Riding the Rails: Oakland to Los Angeles

Back in May, I went up to Berkeley for my brother’s graduation. I decided to stay an extra couple of days, visiting friends, and on a whim, booked a ticket on Amtrak for my return journey.

Taking the train from Northern California to Los Angeles was one of those things I had always wanted to do. But the trip is long at 12 hours, and there hadn’t been an opportunity to waste a day in transit before. I usually flew, which takes an hour (although add several more for the airport), or drove, which gave a broader flexibility (although at an equally long at 8 hours).

The train ticket was about $45 dollars, which was about the same as renting a car and the gas, but I didn’t want to drive by myself. The long stretches of the 5 Freeway are bad enough when you are fully awake and have people to distract you. And being a promoter of train travel, I figured I might as well promote the one in my own state.

Now, trains in California are different. People here love their cars, hate to waste time, and don’t want to be inconvenienced by lack of flexibility. The trip really shouldn’t take 12 hours, but here in California, there are places where there is one section of rail and it happens to be owned by the freight companies. This means that trains often have to pull into a switch to let the train with the right of way through. The freight trains are usually the ones with the right of way.

But I wasn’t going to let this detour me. It was the end of May and California was at its most gorgeous. One of the reasons I wanted to take this trip in the first place was to see all the scenery one can’t see from the highway. The train from Oakland to Los Angeles follows the coast in places and offers a chance glimpse at places that haven’t changed since the rails were built.
My brother had taken a train from Oakland to Upstate New York a few years back and had returned with the strange tales of people who ride trains. I had thought this must just be for the overnight trains, but it wasn’t the case. On my train, there were mostly retirees, people who wanted to travel leisurely, or the occasionally train buff. One guy kept talking about how he had been commissioned to write an article for the Amtrak magazine. He had been on almost all the routes at this point.
And then there were the people who for some reason couldn’t drive and/or couldn’t afford to fly. There were two guys in front of me who were going to San Diego and one kept getting calls during the trip. It turned out his sister, Tammy, was about to lose custody of her kids to Child Protection Services because she and her boyfriend had once again failed their drug tests. He wasn’t sure, but he thought it might be heroin or crack this time. He then proceeded to call various relatives to find out if his father in South Carolina could get there in time to take the kids. It was strange knowing so much about this guy and his problems without ever talking to him.
Then there was another guy, who was going home from college. He had been waiting for the train in Chico, which arrived around 3 am, when some local kids had ridden up on bicycles and stolen some of his bags. He’d gotten a few back, but now knew the dangers of Chico in the middle of the night.
I was tired when I got to Union Station. I’d finished two books, roamed the observation car, been to the snack bar and the dining car, and talked on my own phone until I lost reception. But it was worth doing the once. I got to see Morton’s salt fields, various crops grown throughout the Salinas Valley, looked upon old wooden buildings near San Luis Obispo, built probably when the railroad was the main thoroughfare, and seen California in the throws of spring.
And just like all my other train trips, it was an adventure.

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