So you have decided to consider taking the train somewhere! I have been riding the train for years and absolutely love it. It doesn’t matter if I’m riding the model train at the South Coast Train Museum in Goleta, the diesel train at the Santa Barbara Zoo, Amtrak’s Pacific Coastliner, a light rail in Germany or the bullet train in Shanghai. The experience is one that I have always enjoyed. What’s more, I’m always excited to give my thoughts and strategies for riding the train, especially for those with families in Santa Barbara.
If you are considering the train, I recommend first going to http://amtrak.com to plan your trip. If your destination is anywhere on the southern California coast, you probably have a train station that can accommodate your trip. The trip planner on the site will give you several options. Typical trips in Southern California will travel part of the Pacific Coastliner route, which runs from San Luis Obispo to San Diego and back several times per day. You may also see the Coast Starlight route occasionally available. This goes from Seattle to LA and back but less often. If you’re traveling overnight, the Coast Starlight offers a variety of sleeper car options, each of which gets more expensive with added extravagance. Still, when accounting for the cost of a hotel, traveling while you sleep can be a potential option.
Be very aware of bus routes that may be offered in your trip planner and avoid them unless you intend to include a bus route on your trip.
A common point of confusion when ordering train tickets is the concept of seat reservations. Unlike an airplane, individual seats on the train are not reserved. Even if you purchase the business class seats, the seats are unreserved and first come – first served. If you want a seat in the aisle, you cannot pay more to guarantee that one will be available. It is based upon availability once you get onto the train. What’s more, there is no guarantee you will get a seat on the train you plan to ride!
Particularly on busy days when everyone rides the train to an event like an Angels game, the closer you are to the event, the more packed the train can get – people may even be standing in the aisles. However, on typical trips the rail cars are only half full and you need not worry about getting a seat or dealing with claustrophobia. When traveling long distance or on event days, I prefer to purchase the “business class” ticket. This will add a couple of extra dollars to your trip but it is often worth it. The seating in both business class and regular coach is virtually the same – two seats to the right and left of the aisle for the length of the car with a restroom and water fountain at the end. Both coach and business class offer free (limited) wifi and outlets to plug in and charge your phone or laptop as you go. I prefer business class because it is normally significantly less crowded on busy days. What’s more, each passenger gets a free snack box filled with an assortment of crackers, cookies and snacks. You also get a free soft beverage or can upgrade to an alcoholic beverage for a couple of dollars more. Still hungry? There are often extra muffins, juice boxes and coffee in the back of the car with a copy of the newspaper. Finally, if you are traveling with the family, there are special 4-person bench seats with a fold-out table in between to play card games or color in coloring books.
Once you have selected your tickets on the Amtrak website, you may be surprised when you get to the final order button and your total. Traveling from Santa Barbara to San Diego, you might think “$42 one way? Are you out of your mind?” Doing the math, if you drive an SUV that averages 21 MPG the 220 miles to San Diego at $4 per gallon, it comes out to a surprising $42! There are, of course, Amtrak discounts for AAA, AARP, students and the military. If you are traveling alone, the cost often is about the same, but when you travel with more than one person the train quickly gets more expensive than driving. Next to your $42 charge you might also notice the outrageous time of 6 hours to get from Santa Barbara to San Diego and think “that’s twice the time it took me that one time to drive down there.” The train has multiple stops and is not the fastest and most direct mode of transportation available. Still, if you are driving through both LA and Orange County traffic making multiple stops for food and bathroom breaks for you and your family, six hours starts sounding a lot more reasonable. The train also offers the benefit of being able to do something else during your travel time, like reading, watching a movie, working, playing games with your family, etc. If you have gotten over the cost and length of trip, pay your fare and print your ticket on your home printer. If you feel tech-savvy, consider using the QRC code sent to your email instead of wasting the paper.
Next, it’s time to head to the train station. The three types of train stations are unannounced, announced and major hubs. I will admit that this is my own naming scheme not necessarily endorsed by our friends at Amtrak. Unannounced stations are typically just drop-off locations. These are typically a small parking lot, a ticket vending machine and some park benches. Examples of this type of station are Goleta and Carpinteria. When your train comes, there may be a short announcement via a PA system but it is otherwise unannounced. At these stations it is usually a good idea to pay attention to the number of tracks available and to determine if there is a Northbound and Southbound side that you should stand on. A normal stop at these unannounced tracks is around 1 minute in length. The trains doors may not even open if passengers are not getting out. If you are at one of these stops to get onto the train, make yourself known and signal the train conductor that you are entering the train. Because these stations are not major stops, it is best to get to the station 15-20 minutes in advance and wait at the bench. Trains don’t typically arrive early, but if they do, you want to be there.
Announced train stations are larger than unannounced. They will typically have a large parking lot, extended overnight parking, a ticket agent as well as a vending machine, snack vending machines and often a small gift shop. Examples of this station are Santa Barbara and Burbank. Trains are announced before they arrive. The stops are typically around 3-5 minutes and conductors will walk outside the train often announcing “all aboard.” For a first-time rider, one of these stations is preferred as they offer the highest amount of service with the least amount of ambiguity. You will want to arrive at the train station 10-15 minutes in advance of the expected train’s arrival.
Finally, major hub stations like LA Union Station are giant buildings with an even larger parking lot, overnight parking, multiple ticket agents, vending machines, kiosks and even restaurants. Hubs like this serve trains going not only up and down the coast but also other directions and may have smaller municipal tracks. Because of the complexity, it’s best to arrive at least a half hour in advance of your train’s departure. If it is a train station that you are unfamiliar with, head to where the display boards announce what trains are arriving at what bays. Ask questions of the station agents and get directions. Once you know what you’re doing, take a moment to appreciate the architecture, sights and smells of a major train station. Walk about the facility if you have time and pay attention to historical notes posted about the rooms.
Never assume that your train will arrive on time – always check online or call 1-800-USA-RAIL for updates. If your train does not come on time or you’re stuck waiting at the station, it is good to know that your 12:15pm ticket will get you on to a 3pm train – this is the good side of the “unreserved” seats.