ABOARD AMTRAK'S COAST STARLIGHT -- Pittsburghers may not give much thought to traveling by train, and, given the lack of local options, why would they?
Amtrak trains come through Pittsburgh a few times a day but mostly at inconvenient hours, unless you're nocturnal and crave setting out for Chicago at 11:59 p.m. or for Washington, D.C., at 4:50 a.m.
But in most major cities along the West Coast, trains arrive and depart at less egregious hours and offer fantastic, panoramic views along the way.
Even then, it helps to have the right mindset. Done right, traveling via Amtrak in a private room can be like taking an ocean cruise -- complete with meals and pleasant scenery -- but at a price scarcely more than flying coach.
But you can't approach train travel with a hurry-up mindset: It has to be about the journey. Time-pressed travelers might choose to avoid Amtrak's Coast Starlight because it doesn't always arrive on time.
But there are advantages to train travel, including a low-stress atmosphere: Amtrak stations remain gloriously free from the clutter of metal detectors; train travelers avoid TSA agents and their ever-present pat-downs.
"It's so much nicer, so much more relaxed," said Minnie Heinerich, 78, who traveled from San Diego to Seattle to celebrate her daughter's birthday. "You don't have to take your shoes off and half your clothes, too."
Gayle and Preston Paull of Sebastopol, Calif., see train travel as an essential element of classic Americana.
"When you fly, you take off and look down at the world, but when you're on a train you come out and see the world the way it is," Mr. Paull said.
"You can see people picking the lettuce, and you're right there with them," Mrs. Paull added.
My first inkling that train travel might be worth considering came in summer 2011 when we took the Coast Starlight from Oregon to Oakland, Calif., for a friend's wedding. At the time, the cheapest airfare cost $153; we managed to get a roomette for two on the Coast Starlight -- which includes all meals, unlimited coffee and juice and access to a shower -- for $178 per person with a AAA discount. Sure, the trip took 17 hours, but we were asleep for a good bit of it. We boarded at 3:30 on a Thursday afternoon and breezed into Oakland at 8:15 the next morning.
It was a fun ride with fantastic scenery as the train chugged through the Cascades not far from Crater Lake, venturing around mountain bends without a road in sight. At certain points, the trip reveals a pristine wilderness that makes you feel as if you're traveling where no man has previously trod.
So this summer it was only logical to take the Coast Starlight along the coast between Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo (about 200 miles). After leaving Los Angeles and heading north, the train travels through Simi Valley before cutting over to the sea.
The Coast Starlight doesn't travel merely close to the Pacific; at some points it travels right along the ocean's edge. Looking down from the second floor of a bi-level Amtrak Superliner sleeping car, you can see the tide just 50 feet west of the tracks. (If a tsunami strikes, it seems unlikely this stretch of track would survive such a hit.)
We watched dogs lapping in the shallows and surfers clad in wet suits paddling out to catch a wave. Elsewhere in the observation car, volunteers from the National Park Service's Trails & Rails program handed out brochures about the Juan Bautista De Anza National Historical Trail as they narrated our travels.
"Not many people have this view as an office," said an assistant conductor named Lori as she did paperwork across the table from me when we passed Jalama Beach near Lompoc, Calif. Several Amtrak employees said the Coast Starlight has been sold out some days since June at a rate they haven't seen since the mid-1990s.
"I haven't done anything so far except look at the scenery and talk to people," said Kristi Van Greunen, who was on her way back to Alameda, Calif., from a trip to see friends in Los Angeles.
The opportunity to meet and talk with other passengers is one of the things that strike the Paulls as a benefit of train travel.
"If we flew, we'd be in the same seats for the whole trip but we'd never talk to our seatmates. It's short and concise," Mr. Paull said. "On this train, you could hear that sound level in the dining car with all these strangers talking to each other."
Instead of heads buried in electronic devices, travelers are more likely to engage one another in conversation.
Not all encounters with strangers are fantastic. Former Pittsburgher Gina Caciolo was seated next to a less-than-enjoyable traveler at lunch.
"The guy sitting next to me was already really drunk and telling me, 'You want a drink? I'll buy you a drink,' " she said. "He kept mentioning uncomfortable things, and the people across from us were listening. I saw them later and they said, 'We're sorry we didn't scooch over so you could sit with us.' I didn't make a dinner reservation because I was afraid I'd bump into him again."
