Central to Santa Barbara, there is a portal able to transport travelers through time as well as space. The portal was opened in 1887 by the Southern Pacific Railway. Since 1971 the original railroad and dozens like it have consolidated passenger service as Amtrak.
The two principal routes serving Santa Barbara are the Pacific Surfliner, which runs between San Luis Obispo and San Diego several times each day, and the grand lady of West Coast rail travel, the Coast Starlight with its dining car and sleeping coaches, heading north to Portland and Seattle. Both lines are known locally for their cliff-hugging ocean views.
But that may be only the beginning. At Union Station in Los Angeles, the Surfliner and Coast Starlight connect with legendary eastbound trains, the Southwest Chief to Chicago and the Sunset Limited to New Orleans. I have taken both, most recently the Sunset Limited.
I arrived in Los Angeles late afternoon with a ticket to New Orleans, and a return fare that would allow me to visit Tucson. The Sunset Limited leaves Union Station at 10 p.m. three days a week, a dark and somehow romantic hour to board an enormous eastbound train.
This time, aboard the Sunset Limited, I would afford the upgrade in fare from coach to have a small private room. They are called ‘roomettes’ and the emphasis is strongly on ‘ette’. This micro space is also incredibly pricey, the equivalent of a 3-4 star hotel room.
We boarded in darkness to find our beds already made up. A cross-continent rail tradition carried on by Amtrak includes a steward assigned to the sleeping cars who turns down and remakes beds each evening and morning. When requested, the steward will also deliver hot meals from the dining car to private rooms and generally keeps the cabin stocked and clean.
Dressing I found is not possible when the bed is made out. Even putting on shoes meant extending my legs and feet into a passage corridor while sitting on the bed’s edge. And shoes are Amtrak policy day and night. There are, however, several amenities available only in the sleeping cars, one of them being a shared changing room with shower. But again, think large Recreational Vehicle, not Hilton.
Roomette passengers share restroom facilities, while those in full bedrooms and family suites enjoy private bath accommodations. Still, it is difficult to describe politely the challenge of using an Amtrak restroom. That is because of the almost constant pitch and roll of every train carriage, day and night, sleeping or awake.
Airline passengers are familiar with the motion caused by occasional weather turbulence and fasten seatbelts as directed. Onboard Amtrak there are no seatbelt, nor even handrails. Standing in a rocking restroom requires, at minimum, flexed knees and one arm braced against the wall. A seated position presents its own set of problems.
The rocking of the train also makes walking from cabin to cabin a challenge, especially for the already balance impaired. All on board, except perhaps the conductors and stewards, would fail a roadside sobriety test. The simple truth is that from the beginning, American passenger service, including Amtrak, has run on decades old freight rails designed to ship cattle and potatoes. In fact, freight cars still have priority over passenger trains. An Amtrak train may well spend twenty minutes idle on a siding, waiting for a two-mile-long freight carrier to pass.
The relatively slow rocking pace of American rail service, despite the mild annoyance, still remains part of its charm. With smooth high speed dedicated rail, there would be lesser need for onboard room and meal accommodation. A future journey might take hours, which now takes days. We Americans still wish to hold onto a classic experience of rail travel that conjures up images of Bogey and Bacall sharing cigarettes and cocktails in the first class lounge.
Amtrak is not the Orient Express but something very near to it in certain respects, sensibly without the tobacco. A cross-country domestic train is a small city on steel wheels with all the authority, order, and disruption you might expect from a rolling metropolis.
Without question the most enduring experience Amtrak has maintained from former times is the traditional dining car. For dinner the practice remains to dress tables with white linen and napkins, fresh flowers, and to dine with real silver. Even the first beer, wine, or cocktail is provided “gratis.”
A further custom, due to limited seating, is to combine individuals and couples as tablemates. There is an assumption that almost anyone can be agreeable for 30 minutes, and for the most part that is proven true. In my experience divisive topics were politely avoided and common interests encouraged.
Sitting down to dinner, somewhere in East Texas, with a father and third-grade son, the child “without guile” explained his mother’s absence, saying simply “she had too much to drink.” Dad was ready to explore a new topic, and I was pleased to accommodate.
The principal western Amtrak routes to Chicago and New Orleans take two days — almost exactly 48 hours — to complete end to end. The last barrier to reach New Orleans is the Mississippi River itself. There is a shoe-string of a bridge across the long darkness, strictly one way at a time. The engine moves slowly and the cars cease to rock. The train tiptoes the last few miles into Louisiana.
Time to tip the steward. First class is no more. Upon de-boarding we are all comrades once again. Passengers from both ends of the train pull at their own luggage. Who will make it first to the station doors, where Uber and taxis await, becomes a question of the fittest and most determined.
Is long distance train travel all worth it? Weighing the aggravation against the advantages. The cost against the convenience. Probably not. Would I do it again? Absolutely. I am already researching the Coast Starlight route to Seattle and perhaps the Empire Builder from Seattle to Chicago. And who knows from there. The East Coast and South have their own network of routes. You take the train for the experience not the expedience. Like an amusement park you enter the portal again and again, simply because you enjoy the ride.
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