The Coast Starlight, Jack London Square and BART

After spending a couple of mediocre days in Los Angeles, I rose early and took the Red Line subway from my hotel in Hollywood to Los Angeles Union Station. Los Angeles has a small metro rail system, comprising of 2 subway lines (Red and Purple) and 4 light rail lines (Gold, Green, Blue and Expo) and 2 BRT (bus rapid transit) lines (Silver and Orange). For a city its size, the metro rail system is inadequate, and mostly used by tourists and people who can’t afford a car or aren’t able to drive.

The Red Line subway runs from North Hollywood to Union station. The line is entirely underground and operated by 4 car trains manufactured by Breda in Italy, with 2 car trains running after 8pm. The Purple line shares the Red Line’s tracks from Union Station to Wiltshire/Vermont station, where it branches off on a 2 station spur line to Wiltshire/Western. All Purple line trains I saw were 2 cars, using the same Breda stock as the Red Line.

A Breda subway train on LA's Red Line

A Breda subway train on LA’s Red Line

Although the LA Metro system is small, it seems to be efficient, and I was soon at Union Station. As well as the Red and Purple subway lines, Union station is served by the Gold Line (light rail), 6 of Metrolink’s 7 urban rail lines, Amtrak California’s Pacific Surfliner (to San Luis Obispo and San Diego) and Amtrak’s Coast Starlight (to Seattle), Southwest Chief (to Chicago via Albuquerque), Sunset Limited (to New Orleans) and Texas Eagle (to Chicago via Dallas).

The pedestrian subway below Amtrak and Metrolink's platforms at LA Union Station

The pedestrian subway below Amtrak and Metrolink’s platforms at LA Union Station

Union Station is big, with a long pedestrian subway from the main entrance and subway station running under the Metrolink and Amtrak platforms to the main concourse. In the station concourse is a convenience store, information displays, an Amtrak ticket office, Amtrak Luggage hall, Amtrak check in counter and a number of fast food outlets, including a Starbucks. I have visited Starbucks in 8 countries, including China and South Korea, but the Starbucks in Los Angeles Union is the worst I have come across. It is cramped, untidy, stinks of garbage and of the 3 times I have been there, they’ve stuffed up my order 4 times.

The waiting hall at Los Angeles Union Station

The waiting hall at Los Angeles Union Station

Beyond the concourse is a beautiful old waiting hall, with a high wooden ceiling, massive chandeliers and heavy wooden chairs with leather padding. I waited in the waiting hall with my substandard coffee, and about 45 minutes before the train was due to depart, the Amtrak check in counter opened. Amtrak have a strange way of allocating seats on trains; passengers are sold a ticket in advance, but not allocated a seat. When the train is checking in (or arrives at a smaller station), the seats are allocated. It is seemingly random and ad-hoc. It also seems to be very inefficient, with conductors checking passenger manifests and working out the best place to seat each passenger individually.

I was given a coloured slip of paper bearing my car and seat numbers, and headed for platform 9 where my train was boarding. The train was big; 3 locomotives (2 GE P42DC loomotives in standard Amtrak livery and an EMD F59PHI locomotive pained in Amtrak Cascades livery), followed by 4 Superliner sleeping cars, a Highliner Pacific Parlour car, restaurant car, lounge car and 3 Superliner Coach cars. I would not be travelling overnight, so I had purchased a seat in a coach car. I followed my ticket and found my seat on the upper level of the second last coach car. The seat was wide and comfortable and I made myself at home. At exactly 10:10, the northbound Coast starlight slid smoothly out of LA Union Station.

We had been travelling through inner LA for just under 20 minutes, when we came to our first stop; Burbank – Bob Hope Airport. The station consists of 2 simple ground level platforms on a double track section with several waiting shelters. The platforms are about 400m from the airport entrance. Burbank – Bob Hope Airport station is served by the Amtrak’s Coast Starlight, Amtrak California’s Pacific Surfliner and Metrolink’s Ventura County line. 

