Steve's review of the Amtrak San Diegans including travelogues and photos of the train, the accommodations and scenery along the route.
Let me start by telling you the great things about the Amtrak San Diegans!
From my home in Anaheim Hills, California, I can hop on a San Diegan at the Anaheim Station (or the Fullerton Station if taking the San Diegan express which doesn't stop at the Anaheim Station). That will take me direct to San Diego in 2 hours and to Santa Barbara in 4 hours.
There are a LOT of tourist things to see and do in both San Diego and in Santa Barbara. I don't think that a lot of people realize they can just park their car in Fullerton or Anaheim and then relax while they ride the train to either of these two popular vacation spots! Round trip should be under $40 per adult and $20 per child.
The San Diegans are jointly funded by both Amtrak and by CalTrans. Recently, 70 new trains called the "California Cars" were purchased. Delivery of these trains has started. Initially just one has been placed into service on each of the California commuter lines: The San Diegans, The San Jonquins, and The Capitals. Thus, the new California Cars are only used once each day from San Diego to Santa Barbara and back again each day. All the other trains on that route are the older trains. As the year goes on, more and more of the older trains will be replaced by these new California Cars.
In November, my family and I rode on the California Cars just to get from Fullerton to Los Angeles to connect to the Coast Starlight. Because this was the introductory month of the new bi-level California Cars, everyone on the train was given a free pass that could be used for one free round trip between San Diego and Santa Barbara or beyond (or any points in between). Thus, I received 4 of these free round trip tickets.
As of January 1996, the new California Cars are only used on one round trip per day, and only on weekdays - not weekends. Thus, to get the full value of my free tickets, I decided to set aside a time to take the full round trip all the way from San Diego to Santa Barbara. I had made plans to take my family since I did have 4 tickets, but those plans fell through. My next alternative was to turn the trip into an enjoyable working business conference and invite 2 of the people I work with along with me. That didn't exactly work as planned, but I did end up taking that trip with my business associate and friend, Ray Burns. Starting out in San Diego would also insure that we got seats with a table.
This is a little side note about exactly what happens to the seating on the train as it moves from San Diego to Santa Barbara. Starting from San Diego, you can pretty much get the type of seating you want: a table with 4 seats, coach seats that recline, a single seat by itself, or even seats or tables with electric outlets for notebook computers. You can even grab a seat in the sightseer lounge car. Many commuters traveling alone board the train on the first segment of the trip to Los Angeles. Invariably, each person seeks out a seat where they can sit alone. By the time the train gets to Santa Ana and Fullerton, there are no seats left where you can sit alone. Thus, starting from those stations you have to sit in a pair of seats or at a table with others. If you are traveling with 2 or more other people, you will probably have to split up. That's another reason why I decided to start this special "tour" from the beginning of the line in San Diego.
Once the train gets to Los Angeles, all the commuters get off and the train becomes practically empty. Hardly anyone is traveling from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara at 9 a.m. The train remains fairly empty for the rest of its journey.
On the return trip, we have exactly the opposite. The train starts out from Santa Barbara at 2:30pm in the afternoon and leaves from Los Angeles at 5:15pm, the start of the rush-hour home. Thus, the train is pretty empty from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles, but just about fills to capacity once it gets to Los Angeles. The train drops off many more people than it picks up all the way down to San Diego.
My entire "tour" consisted of the following: We drove down to San Diego the night before the trip and slept in a motel in San Diego. In the morning, we drove to the train station and parked in a self-park lot. I started to get annoyed when I realized the train getting ready in the yard did not have a California Cars train engine but a regular Amtrak engine. But then I noticed that the passenger cars were still the new bi-level California Cars. Evidently the engine had a problem and had to be replaced by the standard Amtrak engine, but they were still running the new California Car passenger coaches with the older engines.
We too the #771 train out of San Deigo at 6:33am and arrived into Santa Barbara at 11:36am. We had a very productive business meeting taking strategic breaks to enjoy the views at the best points. This included quite a bit of scenery along the coast. In Santa Barbara, we hung around the station for a little while waiting for the northbound Coast Starlight to arrive. This allowed us to take a number of good photos of the arriving train and time for me to give Ray a "window" tour of the Coast Starlight.
We next walked the few short blocks to the ocean and had lunch on the patio of the "Moby Dick" restaurant. The food was good and the view was great! After lunch, we looked around Stearn's Wharf a bit and then headed back to the Santa Barbara train station.
The San Diegan train (#780) that we took back was the exact same one that we took up. After having dropped off all its passengers at 11:33am, they just parked it on a side rail for 3 hours until it was time to head back. Thus, that is the one daily round trip of the only California Cars on the San Diegan route at this time. We arrived back into San Diego around 7:40pm.
Now the things that aren't so great...
I very much enjoy riding on the new Amtrak California Cars. Because they are bi-level, you are up pretty high and get a good view of things, just like on the bi-level Superliner Amtrak trains. They also have very large windows and were designed with a very open look. You feel like there is a lot of room in each passenger coach. Even any needed partitions are made of clear plexyglass so that your view down the car or out the window is not obstructed! The tables make a great place to work, or just for a drink and snack that can be purchased from the onboard cafe.
Unfortunately for now, the new Amtrak California Cars only make this trip once each day. The San Diegans make many trips each day between San Diego and Santa Barbara, with one even going all the way up to San Luis Obispo, but much older equipment is used on those trips.
That older equipment is all single-level coach seating. You do have more space than on an airplane, but that is one of the few advantages. The windows are narrow on the older equipment. I don't know what the person was thinking that designed these cars. To me, the view is one of the best advantages a train has over other transportation methods. To restrict it unnecessarily is practically a crime. Compared to the new California Cars, the older equipment places you lower down on a single-level with smaller windows. The windows are also positioned to not give you the best view unless you sit up tall in your chair. You can't lay back, relax, and get a really good view at the same time unless you just want to watch clouds and the tops of buildings and trees go by.
The older equipment also has a very rounded shape to it, much like an airplane. This gives a sense of being crowded or closed-in, similar to the feeling that many get on airplanes. Quite a shame since I doubt this aerodynamic shape ads anything to the efficiancy or speed of the train. This definitely detracts from my enjoyment of a train trip and I would not go out of my way just to take a ride on one of these trains.
I am definitely looking forward to the day when ALL of this old equipment is replaced by the new Amtrak California Cars! I hope they place the very next set of Amtrak California Cars on the #776 and #779 trains, the only one that goes all the way up to San Luis Obispo. The segment of track between Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo runs right along the coast and is claimed to be one of the most scenic segments of rail to be found anywhere in the world! It is a shame to have to try to appreciate the view out the window of the older equipment. The only way to appreciate it now is out the window of the Coast Starlight that just runs once each day and only goes as far as Los Angeles, not to Orange County nor San Diego.
With luck, those new Amtrak California Cars will be in service and replace all of the older equipment sometime late this year or next year.