“You’re riding a train?”
A store clerk asked me this question in a small shop in the Hayes Valley neighborhood. I had stumbled across this boutique on a sunny, Saturday afternoon, during one of my explorations of the city. We chatted a bit as she rang up my purchase of travel accessories and I mentioned that I was packing to take a trip to Southern California by train. She asked me about it with a blissful curiosity, as if she stumbled upon a new travel secret. “I would love to take the train” she told me.
I am sure she knew that trains existed in the US. Most big cities in California have some type of light trail. We have BART & the Cal Train connecting the cities in the Bay area while the Metrolink connects cities across Los Angeles County with a couple of stations in the Inland Empire. However most Californians (at least those who have not traveled on Amtrak) think of train travel as mostly for short distances of less than 100 miles. Riding the train for a long distance trip from say, Palm Springs to San Francisco, seemed like something only available on the East Coast.
Amtrak is the only passenger train I know of that can take you across the state of California. According to the company website, there are 8 different routes available that can take you to places like Yosemite & Joshua Tree park, Los Angeles, Monterey, San Diego, Santa Barbara and Sacramento to name a few. You can also travel outside the state to New Orleans, Portland, Dallas, Chicago and even Vancouver, BC . Although it may take a couple of days to get there. (FYI, the Greyhound bus also has several routes in California). Traveling by train can take some time- usually 8-12 hours from No Cal to So Cal depending on the route & destination. However it is a good and less expensive option to flying if you don’t want to trek by car.
Tips for Train Travel
There are a few things I learned that are helpful for traveling by train.
Review the services provided at your station(s) before you leave. — Amtrak doesn’t have a rail system that runs across the entire state. So the fleet includes a mix of trains and buses to connect passengers between stations. This means that some stations are a simple platform or simple bus stop on a street or within a shared transport hub. The Amtrak train stations usually provide full service including ticket purchasing & luggage check. Other locations may have only an electronic ticket kiosk or it may not have any ticket booth. If you plan to check in luggage make sure that each of the stations in your itinerary can take checked bags so you can avoid obstacles during travel.
Get the Amtrak App. — This makes it easy to make purchases, make changes and carry your tickets with you. You can still purchase your tickets online and print a paper ticket. Or you may buy tickets from a clerk at the station but some stations do not have an attendant.
Arrive early. — Give yourself time to arrive before the train/bus is scheduled to depart. The train and buses keep a tight schedule & move quickly. So get ready to hop on once the train pulls into the station. 15-30 minutes seems good if you already have your ticket and only have a carry-on. ( 15 minutes for small stations, 30 minutes for large stations with multiple platforms) You may need longer time if you need to purchase a ticket or check in luggage.
Travel light. — Remember, with exception of the check-in luggage, you will likely carry all of your bags by yourself. This includes hopping on & off the train and walking through the stations to connecting buses. So pack with this in mind. I usually bring a small carry-on suitcase and a backpack. My backpack would have lunch, wallet & personal items that I can carry with me when I leave my seat. The suitcase I carry is small enough to fit on an airplane luggage rack. Note that your can’t bring your suitcases into the dining or cafe car so keep the things you are likely to need during your trip like food in a personal bag like a purse or backpack.
Bring a book, some snacks & a few toiletries. — It’s good to bring some form of entertainment on the train to help you pass the time. I usually bring a book, a couple of magazines and listen to a few podcasts on my phone. You can purchase food from the train’s cafe or dining car but I like to bring my own lunch & snacks. The trains have restrooms with a sink but the buses only have a port-a-potty toilet so if you have a bus connection bring some hand sanitizer with you.
Get ready to leave quickly. — Like I mentioned before the conductors tend to run a tight schedule and move through stops quickly. Listen for the conductor’s announcements on the intercom. Conductors usually announce the next stop ahead of arrival so people can begin to gather their bags and prepare to leave. It’s not like the conductor throws people out as the train races through the station. People are given time to calmly walk out but just make sure you leave with the group. If you don’t pay attention you can easily miss your stop.
Have you ridden the train across California or any other state? Do you have any tips you would like to share?