I've spent most of my life in the Midwest and on the East Coast--where taking the train was, for me, a fairly normal occurence. From Ann Arbor to Chicago, from D.C. to New York or Boston, the train was the best, least expensive, and easiest way to get around. However, though born and newly returned to living on the West Coast, I'd never ever been in (or near) a train here--it never seemed practical. The flight to San Francisco is barely an hour and the price rarely is too much above $100.
But . . .
Getting in and out of the airlines at both ends is more difficult than ever, the traffic at LAX sometimes suspends belief, and the flight itself is not very comfortable, with delays more usual than unusual--travel by air has, for me, become something of an unpleasant if necessary chore.
So, since Amtrak was running a 25% off special, I decided to try the train.
There are two trains to Northern California from Southern California. One travels a direct route from Union Station in downtown L.A. to Oakland or San Francisco and takes a bit over 11 hours. The second train involves a bus--that's right, a bus. You take an Amtrak bus from Union Station to Bakersfield and then the train to Oakland; the whole thing takes a little over 8 hours.
I opted to save 3 hours and try the bus + train route. My round-trip ticket was all of $62.50.
Arriving at Union Station at 7:30am was so easy. The traffic downtown was negligible, since I took a little-used street that leads directly to the station. There were no lines out front, and there was no problem whatsoever getting out of the car, stretching my legs, and rolling my bag into the station. I arrived too late to check my suitcase, but there was no problem--I simply gave it directly to the bus driver, who loaded it onto the bus herself.
The bus was new, large, empty. I traveled on a Thursday and was told the route is packed Friday through Sunday. There were only 15 people on the bus and it was GREAT.
The ride to Bakersfield was dull, boring, perfect for an early-morning nap. The driver chatted softly with a passenger sitting close by. There were several seemingly retired couples and a few moms with new-ish babies. Every one of us slept through much of the ride. We arrived in Bakersfield early--I was able to check my suitcase directly to Oakland and got on the train to take another long comfortable nap.
The train was not quite as empty as the bus, but there was plenty of room for everyone to have his or her own double seat. I did make one mistake--I didn't bring any food. There were signs attached to the windows that said the food in the dining car was "less expensive and better tasting than ever"; if this is true, I can be very grateful that I wasn't trapped hungry on a train where the food was worse.
I won't go into details, but suffice it to say: bring your own.
The views from the train aren't particularly interesting until after Martinez. Mostly you see the back ends of farms and the backyards of apartments and homes that have seen better times. I did see a jackrabbit--but that was all for wildlife. After Martinez, the train skims around the bay and the views are quite lovely.
We arrived in Jack London Square on time. There were no crowds, there was no trouble getting my suitcase, and from the first step off the train to the first step into the car, it took all of 4 minutes. I couldn't have been more pleased with the entire experience.
The return trip, on a Tuesday, was not quite so uneventful.
I was able to check my bag this time, and the Jack London Station was a pleasantly attractive place to sit and finish off a cup of tea.
This time the train was much more crowded because the conductor/ticket guys couldn't get one of the cars open until we were halfway to Bakersfield. I don't quite understand if they lost the key, if the lock was jammed--I don't know what that was about. In addition, there were quite a few military types on the train who were on leave and took leave to get drunk. How do I know they were drunk? Because they were talking to each other at the top of their voices and complaining about how expensive the beer was on the train and that next time they'd bring their own. That will probably be a very bad thing. I also know now that Fresno has good strip clubs--that was another very big topic of conversation.
On the bright side, I brought myself a sandwich from the Trader Joe's in Alameda (and some of the baked Caesar-salad-flavored pea-pod things--they're soooo good) and two big bottles of water, so there was no need to trudge up to the unpleasantness waiting for me in the food car.
We arrived in Bakersfield, again, on time--got quickly onto the bus--only this time it contained a few of the less than sober military types. The bus was quite packed and while I'm not complaining, I'd be lying if I didn't say it was a disappointment. I'm sure Amtrak was thrilled to see several full busses pull away from its terminal, and only a whiny pain in the butt could possibily find fault with the ride back to L.A. But, there it is, I'm a whiny pain in the butt. The bus was way too close and stuffy--just like on a plane, which feeling I was trying to avoid by taking the train.
We got to L.A.--early! Got my bags in all of 2 minutes and was back in the car ready for home in the time it would have taken me to unbuckle my seat belt on the plane.
All in all, it was an almost freakishly stress-free travel experience that I will definitely repeat--only next time I'll take the train-only route. The unpleasantness (for me the whiny person only, I'm sure) of the second bus ride didn't make up for the time savings, and there is nothing wrong with an extra few hours with nothing to do. I actually read a couple of magazines cover to cover--something I never do at home--and I wrote a couple of letters and got halfway through a book I've been meaning to read for months. It was great.