Sittin’ Back and Takin’ the Amtrak from LA to San Diego

Feb 18, 2010 by Sean Belk

The snow-capped mountains are at your left. The crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean are at your right. You’re zipping along the coast at a comfortable speed and the only thing on your mind is which song to play in your headphones. Hmmm, maybe some jazz would set the mood?

Waves and the Rails

And, before you know it, you’re there–at the doorsteps of Downtown San Diego, and the sun is shining.

Taking the Amtrak definitely has a lot of advantages, whether it’s to experience the terrain on your way to the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, or taking the Amtrak Cascades from Seattle—either way it reduces the carbon emissions on your trip from one place to the next.

And, of course, this gives travelers the extra advantage of really being able to enjoy, and to actually see the landscape of our state–in its entire beautiful entirety.

Pacific Surfliner

But the No. 1 perk in my book is that there’s no driving required. Yep, that means no weary eyes on the road or frustrating delays in traffic jams. Just sit back and take in the scenery. In fact, California has the highest Amtrak usage for any state in the country. Its rich railroad history still stands as a reminder of a past era–in time and place–that once was California’s historical and cultural way of life.

One of the most popular rail lines is the Pacific Surfliner, which travels the coastal corridor from San Diego, to Los Angeles, to Santa Barbara, and to San Luis Obispo. It’s the second busiest corridor in the country, with 2.5 million riders just in 2009.

Surfing the Rails

The Amtrak seems to be reviving to accommodate the swath of new passengers who take the train on a more regular basis. The state and federal government have even recently announced plans to spend upwards of $49.5 million for major upgrades to Amtrak maintenance facilities in Los Angeles and Florida. This adds to the newly proposed idea of building an electronically powered high-speed rail system in California by 2020, as a way to create more jobs and cut down on polluting carbon emissions from heavy freeway traffic. The project will cost nearly $2.3 billion, funded from Federal Stimulus money authorized from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

But until that project becomes a reality, the railroad transportation we have today still does the job. So, here’s a guide to some of the sights, spots, and costs where to go if you’re planning on escaping Los Angeles any time soon and hopping on the Amtrak train to San Diego.

Where can I get on Board?

We start our journey at the Los Angeles Union Station, an architectural achievement, steeped in American history. It was originally known as the Los Angeles Passenger Terminal, a grand historic facility widely recognized as one of the first major terminals in the country.

Union Station

It was built in 1939 by John and Donald Parkinson, who also designed City Hall and Bullock’s Wilshire, using architectural styles of Spanish Colonial Revival and Art Deco.

When you walk into the entrance you might think you are in a church, since the floor plan was made to look like a cathedral. Inside there are virtually no echo sounds because the walls are lined with cork.

Outside there are waiting rooms, tiled fountains, and patio areas. It cost about $11 million to build the Union Station back in 1939, pooling together funds from the Southern Pacific, Union Pacific, and Santa Fe railroads.

Union Station the Rolls Royce of Train Stations

Originally opened in May 1939, Union Station is now the central stop for Amtrak, along with three rail lines– the Red, Purple, and Gold.

With about 400 train departures every 24 hours, thousands of people make their way through Union Station each day. Partially designed by the Parkinsons Architecture Group, who also designed LA City Hall, Union Station passengers are greeted upon their arrival and departure via the gardens.

Also interesting to note, as Paisley commented on during the Los Angeles Historical Walks, Union Station has also been featured in several films and television programs, including Blade Runner, Speed, Star Trek: First Contact, Pearl Harbor, The Italian Job, and the Fox television series 24.

Union Station “mixes two architectural styles, Spanish Colonial Revival and Art Deco. The floor plan is a cross, like in a cathedral. There is no echo inside the building – the walls are lined with cork.” Source: Union Station

Union Station

Its interior and exterior make plentiful use of travertine marble on both walls and floors, along with the serious yet colorful and playful use of terra cotta.

Union Station’s grand rooms have an air of coolness and style. Although Union Station had heavy traffic during World War II, its ridership dwindled until 1993, when the Metro’s Red and Purple lines were introduced to the historic complex.

Union Station was designed to be a place of relaxation in an otherwise hectic travel environment, symbolizing our fast paced lives, and its inexorable and inextricable connection.

