CALIFORNIA - 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.
Cheap Champagne isn't the only bonus to booking first class on the Coast Starlight, which more than doubles the cost of a trip. The lowest one-way coach fare between Los Angeles and Seattle, for a reclining seat with footrest, is $106 per person; add at least $227 per couple for a roomette and at least $498 for a bedroom. (The latter, which sleeps up to three in a full bed and fold-down single bunk, comes with its own shower/toilet combo that's about the size of an airplane lavatory.)
The Coast Starlight includes three meals a day - which rail buff Douglas describes as being "comparable to a good Denny's" - in the cost of sleeping-car accommodations. As on other Amtrak long-distance trains, breaking bread in the dining car is a convivial affair; once passengers make a reservation for lunch or dinner (breakfast is first-come, first-served), communal seating at tables for four make getting to know fellow riders easy.
But, unique to the Coast Starlight, first-class passengers also can order their barbecued beef short ribs and Häagen-Dazs peanut butter-chocolate ice cream in a two-level Pacific Parlour Car. Built more than 50 years ago, the refurbished, vintage lounge car features dining and seating areas, a small downstairs movie theater and gratis, regionally sourced wine and cheese tastings each afternoon.
To be sure, this isn't North by Northwest or the Orient Express- or even the Northeast Corridor's popular, high-speed Acela Express, one of several Amtrak trains that offer free Wi-Fi service. (A spotty signal, available only in the Pacific Parlour Car, is an unofficial spillover from the car's movie theater.) From dirt-streaked windows and service by a visibly harried wait staff to an "Arcade Room" filled with out-of-order machines, the Coast Starlight shows the strain from years of budget wrangles.
"This has been the only part of train travel in America where we've seen the right side of the tracks, not the wrong side," says New York City-based passenger Sheri Spero, who's celebrating her husband's 60th birthday with a week-long, cross-country Amtrak trip. "But we're city folk ... and in our minds, this is camping."
Natural beauty takes center stage
When the northbound Coast Starlight is running on time, it passes Lake Shasta and the winding, tree-cloaked Sacramento River canyon north of Redding well before dawn. But on this mid-July journey, when the train is still trying to make up for its tardy departure from Los Angeles, early risers such as John Favors are in luck.
As the morning sun glints off the river's riffled surface - a good omen for clear views of Mount Shasta, a few miles to the north - Favors stretches out across several seats in the empty observation lounge car, strums his guitar and muses about why he chooses to make a once-a-month commute between Oakland and Florence, Ore., via train instead of car.
Granted, he says, "you can't be on a tight schedule. But I'm trying to disentangle myself from the rush of the Bay Area, and this is a great decompression zone."
By Laura Bly