Three hours into what will be a long day's, night's, and another day's journey along the edge of the continent, Ron Douglas tucks into a mozzarella and tomato sandwich and gazes out a window on Amtrak's Coast Starlight.
His view, just a few yards away: an idyllic stretch of California beachfront, empty save for a handful of boogie boarders and a sea lion doing lazy acrobatics beyond the surf line.
"Who doesn't like trains?" muses Douglas, a Denver travel agent who has ridden the rails from Italy to South Africa and ranks this 35-hour trip between Los Angeles and Seattle as one of his favorites.
"It's the soothing, almost therapeutic motion, the ambience, the people you meet," he says.
And, on this route, "it's the scenery, above all."
The Coast Starlight's romantic moniker may be a bit of a misnomer, since its 1,377-mile itinerary spends less than 100 miles hugging the Pacific shoreline between Ventura and Vandenberg Air Force Base. But that stretch, most of which is accompanied by volunteer intrepreters from an Amtrak/National Park Service partnership dubbed Trails & Rails, still qualifies as one of the longest ocean-view train rides in America.
From the Art Deco/Spanish Colonial artistry of downtown Los Angeles' Union Station (dating to 1939, it's considered the last great railway station built in America) to the looming, snow-webbed profile of Mount Shasta and the southernmost reaches of Washington's Puget Sound, scenery is front and center.
And as Californians debate the merits and cost of a proposed high-speed rail line that would connect Los Angeles and San Francisco in about two hours and 40 minutes (initial funding for a 130-mile stretch through the Central Valley was approved earlier this summer), a ride on the Coast Starlight symbolizes both the joys and the frustrations of slow travel.
Scarred by budget battles
Once branded "Star-late" for its chronic, hours-long delays, the Coast Starlight's on-time performance record has improved substantially in recent years thanks to equipment upgrades and better coordination with Union Pacific, the freight company that owns the tracks. Over the past 12 months, Amtrak reports, trains arrived on schedule about 77% of the time.
On this morning in mid-July, however, the Coast Starlight is an hour late leaving Los Angeles — an unexplained delay that veteran observers blame on the need to wait for passengers from a tardy connecting train, but which suits Joyce and Greg Chrisman just fine.
The couple have made a spur-of-the-moment decision to celebrate their 28th anniversary with an eight-hour ride from L.A. to Salinas, where they plan to rent a car and head west to the Monterey Peninsula. After arriving at Union Station just 15 minutes before the train's scheduled departure, they're happy to settle into a snug "roomette" (Amtrak-speak for a private, two-person compartment with facing seats that fold down into a single bed with another that folds down from the ceiling) and toast their adventure with free splits of sparkling wine.