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Rail Travel in and Around California by Wizzle - The San Diegan The Surfliner - Serving Paso Robles to San Diego

Coastline Impressions - 1998-1999

It's been a year since I first stepped aboard an Amtrak train and it seems like I haven't stopped traveling since. I have to face it...I'm hooked on train travel.  Just riding around makes for a great day trip.  There are so many intriguing places along the tracks to visit...San Diego, San Juan Capistrano, San Clemente, Santa goes on and on.  Even when I can't stop the train ride is an enchanting departure from everyday life.
Part of the pleasure is the service in Amtrak's Custom Class, my preference because the cost is so nominal.   For about the what you would pay for lunch at a good LA restaurant, you get treated to first class service.  There is juice, coffee, fruit and a newspaper in the morning, brought to your seat by the cars dedicated attendant.  In the afternoon you get wine, champagne, cookies and munchies.  In addition to the service, the Custom Class seats are somewhat larger than in coach and each seat has an outlet where you can plug in your laptop or whatever. 
The Custom Class car is usually located near the locomotive and has distinctive paint and of course the Custom Class name and logo.  All seats are reserved in this section, so you are assured of a place to sit.  On really busy summer weekends and holidays, coach class can actually run out of space.  Off season that is not a problem. In fact, there can be more people in Custom Class than in coach then! You can make your reservation for Custom Class as you purchase your Surfliner ticket or in advance through Amtrak's website or over the phone by calling 1-800-USA-rail. 
Everyone I've spoken to on the train loves the experience.  This couple is taking their first ride, a day trip to Santa Barbara,  and had nothing but good things to say.  The picture here is of a seat in Amtrak's two level Superliner's which is standard coach seating on the long haul trains and Custom Class on the  Surfliners (at least until the new Surfliner equipment comes into service in 2000).  Custom Class in the single level equipment is about as roomy. 
If you are wondering just how aptly the Surfliner is named, well....this picture ought to say the proverbial thousand words.  It was taken from the train on a day trip from Los Angeles to San Diego.  Going north from Los Angeles, the Surfliner hugs the coast between Ventura and Santa Barbara and until it reaches San Luis Obispo.  The section between Santa Barbara and SLO, about 150 miles,  is pristine, undeveloped coastline and one of the best train rides in the world.  Between LA and San Diego are charming resort towns with their piers and beaches. 
For train buffs and everyone else who loves good views, a special treat is riding in one of the dome cars which serve as lounges.  There is a snack bar on the lower level and up to the view is simply fantastic.  The car is open to both coach and Custom Class passengers.  These wonderful cars will be replaced by new bi-level Surfliner equipment in 2000. 
From inside the dome you look down through the oversized windows onto the fabled California coast.  These cars first saw service in the 1950's on Burlington Northern's Empire route and were restored in the Amtrak shops.  For the scenery fan, both the dome and the Superliner lounge car are a must.  The views are a bit different in each, with the dome affording front and back views missing on the Superliners.  Part of the fun of riding Amtrak is sampling a ride in all the different equipment. 
Seen here from the dome is the San Clemente Pier.
I've turned into a real railfan because of my Amtrak rides.  Some of my trips now are to photograph the trains themselves.  Here is an F59PHI locomotive, the standard diesel on the Surfliner route, on point for the Coast Starlight in Santa Barbara.  The Starlight is one of Amtrak's long haul trains running daily from Los Angeles to Seattle. 
The Starlight is a big train, running to 8 cars or more and its route climbs up into some big mountains so it needs lots of pulling power. Helping the F59 on #14 (the number for the Starlight going north)  is this venerable #231 F40 diesel, long a standard engine for Amtrak but now fading rapidly into history. 

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Updated: Tuesday, September 15, 1998