We had no trouble using AMTRAK's website to purchase our tickets on-line for the trip to Goleta and back on-board the "Surfliner." Well in advance of our departure date, we drove up to the Solana Beach AMTRAK station and picked up our tickets in person. While we were there, we also bought a ticket for Eric's mom who would be making the return trip with us.
Part 1: San Diego to Goleta (June 24th)
We arrived at San Diego's historic, mission-style station well in advance of the "Surfliner's" scheduled 9:30 a.m. departure.
Although the downtown San Diego station handles a lot of daily passenger traffic, the waiting room was clean and well maintained. And we saw no armed guards, metal detectors, or other obvious signs of increased security.
Surfliner train #769 was already parked outside. We noted that the consist included AMTRAK engine #458 followed by the dome-liner "Silver Lariat" which had originally seen service with the "California Zephyr." (We assumed that it was a privately-owned car, hitching a ride north.)
Although we were traveling on a Saturday during Southern California's peak vacation season, there were only about a dozen people in the waiting room when we arrived. Since we had plenty of time before our train left, we sat down on one of the station's heavy wooden benches (which date back to 1914) and perused a free copy of the 2005-2006 AMTRAK AMERICA guide which contains just about everything that anyone would need to know to travel via AMTRAK.
By 8:48 the station had begun to fill up with passengers. The first boarding call came at 9:15, and we were seated in our unreserved coach shortly afterward.
Our train left on schedule at 9:30 a.m. with the engine at the rear of the train. An announcement was made that our train would be terminating at Goleta. (We later learned that no trains were running north of Goleta that day because of track maintenance. Passengers bound for points further north were being bused from Santa Barbara to Paso Robles.)
When the conductor took our tickets, he confirmed that the "Silver Lariat" was a private car.
By 9:56 a.m. we were paralleling the ocean and historic Highway 101.
Passing through Del Mar, we had a good view of the Del Mar Race Track and the San Diego County Fair, which was in full swing.
We arrived at Solana Beach, our first scheduled stop, only 3 minutes behind schedule.
Continuing north, we could see that the beaches and campgrounds were busy but not overcrowded for this time of the year.
About 5 minutes south of San Juan Capistrano, the tracks curved inland and away from the ocean.
By now, most of the seats in our coach were taken, and an announcement was made for passengers to remove all personal items from the empty seats or be charged the price of a 1-way ticket.
We arrived at the Los Angeles Union Passenger Depot at 12:30 p.m., 15 minutes behind schedule. The crew was able to gain back about 8 minutes of this lost time by waiting only 7 of the scheduled 15 minutes before departing. Upon departure, the engine was now at the front of the train.
Shortly after leaving L.A., an announcement was made that the lounge car was once again opened for business. Pat walked down and got us some "garden burgers" for lunch.
By 2:18 p.m. the ocean once again came into view. Just south of Ventura, we had to stop and wait for a freight to go by. (We were now traveling north at the pleasure of the Union Pacific Railroad and in an area where their right-of-way consists of a single track.)
Going by the Ventura County Fairgrounds, we saw the Circus Vargas big top set up and the matinee crowd just starting to arrive.
At Santa Barbara, northbound passengers had to get off and transfer to buses for the trip to Paso Robles and points north.
Ten minutes later, we arrived at Goleta, only 2 minutes behind schedule. The first half of our rail adventure had been routine and without incident.
Part 2: Goleta to San Diego (June 26th)
A shuttle bus from our hotel dropped us off at the Goleta station well in advance of our scheduled 9:03 a.m. departure.
Although Goleta is AMTRAK's closest stop to the UCSB campus, there are no station facilities there other than a platform with a few covered benches. (The station itself is tucked away behind an industrial complex and well off the beaten path.)
By 8:50 a.m., about a dozen people were on hand, waiting for the southbound "Surfliner" to arrive. We talked with a woman who was going to Burbank to catch a flight to Colorado. She wasn't too concerned about the train running late since there would be several flights leaving for Colorado that day.
9:03 came and went and no "Surfliner" was to be seen. (One of the waiting passengers called AMTRAK information and was told that our train was running 6 minutes early!)
Finally, at about 9:30, an approaching train could be seen off to the north, approaching fast. To everyone's surprise, it didn't slow down but shot passed the station like a meteor. (It was only then that we realized it was the "Coast Starlight," running about 12 hours late. They don't call it the "Coast Starlate" for nothing!)
The "Surfliner eventually arrived about 8 minutes later, and we departed Goleta at 9:41 a.m.
Since Eric's mom was now traveling with us, we chose 2 pairs of seats that faced each other so that the three of us could sit together.
All way to Santa Barbara, our train ran at a reduced speed. An announcement was made to explain that this was to keep a safe distance between us and the "Coast Starlight," which was just ahead.
Quite a few passengers got on-board at Santa Barbara, where an announcement was made that we would be waiting in the station for a northbound train to pass. (Since we weren't in any great hurry that day, this delay didn't bother us in the least.)
We eventually left Santa Barbara at 10:07 a.m., about 46 minutes late.
At Oxnard, more passengers got on, and an announcement was made for passengers to remove their personal items from the empty seats or be charged for the cost of a one-way ticket.
By the time we reached Burbank, empty seats were at a premium and a newly arrived passenger had to sit with us in the fourth seat. He'd gotten on without a ticket and had to buy one from the conductor. After he got settled, he told us that he was from one of those countries in Indonesia that had been hit by the terrible tsunami a year ago. (He'd been about 5 miles inland at the time it struck and had escaped.) He and his wife had traveled quite a bit by train in Europe, but he was unfamiliar with AMTRAK. In fact, he was making this trip into L.A. to see if it would be more cost effective for him than driving his car.
He detrained in Los Angeles, but the seat was soon taken by a 16-year-old-boy from Eugene, Oregon who had just arrived on the "Coast Starlight" with his sister. They were continuing on to Santa Ana where they would be spending the summer with relatives who lived in the Anaheim area.
We asked him if he knew why the "Coast Starlight" had been 12 hours late, but he wasn't sure. He and his sister had shared an economy sleeping compartment, so the extra night on the train hadn't been too great an inconvenience for them. And we pointed out to him that, had their train been on time the previous evening, they would probably have arrived in Santa Ana at 12:30 in the morning or later, so the delay actually worked to their advantage.
Although the trip to San Diego was made quickly and with few delays, we never did make up the 46 minutes or so the train had been running late since leaving Santa Barbara. However, as we hadn't been in any great hurry, this late arrival was of little concern to us.
We had no trouble catching a shuttle bus to where our car was parked, and were soon on our way home. This was the first time that Eric's mom had ridden on AMTRAK and she had enjoyed the trip immensely.
Although not as long or exciting as a cross-country train trip, our excursion up to Goleta and back had been an enjoyable experience for us and more than justified our decision to go by train rather than drive.