Amtrak California Car Accommodations, including photographs and detailed descriptions of seats, rooms, train cars and services.
The information on this page was added at various times starting around the time of the introduction of the Amtrak California Cars in the last quarter of 1995.
New item added November 8, 1998: I was traveling back from the
Train Riders Association of California (TRAC) meeting in Sacramento. On
the Amtrak San Joaquin train I was in Car Number 8204, "Drakes Bay". I
had never been in a California Car named after a bay before. They have
always been named after mountains, rivers, or valleys. Thus, I was curious
what was different about this car. A major difference is that the stairway
to downstairs is blocked and labeled "Crew Only". Taking the other stairway
downstairs I found that the door to the large handicapped restroom was
totally different than it is in other California Cars. Instead of being
a large flat sliding door facing the stairway, it was a large curved
sliding door diagonally facing into the car. Looking around the corner
I found the downstairs passenger area to have less seats than the
downstairs area of a regular California Car passenger car (those named
after rivers). At the end of that passenger area was another room that
was walled off with a door in the middle indicating that it was for
"Crew Only." I would assume that the blocked off stairway from upstairs
also leads down into this same "Crew Only" room. If anyone has more
information about these "Bay Cars" and their purpose, please do send me
e-mail at steve @ trainweb.com. I've
been riding California Cars since they were first introduced, but this is
the first time I have noticed a "Bay Car" on any train.
Added August 13, 1999: The California "Bay" Cars mentioned above are actually coach/baggage cars! The "Crew Only" area is the baggage compartment. That would explain why San Joaquin trains offer checked baggage, but do not have baggage cars. That would also explain why I hardly ever see "Bay" cars at all. Most of the trips I've taken on California Cars trains were on the San Diegans. But the San Diegans don't need "Bay" baggage cars, since Business Class (Custom Class, first class) is covered using Superliner Coach/Baggage cars, so all checked baggage goes into those cars. Checked baggage isn't offered at all on Capitols trains, so I would never see "Bay" cars there!
All of the "Capitol" and "San Joaquin" Trains use the Amtrak California Cars. 2 or 3 sets of California Cars are used on the "San Diegans". The reason for there being either 2 or 3 sets is that sometimes a California Car trainset will be loaned to the "San Joaquins," especially during the heavy summer tourist months. For a while the first 3 "San Diegans" heading north out of San Diego in the morning and the last 3 "San Diegans" returning to San Diego in the evening used them. However, it is no longer possible to precisely state which "San Diegans" will use the California Cars. There are now so many daily "San Diegans" that it is often necessary to send out whatever equipment is available on whatever train departs next. The only way to be sure to see the California Cars on the "San Diegans" is to hang around either all morning or all afternoon at a station along the San Diegans line. You will be likely to see one or two sets of California Cars during a four or five hour interval.
On the outside of each car you will find the name of the car. Each car is named after some geographic feature in the state of California: a mountain, a river, a valley or a bay.
The Amtrak California Cars are bi-level cars. They have two double doors on each side of every car on the train. This makes boarding and disembarking much faster than on Amfleet cars. The first level of the car is at the boarding level. This means there are no stairs to climb to just get on or off the train. There is room for bicycles, luggage, and even plenty of seating on this first level. Most people prefer the view from the second level and will usually go up one of the two stairways to the second level.
If you have been on Amfleet cars, you know that a Conductor or Assistant Conductor has to be at every door to help people get on and off the train. This is because there is a single narrow stairway at each door and a stool is needed so that people can get from the bottom step down to the station platform. This also means the number of usable doors is limited to the number of Conductors and Assistant Conductors on the train. This makes station stops a very tedious process and delays the run of the train considerably. At most stations, Conductors are not needed at the doors on the California Cars. The doors are double wide and close to platform level. Passengers can get on and off without any assistance. Because of this, all doors can be opened at most stations. Delays at stations caused by passengers waiting to get on or off are minimal.
