Pacific surf, the coast by starlight, and the Cascades: San Diego to Vancouver by train

or: what you gain when you’re not too vain to deign to let the train take the main strain.

As I said in my last post, a meeting with collaborators in La Jolla last week probably represented my last chance to do something I’ve been meaning to do since the collaboration began in 2009: namely, let Air Canada take me down there with everyone else, as per usual, but let Amtrak bring me back.

I love long train journeys. My longest to date was Toronto to Vancouver over three days in 1997 – a journey that ultimately resulted in me moving to Vancouver – and I’ve also done overnight trips from Paris to Marseilles, Paris to Madrid, and Madrid to Lisbon, plus shorter trips from Toronto to Montreal and back as well as a mammoth two-week tour by rail of London-Paris-Marseilles-Nice-Monte Carlo-Genoa-Pisa-Rome-Florence-Milan-Lucerne-Basel-Strasbourg-Luxembourg-Brussels-Bruges-London. And of course I’ve taken the train all over the UK. I’d wanted to continue my 1997 journey from Vancouver to Seattle, San Francisco and LA by train, but couldn’t afford it on my extremely meagre budget and took the Greyhound instead. So while various friends and colleagues tactfully questioned my sanity, my own excitement about my trip grew and grew; by the time I waved goodbye to my colleagues on Thursday afternoon when they headed to the airport while I checked into my hotel and picked up my tickets, I was positively giddy.

Well, the journey did not disappoint. Despite some technical problems and the resulting outrageously bad behaviour by some of my fellow passengers (which I confined to a separate venty post so I could enjoy writing this one), I had a blast and not one single regret!

The Trains

I took the Pacific Surfliner from San Diego to LA (about 3 hours), the Coast Starlight from LA to Seattle (supposed to be 36 hours but actually took 42 due to aforementioned technical problem, i.e. hitting a large boulder and damaging the braking system – Brakes on a Train!), then the Cascades service from Seattle to Vancouver (four hours). The former two trains were double deckers, and I had a window seat on the upper deck both times; on the Cascades journey I discovered that “window seats” are not all created equal, but still enjoyed good views in both directions by craning my neck just a little bit.


Ceci n’est pas une fenêtre

All three trains were spotlessly clean inside – at least at the beginning. It should go without saying that 42 hours of human inhabitation did the Coast Starlight train no favours. The first and final trains offered your standard short-haul train seats – i.e. much more space than airline cattle class – but on the long overnight journey from LA to Seattle I had a ridiculously large amount of leg room: I had a small backpack and my purse at my feet almost all the time, plus my jacket and a pillow some of the time, and still never felt cramped. The train wasn’t full, so at night there was enough space for most people to have two seats and a (relatively) decent night’s sleep, the cold and the bumpy track taken into account of course (Shakes on a Train!). It’s really expensive to upgrade to even the most basic sleeping compartment, and besides if you do that you sit in your own little box most of the time and don’t get to meet anyone. There were no showers, but an abundance of toilets – some of them with lots of additional space for washing and changing clothes. I had a power outlet right next to me on all three trains, and WiFi on the first and third. On the middle train you could pick up WiFi at most stations and at some other stops near buildings, but I did miss having constant internet access, especially when trying to figure out how to get home when such a feat looked to be rather challenging. However, as I said in my last post, once I explained that I couldn’t use my 3G cellular data when out of WiFi range without incurring massive roaming fees (Canadians get seriously ripped off in this regard), two or three American passengers immediately tried to thrust their own phones into my hands to use for free.

All three trains had at least a snack bar on board, and all made a somewhat passable cup of tea. The LA to Seattle train also had a lounge car with wrap-around windows for a better view, and a full sit-down dining car. You needed to make reservations on board for the latter; unfortunately I was in the last car, so by the time the manager reached me the only times left for dinner were around 5pm. Ah well, needs must, and so my seat mate and I were seated for a delicious, if rather early, dinner with two other people. They’d somehow already run out of steaks (someone got the MoFo Steaks off this MoFo Train!), but the lamb shank was excellent, as was the Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Everyone else said their food was good, too, although we all agreed that the frozen veggies were sub-par. Still much better than airline food though!

The People

The dining car wasn’t my only chance to meet people. In keeping with all prior long-distance train journeys, this was a social occasion as much as anything else and I met some wonderful people – a professional photographer, a retired UCLA professor who’d researched the structure of research itself and was fascinated to hear about my job, a grad student in urban planning who was also heavily involved with several projects designed to bring visible minority women into science, a bunch of art students, and assorted other people whose professions I didn’t learn. It’s just so easy to meet people in this kind of situation, as there are so many obvious openers – where are you going, where are you from, oh I hear it’s lovely, oh I was there a few years ago and loved it, which other train journeys have you been on, what are you reading – and conversations quickly moved on to more in-depth discussions of US and Canadian politics, environmental issues, science, music, books, and everything else you could possibly imagine. Someone had a guitar – someone always has a guitar – and was strumming away very nicely in the lounge car. (I heard the next morning that the guitarist had come through our carriage later on that evening discreetly asking each person in turn whether they had a condom he could have, but I can’t verify this story as I was brushing my teeth at the time). I was also invited to share a joint after being overheard commenting that some of the passengers getting back on the train smelled distinctly, um, illicit, but decided that Baked on a Train! was a spectacularly bad idea.