The Coast Starlight stands at Burbank - Bob Hope Airport station

The Coast Starlight stands at Burbank – Bob Hope Airport station

The stop was very short, and we were soon moving northward again… for about 20 seconds. The train suddenly lurched to a stop just after leaving the platform. We remained stopped for about 5 minutes, with no announcements to let us know why, before we slowly started moving again… backwards. As the train was being moved back into the platform, an announcement came over the PA system informing us of a signal failure ahead and that we would be delayed for an indeterminate amount of time. We were invited to stretch our legs on the platform (just what we needed after a whole 20 minutes on the train) but given strict warnings not to leave the station area.

Burbank - Bob Hope Airport station. The airport terminal is visible in the background.

Burbank – Bob Hope Airport station. The airport terminal is visible in the background.

I was not in any hurry, and my fellow passenger on the whole seemed to be in good spirits and maintaining a good sense of humour about the situation; what’s a few minute delay in a 35 hour train journey. I guess if anyone were in a great hurry, they would have flown anyway. I spent the time photographing the train and station, an watching the frequent take-offs and landings at the airport across the road.

People were starting to get restless, when 90 minutes later a southbound Metrolink service crawled past. Our Driver blasted the horn, the passenger attendants ushered everyone aboard and we resumed our journey northwards. We were now running about 2 hours late, and it was 12:30. The dining car attendant came through giving out meal reservations for lunch, so I took a 1pm ticket and watched northern LA slide by my window.

I was called to the dining car as we approached Simi Valley and was seated at a table already occupied by 2 other people. The table had a white linen tablecloth and matching napkins. The cutlery was stainless steel and drinking glasses real glass. Not exactly silver service, but better than expected on a train! I ordered roast chicken, and made small talk with my dining companions as we travelled through the mountains to the north of Los Angeles. I don’t know what I was expecting when I ordered the roast chicken, but I certainly wasn’t expecting what I was served; half a large chicken, roasted and herb encrusted with a massive amount of roast vegetables, a side salad and a roll! The chicken was succulent, tasty and cooked perfectly, as were the veggies. I felt regret that I was unable to finish it all. I was impressed at what the dining car kitchen had turned out!

The remote coastline, visible from the train but not from the highway

The remote coastline, visible from the train but not from the highway

I sadly declined desert, and made my way back to my seat. By this stage, we were at Santa Barbara, and the line was running along the coast. As with the Pacific Surfliner a few days earlier, we were treated to spectacular views out over the ocean. We parted from Highway 101, which went inland, and continued along the remote coastal area; offshore oil rigs were visible on the horizon as we threaded our way along cliff-tops, then along the beach front. We saw few signs of life in this section of track, a part of the world not visible from other modes of transport.

Oil Rigs photographed from the Coast Starlight

Oil Rigs photographed from the Coast Starlight

Outside the train, the spring day was sunny but cold. I noticed a haze in the distance which didn’t dissipate as we rolled closer. The haze turned out to be a thick fog, and our train passed through fog banks, totally obscuring the view for minutes at a time. It was quite surreal to exit from a blinding fog and find yourself atop a cliff, able to see miles out to sea, only to re-enter another fog bank a few minutes later.

Fog banks along the California costline

Fog banks along the California coastline

The relaxing journey became timeless, and we passed through coastal towns, including Pismo Beach (in the back of my mind, I could hear Daffy Duck saying “Here we are, Pismo Beach and all the clams we can eat…”). Late afternoon, we arrived at San Luis Obispo. We had made up almost 60 minutes, and I thought with a quick station stop, we could make up more time, however Amtrak’s inefficient reservation system had other ideas. A large group was boarding (pre booked) and wanted to sit together. Unfortunately, there were only random seats scattered amongst the 3 coach cars. The passenger attendants held a quick conference, and decided to shift other passengers around to accommodate the large group. I’m not sure why this couldn’t have been done on the move (easy inter-car access), but it was done at the station. By the time it was all worked out, we were back to running 90 minutes late again!