If you have been on a Metrolink or Coaster train but never in an Amtrak California Car, you probably don't have a concept of the size of the table. The tables are not like the small ones on those commuter trains. The tables in the California Cars are quite large. We have a special version of the Chess and Checker games that allow 4 people to play at once instead of just 2 people at a time. The game manufacturer has accomplished this by adding 3 more rows to each of the 4 sides of the board. So, picture the size of a normal checkerboard, not a travel one. Then, add 3 more rows to all 4 sides. That almost doubles the width of the board! That playing board fit easily onto the table with even more room to spare on every side! We had room for that board plus food and drinks that we purchased plus maps, schedules, my camera and other items I wanted handy!
If you like sitting at a table when traveling on a train, which I like especially when traveling with others, then the new California Cars are the ideal accommodations. My guess is that only 25% of the seats on the train are at these tables and the tables go fast when people board. Other seats in the train are arranged in various fashions. Some seats are in pairs and face the backs of other seats. For those seats you can pull down a little table out of the seat back in front of you. In other places, two seats will face two other seats, sort of the way it is at tables but without the table.
For those of you that like to sit alone, there are 2 single seats at each end of every car except the "Cab Car". The "Cab Car" is the passenger car that is furthest from the locomotive. Since the "Cab Car" has a place for the Engineer to operate the train in reverse from the very end of the train, the configuration of seats is different at that end. All other passenger cars do have 2 singe seats at each end.
I sat in one of those single seats on two business trips in which I was traveling alone. I'd say that seat comes the closest to having a private accommodation on a train that has no private accommodations! Each single seat has a large window on one side and a floor to ceiling see-through Plexiglas partition on the other side. I think the purpose of the partition is to reduce the amount of noise that comes from the doors used for passage from one train car to the next. There is also space between the single seat and the Plexiglas partition big enough for a sizable suitcase.
Since the door from going from train car to train car is right behind the single seats, you will hear a lot of track noise during the interval when someone passes through the door until it automatically closes a few seconds later. The reason most people pass through the door is to get to the cafe car. Just sit as far away from the cafe car as you can to reduce the number of people passing by your seat and through the door.
Another nice feature of the single seat is the amount of table space. Since there are two chairs in front of you, you get two seat-back fold down tables all to yourself! In summary, with a window on one side, a Plexiglas wall on the other and two fold-down seat-back tables in front of you, it is like having a private room all to yourself! Personally, I rather sit in these seats than a seat in the Reserved Custom Class!
ALL seats have excellent views to the outside of the train. This is the one feature that I believe makes these trains far superior to the Amfleet cars. The windows start from the top of the table and go quite a bit higher than the top of your head. Glass or Plexiglas is used throughout the interior of the California Cars as much as possible to give everyone an unobstructed view down the car and out as many windows as possible. Between that feature, the large windows and the low seatbacks, the car interior has a very open feel and it doesn't seem like their are any obstructions to your outside view in almost any direction.
I've heard people say they miss the cozy, comfy feel of the Amfleet cars with the reclining high seat-backs. I'm more than happy to trade that experience for the tables and the open feel of the California Cars any day!
The new California Dining Cars appear on some of the new California Car trainsets. Eventually, all of the California Car trainsets will have them. The California Dining Car is divided into 3 areas. I've only seen 2 of the areas myself so far. There is a snack bar where you can order drinks, cocktails, hot dogs, sandwiches and snacks. They also have souvenirs such as Amtrak caps, cups, T-shirts, playing cards, etc. You can either bring the food back to your seat or you can eat it at one of the window facing semi-circle tables. In another area of the new California Dining Car is full sit-down dining.
I have eaten meals twice in the full sit-down dining area in the new California Cars on the San Joaquin route. The food is better than airline food, but not as good as the food prepared from scratch on the full-serving dining cars found on most Amtrak routes that feature Superliner cars. I have also purchased coffee, muffins and sandwiches from the snack bar. The selection and quality is adequate and it is convenient to have food, drinks and even liquor available for purchase on the train.