Everyone I’d been talking to got off in Portland, wishing me good luck for the rest of my journey as they left. I was genuinely sad to see them go, and not just because the temperature – already far too cold at night, as with every other overnight train I’ve ever taken – plummeted further without all those other warm bodies around me. The final few hours to Seattle were spent shivering and fitfully napping in a toque and under my fleecy jacket in a darkened and almost completely empty carriage – a rather surreal experience!

The Stations

Oh, wow, the stations. It seemed to be a common theme on this trip that stations are among the oldest and grandest buildings in most big West Coast cities – truly a throwback to a more elegant age.


The Santa Fe rail depot in San Diego, from the front…


…the side…


…and from the inside.

All the stations I visited were architecturally interesting, all had beautiful old wood and/or leather seating, and most had gorgeous tiled walls and floors for good measure.


Santa Ana’s station, as seen from the train


The main hall of LA’s Union Station


I’ve been to LA several times and have never found anything about it that I like half as much as this station. Not even close. Shame about the state of the loos though… not recommended.


Seattle’s King Street station appears to be under renovation. It’s going to be magnificent once it’s completed. Sorry about the bad even worse than usual photo – I was somewhat sleep deprived by this point.

The Scenery

Even better than the stations!

Everyone on the work portion of the trip had been revelling in the SoCal sunshine – we took off from Vancouver in a -9C blizzard, but landed to find clear blue skies and a temperature in the high teens. Taxi drivers stared at us as we began to strip off our jackets, toques and gloves as we waited in the line-up, and all turned our faces to the sun. Our La Jolla hosts thought we were joking when we asked to eat lunch outside both days, then marvelled at us through the meeting room window as they ate their own lunches inside after declaring it “far too cold”. When they came to bring us back inside, they said that our little group of scientists eating boxed lunches looked like a Canadian refugee camp. It was sooooooooo nice to get a brief reprieve from the biting cold, blowing snow, and awful dampness we’d left behind, and to replace them with warmth and even palm trees. I even enjoyed half an hour in my hotel’s outdoor (heated) pool on the Thursday night – the only one in the hotel brave enough to attempt such a feat of extreme winter survival!

The feeling of escaping the winter continued for the first few hours of my train journey, as we hugged the beaches of SoCal all the way to LA and beyond.


The Pacific Surfliner living up to its name. I saw dozens of surfers and a few pelicans in the water. At other points along the way I saw a heron, an egret, a couple of hawks, and a bald eagle.

The late afternoon found us surrounded by the eerily misty grassy sand dunes south of San Francisco. It was stunning, but the photos didn’t come out well at all.

I was rudely awoken at 4:30 the next morning (see last post if you can stand it) and stayed awake to watch the sunrise as I enjoyed tea and a muffin from the snack car (Cakes on a Train!). We were still in California, but in a totally different landscape – one of snow and mountains and pine forests rather than beaches and palm trees.


Snaking our way up the side of a mountain


Black Butte, California (Hee hee! Butte!)


and again – the track went around approximately two thirds of its base


Heading down the far side of the range, just south of the Oregon border and a certain large boulder. Unfortunately the shot of the humongous bald eagle staring at us through the window from just a few feet away didn’t come out.


Sunset over a frozen lake in Oregon (Lakes from a Train!). I might need to come back at a lighter time of year, and preferably without spending six hours of daylight in a boring field while the engineers fix the locomotive, so I can see more of this part of the country.


Last leg! Looking West from Samish Bay, Washington, between Seattle and Vancouver.

I wasn’t sure exactly what the procedure would be at the border – having been made to get off a Greyhound to go through immigration and customs back in 1997, I expected something similar – but instead we passed straight through at full speed (I gloated to see all the cars stuck in the long line-up). We trundled on into Canada and through familiar places – the White Rock sea-front, then through Surrey and Delta into Richmond before crossing the Fraser River and following the route of one of my favourite bike rides through New Westminster and Burnaby into Vancouver proper. It was fascinating to see the city from a completely fresh angle, and I wondered whether any of my friends could see or hear my train as it passed their homes.

At Vancouver’s Pacific Central station (no pics – sorry – but it’s also a lovely building, and has been featured in the X Files and assorted other local TV and film productions), we finally passed through a gate (which was promptly locked tight behind us) and rolled to a stop in “Train Jail”.


The only way out was through Customs and Immigration; the Canadian Immigration officer asked how far I’d come, and when I said “from San Diego” he stared at me and said “WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT?!

“Because it’s AWESOME!”, I replied, before moving on into the main concourse, where Mr E Man was waiting for me.

