Amtrak Coast Starlight – San Francisco 🇺🇸 to Los Angeles 🇺🇸 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 café, 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 Café 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 – 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 Café 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 – 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 – 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 Café 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 Café 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 Café Car. I hope to review the Traditional Dining menu in the future.

In the Café 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 – 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 “oops”.

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 food”.

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. It’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: “please, have a good look around, the young man is in tears”. I proceeded back upstairs and became the subject of the trip. People said “was it you?”, “were you really in tears?”, “did you find them?”. I didn’t, but I admired the Cafe Car Lady’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 – 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 – 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.

Train across the Alps 🗻 – Zürich 🇨🇭 to Vienna 🇦🇹 via the scenic Arlberg Pass

It would certainly be quicker to fly for the 787 kilometre journey connecting Switzerland’s largest city with the capital of Austria, but there would be a lot to miss out on too. In April 2022, as restrictions were being lifted from the COVID-19 pandemic, I took a trip on one of the two hourly departures direct from the centre of Zürich to the centre of Vienna.

Most of these trains are operated by the RailJet, the modern flagship intercity train of the Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB) capable of travelling at 230 kilometres per hour (143mph) known for its three classes of travel and dining car – so I opted for one of these. More specifically I took the 12:40 departure that starts its journey in Zürich and is bound not just for Vienna, where I was headed to, but actually finishes its journey in Bratislava, Slovakia. One for another trip.

This seven hours and forty minute journey to Vienna crosses more borders than you might think – four in fact! Firstly the border from Switzerland into Liechenstein, which you wouldn’t realise unless you checked with no station stops here, then into Austria, then the RailJets opt for a brief crossing into Germany (also non-stop), before Austria once again for the final stretch. This had the potential to cause much confusion with a cocktail of COVID-19 restrictions and mask-wearing requirements at the time, where masks in Austria were required. However, for simplicity travel rules were subjected to Austria’s requirements east of Buchs St Gallen station, and there was a helpful announcement in German and English reminding customers to wear a mask for the rest of the journey from here.

If you’re flexible with timings, there is also the EuroCity Transalpin that takes in the same route as far as Wörgl Hbf and then a more scenic route towards Graz, with connections available to Vienna. It departs at 08:40 and offers one of the best travelling environments in Europe, the Swiss panorama car with its large windows, available for First Class ticket holders.

Onboard the ÖBB RailJet

The modern ÖBB RailJet boasts three types of accommodation on board – Economy, First and Business, with Business being more premium than First Class. There’s also a Dining Car onboard, called DoN’s, and hosts serving the Dining Car menu to tables in First and Business classes.

First Class Accommodation

For this journey I had booked First accommodation that has 2+1 seating in a variety of configurations (airline style and opposite seating at tables). A menu was provided soon after departure and shortly followed by the first of many ‘check-ins’ with the host to see if we wanted anything from the Dining Car menu. The service on our trip was second to none – the host was very attentive throughout the journey, which was impressive considering the length of his shift – he didn’t stop in the nearly eight hours. Safe to say he got a much deserved tip at the end.

Catering Options

As mentioned already there is a Dining Car on the RailJet train situated between Economy Class and First Class. This is open to all customers, however, there is little reason in moving to sit here from the comfort of a First Class or Business Class seat with the at-seat service provided. The menu isn’t the cheapest, but the food very enjoyable. I enjoyed a Wiener Schnitzel for mains, followed by Griesflammerie for dessert and all washed down with a very good bottle of Reisling – this set me back a total of 31,20€. Highlights from the menu are pictured below.

The Dining Car was first-come-first-served and did get busy at times. Otherwise meals can be taken back to your seat for customers in Economy Class.

Economy Class Accommodation

There are four carriages of Economy Class on a RailJet which is arranged in a 2+2 configuration and offers a mixture of airline style and table seating. There are power sockets available at each seat. WiFi is available throughout the train.

Business Class Accommodation

The most premium accommodation on the train is Business Class. For 15,00€ customers with a ticket for First Class accommodation can upgrade to a very comfortable Business Class, this includes a specific seat reservation if booked in advance. Not only that you are able to take advantage of a complimentary welcome drink of wine or fruit juice as well as being able to take advantage of the Dining Car menu from the host. This would’ve been a no-brainer for me travelling for such a long journey – however it was fully reserved for much of the journey.

Scenery

The dramatic scenery on this route was a feast for the eyes for most of the journey. On departure from Zürich, the train runs along two lakes, Zürichsee and Walensee, before starting the ascent to the stunning Arlberg Pass, reaching a modest 1,310 metres above sea level. To add to the magic, in April time there were snowy landscapes thrown in. The snow on the ground increased as the train reached the highest part of the line, then the train travels through the short Arlberg Tunnel before descending into Innsbruck, and eventually Salzburg and Vienna.

Booking and Fares

Booking this journey on my specific date in April would have actually cost more by purchasing a point-to-point ticket direct from Zürich to Vienna direct from the Austrian Railways (c.120,00€) subject to availability as fares change according to demand. By purchasing a Frankfurt to Vienna and typing in “via Zurich” into the DB Bahn website the fare reduced to 60,90€. As it happens I was travelling from Frankfurt, but you could get away with needing to turn up for the first leg. A full day’s worth of travel for this price isn’t bad in First Class!

Journey LegEconomy ClassFirst ClassBusiness Class
Frankfurt to Vienna via Zürich (bought from DB Bahn)from 37,90€from 49,90€First Class +15,00€ (upgrade bought from ÖBB or on train)
Vienna to Zürich (bought from ÖBB)from 39,90€from 54,90€from €69,90

This article was first published in December 2022

Italy’s premium high speed train – the Frecciarossa 🚆🇮🇹 in Business Class during the COVID-19 Pandemic

The world looks different across all industries in 2020 as we all adapt to the needs of the COVID-19 pandemic and this very much includes the railway sector worldwide.

In October 2020 I travelled to Italy for some train-sampling Trenitalia style. Here is a video showcasing travel in Business Class on Italy’s most premium high-speed rail service by the nationalised operator, the Frecciarossa. I travelled from Verona Porta Nuova to Bolzano Boden – a wonderfully scenic journey towards the border with Austria.

This article was first published in November 2020.