Amtrak California Cars
Amtrak California Car Accommodations, including photographs and detailed
descriptions of seats, rooms, train cars and services.
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Amtrak California Rail Experience
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
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 email@example.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!
Where Can You See Them?
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.
Types Of Cars
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.
- Cab Control Car - These cars are always named after a mountain.
- Cafe Car - These cars are always named after a valley.
- Passenger Car - There cars are always named after a river.
- Passenger Car/Crew Area - These cars are always named after a bay.
California Car Description
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
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!
Interior & Exterior Viewing
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
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.
Sightseer Lounge Car
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.
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