that I chose not to upgrade to Business Class.

Booking and Fares

Booking the Coast Starlight isn’t a complicated affair as fares are available online at Amtrak.com.

Journey LegCoach ClassBusiness ClassSuperliner RoometteBedroom
San Francisco to Los Angeles (including Amtrak Thruway Coach)from $54.00from
$94.00
from
$257.00
from $378.00

This article was first published in January 2023.

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