The northbound Coast Starlight stands at San Luis Obispo in April 2012

The northbound Coast Starlight stands at San Luis Obispo in April 2012

The next hour or so was spent travelling through the Santa Lucia Mountains. The sharp curves giving a good view of the front of the train from my vantage point near the rear of the train. I was still quite full from my lunch in the dining car, so I bought a sandwich from the lounge car for dinner and ate it watching the sunset outside my window. We made a few more stops, and by the time we arrived in San Jose it was dark. From San Jose, it was only another hour to Jack London Square station in Oakland, the closest Amtrak station to San Francisco.

The northbound Coast Starlight winds its way through the Santa Lucia mountains north of San Luis Obispo in April 2012.

The northbound Coast Starlight winds its way through the Santa Lucia mountains north of San Luis Obispo in April 2012.

I had worked out that the best way to get from Jack London Square to my hotel in down town San Francisco was to walk to the Lake Merritt subway station; a journey of just under 1km. It was just after 10:45 when I was ready to leave the station, and I asked the station attendant which way was the best to walk to the subway station. She looked a little worried and said that she wouldn’t walk it during the day, let alone at night. I asked why, and she told me that it wasn’t such a good neighbourhood, especially for such an obvious tourist travelling alone at night! I asked how else I could get to San Francisco, and I was told that there was an Amtrak bus, which was just pulling out of the station.  Having missed that, she told me that there was a local bus which went to the 12th St subway station, she then told me to get out because she needed to close the station!

NOTE: In hindsight, it would probably have been better to get off the Coast Starlight at San Jose and take a CalTrain service to 4th Street in central San Francisco, or pre-book the Amtrak bus from Jack London Square to the Ferry Building on The Embarcadero.

I found the local bus stop just outside the station, and waited with a couple of shady looking characters in the dark street, still, it was nice to have company. We didn’t have long to wait, and a very ordinary looking AC Transit route 72 bus pulled up. It was a quick 7 minute trip to the 12th St/Oakland City Center Subway station, through a neighbourhood that didn’t look too bad, but that was from the bus – it may have been a different story if I was on foot.

I made my way down into the BART (Bay Area Rapid transit) station, and found the platform for down-town San Francisco trains. BART runs 5 subway lines in the San Francisco Bay area. Trains are up to 10 cars long, and use rolling stock built by Rohr Industries (A & B stock), Alstom (C1 stock) and Morrison-Knudsen (C2 stock). All stock (A, B, C1 & C2) is intercompatible with other stock. Trains run at up to 70 mph (112 km/h) on 5’6″ gauge track, with power supplied by 1000v DC 3rd rail.

A BART train arrives at 12th St station in Oakland

A BART train arrives at 12th St station in Oakland

I waited for about 10 minutes before a Red Line train arrived San Francisco. After stopping at West Oakland, we entered the Transbay Tube; a 3.6 mi (5.8 km) submerged concrete tube that runs between Oakland and San Francisco, allowing BART trains to pass underneath San Francisco Bay. We stopped at the down-town San Francisco stations of Embarcadero, Montgomery St and Powell St before arriving at Civic Center station. Civic Center is one of four BART stations underneath Market St in San Francisco. These stations have double deck tunnels, with BART running on the lower level, Muni Metro (light rail) on the upper level and F Line streetcars (trams) running at street level along Market St itself.

It was almost midnight by the time I made it out of the station, thankfully my hotel was only a block away. I checked in and collapsed into bed after a long day travelling.

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One response to “The Coast Starlight, Jack London Square and BART

  1. ah, arriving in a city at 10.45pm with no plans for how to get to your hotel – something only male travelers do! i’d never risk that as a female – i was scared enough waiting for a bus in downtown san francisco at 10pm!

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