About Cath@VWXYNot?

"one of the sillier science bloggers [...] I thought I should give a warning to the more staid members of the community." - Bob O'Hara, December 2010
This entry was posted in Canada, embarrassing fan girl, food glorious food, fun with language, nature, personal, photos, snow, technology, travel, Vancouver. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Pacific surf, the coast by starlight, and the Cascades: San Diego to Vancouver by train

  1. ecogeofemme says:

    Wow! That sounds super cool. I want to do it now too!

  2. The concept of customs and immigration in a train station kind of threw me there…

    Excellent journey and those train station photos are awesome… I’m going with Santa Fe as my choice for most picturesque. 🙂

  3. Steve Caplan says:

    Great post and GREAT pics!
    I have to share (briefly) my own cross-border train journey from Chile into Bolivia in the Atacama desert in the high altitude of the Andes in about 1992. There was a train switch in the middle of the night, where everyone had to get off the train in the dark, freezing cold and wait for the new train to come. No station. A local woman served as a “decoy” and began running with all the backpackers following her, and then the train coming from the other direction with the other locals grabbing all the seats (including extras so they could stretch out and sleep). Finally, all on board, conductors selling greasy food wrapped in newspaper, and asking for passports.

    The clincher came when a local (Bolivian) woman asked us in Spanish “What are you bringing with you?”

    “What do you mean?”

    “Alcohol, cigarettes, electronics? What are you bringing over the border.”

    “Uhh, nothing. Just our clothes, tent, cameras.”

    She looked astonished, and then angry. “Everybody needs to bring something. That’s how it works…”

    Somehow, I doubt it’s changed much since then…

    • I’ve dredged up a memory of something a Tanzanian-born colleague once told me. He said that when he visits his brother in Tanzania, he takes two bottles of Scotch with him. One for his brother, and one for the customs agent. 😉

  4. Nina says:

    Trains are fantastic and this seems like a briliant journey. I’ve done Vancouver-Eugene, so know some of the way.

  5. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    EGF, I highly recommend it!

    Richard, me too – I’ve crossed international borders on trains before, but almost always within the EU, where they (“they” being the train crew or, occasionally, an official who comes on board at the border) check passports on board. When I crossed from Italy (EU) into Switzerland (non-EU) and then from Switzerland into France (EU) we did have to get off the train, but the whole process was predictably efficient and didn’t take long.

    Steve, it sounds like it might not have been the first time the locals had pulled that trick! Very sneaky! How was the trip apart from that?

    Nina, I’m jealous ‘cos I did Eugene to Vancouver in the dark… a trip to Portland and/or Eugene may be required! I don’t know much about Eugene – is it nice? Everyone raves about Portland and I’m a little embarrassed to have lived in Vancouver for almost ten years and not been yet…

  6. Massimo says:

    Awesome pictures. Anto and travelled from Los Angeles to Chicago several times (“Southwest Chief”), and enjoyed every time (but one — don’t ask). Those were the years both of us were terrified of flying. We have also taken the train from Edmonton to Vancouver once.
    When we lived in San Diego, we would take the train to Los Angeles and San Juan Capistrano as well (a favorite destination).

    The real problem with train travel is that it is expensive — oh, and the internet thing. In the past, there was a time when in order to keep air fare low, one would have to stay overnight on a Saturday, and that meant that one needed accommodation and meals and so on for at least one extra day. In those days train was competitive, because you would be fed on the train. But now it is not like that anymore, I don’t think, and train simply cannot compete, most of the time. It’s too bad, because it is a great way of traveling (but Europeans are used to it).

    • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

      Sorry I didn’t reply sooner to this comment!

      My train tickets cost me a grand total of $188 (US dollars – but we’re pretty much at par still). Less than flying if you add in the taxes, but obviously costing me slightly more in things like food. The delay and late arrival in Seattle spared me from having to pay for two nights in a hotel, though – I just paid for the one in San Diego. My employers are covering the train tickets since I was there for work and they’d have paid for my flights, but obviously not for the hotel & food because everyone else had already left and it was an unnecessary expense from a business point of view!

      BTW, how did you get over your fear of flying? I have a friend who would love to know. She almost broke several bones in my hand when we experienced bad turbulence flying into Vegas together, so it would help me out, too 🙂

  7. Nina says:

    Eugene is totally cool! It is completely alternative-hippy-growing weed mixed with students and organic-coffee. I visited a (Dutch) friend who did her MSc there and everywhere we went stoned old people would tell us what a great time they had in Amsterdam back in the 60’s. We also did a fantastic hike nearby (N-American nearby) although that was the only time I got really scared on a hike because part of the trail was invisible from the snow (this was a beautiful day in March …) and we took too long of a nap at the top and had to scramble through the twilight not being sure where our car was… In retrospect, that was a really really badly prepared trip.
    Nonetheless, Eugene is great! Lots of cycle-paths and trails too.

    Wow, who would ever have thought I could advertise an American town so much …

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