I do find the design of the new California Cafe Cars to be flawed. I really like the decor and the atmosphere of these new cars, but much of the car is not functionally designed. Lets start with the easy part. The full service area takes up about one third of the upstairs area of the Cafe Car. This is probably just about right. There are about 6 or so tables designed for parties of 2, 3 and 4. This is just about right. Not that many eat full sit-down meals in the Cafe Car. This number of tables is enough so that there is seldom a wait for seating. I don't feel that too much space has been set aside for this purpose. Whether or not Amtrak makes enough money to justify the Attendant that is devoted to just this area of the Cafe Car, I don't know. From my own observations I can't see that enough sit-down diners are served to pay the salary of this person. On the other hand, the Attendant staffing the snack bar works non-stop servicing a never-ending line of patrons from the start to the finish of the train trip. I question if it might not be better to have both Attendants work the Snack Bar and allow people who purchase full-meals at the snack bar to just carry them over to the sit-down area, sort of cafeteria style.
The snack side of the Cafe Car has a few enclosed semi-circle booths facing the windows. This looks very nice. There aren't too many of these, but there seem to be enough of them. Not a lot of people eat in the Cafe Car itself. Most opt to take the food back to their coach seat. This makes a lot of sense since every coach seat either has a tray that folds out of the back of the seat in front of you (like in an airplane but much larger) or you are sitting at a very large table. There is one exception to this. There are some pairs of double seats that face each other with no table or seatbacks. I suppose the people that sit at these seats would be better off eating their food in the Cafe Car.
Now to the area that seems designed totally wrong! There is almost always a fairly long line at the Snack Bar. This line stretches down the center aisle of the Cafe Car. There is some seating between this aisle and the window and even a stand up eating bar. These areas are almost never used except occasionally by people waiting in line for their turn. If you were to attempt to use these areas, you would constantly have the people in the Snack Bar line looming over your shoulders! It is no wonder that few people ever chose to eat in that area. Amtrak should just admit that there is almost always a line at the Snack Bar and should design this area in a way that accommodates that line and keeps the line from blocking passage of people trying to make their way down the aisle.
Evidently there is suppose to be another food service area downstairs in the Cafe Car. It looks like it could be set up that way, but I have never seen the downstairs area used for serving food. Once in a very great while someone will purchase food upstairs and bring it downstairs to consume it. I think Amtrak really has to rethink the way the food service really gets used and redesign the layout of the car to accommodate the way that people are going to use it. Overall, I wonder if an entire car needed to be devoted to food service. Maybe they should have stuck with the concept used on the Superliners and just created an Observation Lounge Car with the downstairs devoted to food service.
There are two restrooms downstairs in every car. One is a small restroom, but larger than what you find in the Amtrak Superliner cars. The other restroom is extremely large. It can be used even by someone in a larger motorized wheelchair with room for a complete "U-turn"!. It is for use by all passengers. If you use this restroom, make sure the door is securely latched. If it is not, a larger rocking motion by the train could slide the door open and you have quite a walk to get over to the door to shut it! Don't panic, though. The restroom faces the stairs and you could probably make it over to the door unseen by other passengers unless someone was on the way down the stairs.
Just an update on the above paragraph. They seem to have resolved the "loose latch" problem that was prevalent on most California Cars. They appear to have resolved the problem and all restrooms latch securely that I have seen recently.
Custom Class is available for a few extra dollars on all "Amtrak San Diegan" trains. The cars used for Custom Class are not actually California Cars, but are Amtrak Superliner Coach Cars that have been converted for push-pull operation. In addition to a large comfortable reclining seat, you also get complimentary coffee, tea or juice and a newspaper. Depending on the time of day, you might also get free champagne or wine, fruit & cheese plate, sandwich, pastry or breakfast item.
This is also not a California Car, but is another Superliner Sightseer Car that has been converted to push-pull operation and is sometimes added to some of the "Amtrak San Diegan" trains. A frequent practice on the "Amtrak San Diegans" is to sandwich a Superliner Sightseer Lounge Car between two regular Amtrak Superliner Coach Cars in the same consist with California Cars. The lead Superliner Coach Car will be used as a Custom Class Car, now called Pacific Class, and the other Superliner will just be used for regular Coach seating along with the Coach seating available in the California Cars in the rest of the consist.