Inside its iconic and transformational “Waiting Room,” travelers find food, comfy chairs, and a path leading to Union Station’s first garden.

Although there was a boon in passenger use when it first opened, after the invention of freeways, usage declined. Today, the Amtrak, Metrolink, and subway trains all leave from the station with train usage increasing by the minute. About 26,000 passengers a day come and go from the Los Angeles station today.

From there, the Surfliner arrives at about a dozen other stations along the coast before arriving in San Diego. Some of the more known stations are in Orange County, from Fullerton, near Cal State Fullerton, to Anaheim, right below Angel Stadium, to Orange, Santa Ana, San Juan Capistrano, San Clemente, and all the way down the line.

From my seat on the train

Is the Cost worth the Travel?

If you’ve already purchased your ticket online, the transaction is easy. Just go to the nearest Quick Trak machine, scan your printout, and pick up your ticket. The cost to take the Pacific Surfliner is generally about $30 for a one-way, depending on your arrival, destination, and $60 for a round trip. Amtrak offers discounts for seniors, students, veterans and other specials, so taking advantage of cutting your travel cost any way you can, is always a plus. The service also offers guest rewards.

If you’re planning to take more than just one trip, buying a USA Rail Pass could be an option, or buying multi-ride, multi-city or group packages. Amtrak’s website has the latest deals on discounted packages or ticket specials that are updated on a regular basis.

Now, if you’re going anywhere other than the local coastline, than tickets do edge up a bit more in price, and your time on the train could span a couple days and nights.

But again, the advantages of being able to arrive at your destination on time, while being able to take in all the sights to get there, far outweigh the costs, in my opinion.

Pulling out your wallet to spend a little more, means you’re investing in the enjoyment of your vacation–and in my book, that makes all the difference in the world.

Pacific Surfliner Accommodations

  • Seating: The unreserved seats are big and comfortable with fold down trays, reading overhead lights, and lots of legroom. Unreserved seats are available to boarding passengers on a first-come, first-serve basis, so it’s important to try and board the train early to get a good seat. And since seating is not guaranteed.  Business Class seats are only available for an extra cost.
  • Carry-on: The train offers also offers space for bikes and surfboards.
  • Luggage: Luggage is handled at the arrival station, and can be picked up at the destination.
  • Food/drinks: Non-alcoholic beverages and snacks are available at the Café Car.

Checkin’ out the sights, scenes, and spots in San Diego

Once you arrive at the Downtown San Diego Station, you land in the heart of one of the greatest–and most beautiful–city’s and tourist spots in the country. There are so many things to do in San Diego, that planning ahead always, makes both the trip and its enjoyment that much better, and easier.

Balboa Park

Here are just a few suggestions:

From the Station, you can take the frequent trolleys and electric cars to Balboa Park–and anywhere else you want to go– where there are dozens of museums and attractions.

San Diego Zoo

Not far from there, is the San Diego Zoo, a world-class animal park, that just recently had a new edition to the zoo–a new baby elephant that was born on Valentine’s Day. For nightlife, the Gaslamp Quarter is filled to the brim with restaurants, pubs, and local hot spots including the world famous Hard Rock Café.

Headin’ Back

From this point, it’s a no-brainer. It’s a quick back-track on to the train again, and you’re on your way back home.

So, when you’re Travelin’ Local, taking the Amtrak is a vacation in of itself, making your next break from everyday monotony so much more enjoyable.

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3 Responses to “Sittin’ Back and Takin’ the Amtrak from LA to San Diego”

  1. Kevin says:

    This trip looks like one of the true bargains for people visiting the area. I never realized how close to the coastline the trains ran. It also stops in a number of the prettiest towns in southern California.

    Something else to add to my huge “to do” list.
    Kevin´s last blog ..Aircraft Pinups and Decorative Art My ComLuv Profile


  2. Ryan Cowles @ Metacom Creative says:

    I am definitely going to have to take this trip! The pictures look amazing, I had no idea how close to the ocean the train ran.
    Ryan Cowles @ Metacom Creative´s last blog ..Taking a Train Across the Country – Part One My ComLuv Profile


  3. lisa B says:

    Once there, is it advisable to rent a car in San Diego?

    Thanks, LB


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