If you enjoy spacious homes, this story might cramp your style. If you prefer Blockbuster to a midnight flick in Greenwich Village, stop reading now. If, however, you crave adventure and like to watch the world pass you by, then pack your bags and grab your caboose. Your train is about to depart.
The Coast Starlight runs from Los Angeles, California, to Seattle, Washington. On paper, the journey takes 35 hours, but Amtrak keeps to a schedule about as well as an Italian driver keeps to his side of the road. Although the train departs LA’s Union Station promptly the morning of Day 1, the rest is up to God. If He’s willing, the train will pull into Seattle’s King Street Station on Day 2 before the hotel cancels your reservation and the rainy season begins again.
With train travel, as the saying goes: it’s not about being there, it’s about getting there. The Coast Starlight is a lavish (and somewhat expensive) mode of transportation. It has a parlour car, a kiddie car, a sightseeing car, even a movie theatre. With mountains on one side and the ocean on the other, you’ll never lack a breathtaking view. There aren’t any seatbelts and you’re always free to move about the cabin.
This is just one example of the gorgeous views you can expect. Believe it or not, it gets old after the 25th hour.
The only question is how much you’re willing to spend on the trip. Overnight trains offer three classes of travel:
1. Mug me, I’m loaded
2. Too close for comfort
3. You expect me to sleep where?
First class boasts the “best” of everything. But while a first-class cabin includes its own bathroom and shower, the whole compartment isn’t much bigger than a walk-in closet. It makes a camper shell feel like the presidential suite at the Plaza Hotel.
Coach class, for the budget-conscious, offers the luxury of reclining seats and leg rests. After a night of dueling elbows, a cold-water paper-towel sponge bath awaits you. Meals cost extra, but you can always brown-bag it if you plan ahead.
As a compromise, we recommend what Amtrak calls a “roomette.” You get a private room, which is the good news, but the room is so small, you’ll have to step outside to change your mind, which you won’t be able to do because your ship has already sailed. In one of these cozy roomettes—once the beds are tucked away—you can stare out the window, gaze into each other’s eyes, play a game of cards . . . and that’s about it.
After the porter (yes, a porter) pulls down the ultra-slim bunk beds, you’ll be able to settle in for a series of short naps in between the bumps, grinds, and other noises of the train as it makes its way along the tracks. Secure the bottom bunk at all costs because the top bunk has such a low ceiling, whoever sleeps there has to squeeze him- or herself in like a hot dog into an uncut bun.
You say you’re on your honeymoon? The rocking motion of the train got you all hot and bothered? In short, you have the itch to do the deed? Well, make it quick and you’ll both still be able to walk in the morning. Otherwise, your charley horses may become permanent.
On a train, you’re free to leave the cabin, of course, but then you’re just asking for trouble. Once you abandon the sanctity of your roomette, you open yourself up to . . . the other passengers.
Passengers on an overnight train all have stories, long stories, stories they feel a compelling need to share with you. An innocent “hello” can lead to an hour-long conversation about dental hygiene. Murder mysteries occur on trains for good reason, as these stories can turn even the most mild-mannered gentleman into a temporarily insane killer. In some states, it’s even a valid prosecution-defense strategy.
To stop a potentially life-threatening conversation from picking up steam, try these exit lines: “I’m sorry; this is where I get off,” or “I have to go polish my eight-inch hunting knife,” or “It’s not you; it’s the voices in my head.” Whatever you do, under no circumstances utter the following six words, because they will come back to haunt you for the rest of the long trip: “Care to join us for dinner?”
Passenger stereotypes to avoid include the drunken businessman who claims a fear of flying, the hanger-on with the nervous laugh who “just wants to meet people,” and the hopeless romantic who’s seen too many Hitchcock movies. These passengers should scare you. For all we know, the government has secretly hired them to keep passenger trains from becoming too popular. Don’t laugh; it’s working. After all, how many people do you know who’d spend two days trying to get somewhere only four hours away by plane?
It’s a question you’ll ponder all during dinner, while the traveler sitting across from you (invited or not) rambles on about toothpastes, toothbrushes, and the proper chairside manner of a good dentist.
Lessons Learned: Train travel can be romantic—in a nostalgic, not erotic, way. Riding an overnight train is a lost cultural experience. It’s also not for everyone. Research the trip before you go so you know what you’re getting yourself into. Consider combining the trip with another adventure, since your fare allows you to disembark along the way.
How We Saw It
Communication Breakdown: 1
Customer Dis-service: 1
Discomfort Level: 3
Grunge Factor: 2
Inactivity Guide: 5
Spontaneous Consumption: 1
Fun Fraction: 4/5
If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Los Angeles International Airport or Seattle-Tacoma International Airport
Native Population: Capacity varies with the number of passenger cars
Normal Attractions: The sights, the adventure, the movie theater, the well-stocked bar, and, surprisingly, the food.
Final Point of Interest: It takes the Coast Starlight 23 stops to reach Seattle from LA. Get used to waiting. Then again, if you were in a hurry, you wouldn’t have taken the train.