But that experience won't deter her from future train trips.
"Oh, totally, I'd do it again," Ms. Caciolo said. "I write, so I just went back to my seat and started taking notes on everything."
Her experience as a single traveler dovetails with the observation of 25-year-old Julie Nociolo of Brooklyn, N.Y.: "I feel like [taking the train is] a couples' thing."
While there were certainly plenty of people traveling alone on the Coast Starlight, most people who booked passage in a sleeping car were not alone. We saw all sorts of combinations: a mother and daughter, sisters, friends and many husbands and wives.
If you can afford to book a trip in an Amtrak sleeping car, by all means, do it. A roomette tends to cost a little more than coach-class airfare but much less than first-class airfare. Several room configurations are available, including a roomette (the least expensive option, which sleeps two, one on an upper bunk, one on a lower bunk; there's a shared bathroom and shower in the hall), bedroom (sleeps two to three; includes sink, toilet, shower), family bedroom (sleeps four; shared bathroom and shower in the hall), bedroom suite (sleeps four to six; includes sink, toilet, shower) and accessible bedroom (sleeps two; includes wheelchair accessible private toilet and sink separated by a privacy curtain).
Sleeping on the train is another matter. Heavy sleepers tend to fare better than light sleepers.
"It rocks me to sleep," said Gayle Paull. "I really like it."
There are some pitfalls with booking a room on Amtrak: It's not the most consumer-friendly service in the world. Six months before our trip I called to request a roomette on the ocean side of the train for the trip north from Los Angeles. The agent on the phone said they couldn't take such a request because "we don't know if the train will be pushing or pulling," which seems beside the point. You can choose which side of a plane to have a seat on; you can choose what cabin to be in on a cruise ship. But it's impossible for Amtrak to offer a choice of room location.
While meals are included for travelers who book a room, the quality of the food can vary even though menus on most Amtrak routes out West are extremely similar if not identical. The French toast may be moist on one route and dry on another; the kitchen staff may serve the chocolate covered creme puff warm on one route and cold on another. Most travelers we talked to rated the meals from fine to fantastic.
"If you fly to Europe on the plane, you don't get this kind of food at all; plane food is kind of junky," Ms. Heinerich said. "But I don't think I've had a bad meal on [the train]. The bread pudding was the best."
Booking a room on the Coast Starlight comes with some fun bonuses, including a small bottle of champagne (or sparkling cider) and an afternoon wine and cheese tasting. Northbound on the Coast Starlight, the first day's tasting offers California wines; wines from Oregon and Washington are sampled on day two. The tasting takes place in the Pacific Parlour Car, a comfy lounge/observation car for use by sleeping car passengers only. It's an extra car -- with a small movie theater on its lower level -- in addition to the standard observation/lounge car that's open to all Amtrak travelers.
All these benefits of booking a roomette or larger makes the train travel experience a bit like a land cruise. It feels like you're constantly just finishing dining when an Amtrak employee comes by to get a reservation for your next meal.
Settling in for a train ride means time for reading and playing games; writing and staring out the window as California's snow-covered Mount Shasta passes by on a bright summer morning. And it means being prepared for delays as the train slows to a stop or creeps along.
The week of our trip, no Coast Starlight train reached our destination station better than 82 minutes late and one day the train arrived more than four hours late, likely due to a refinery fire near the tracks in Martinez, Calif. (Most days the train made up about an hour of time en route to its Seattle terminus, coming in approximately 30 minutes late at its final destination.)
For once, we were thrilled to be almost two hours late: It meant getting to attend the second day's wine and cheese tasting, which we would have missed if the train had arrived on time.
When: Amtrak's Coast Starlight departs from Union Station in Los Angeles daily at 10:25 a.m. for its northbound trip and from Seattle heading southbound at 9:45 a.m. daily. The northbound train arrives in Seattle at 8:45 p.m. the next day; the southbound train arrives in Los Angeles at 9 p.m. the next day.
Where: The Coast Starlight makes about 30 station stops en route, including Portland in Oregon and Sacramento, Oakland and Santa Barbara in California.
How much: It all depends when you book and whether you buy a roomette, family room or just a seat. On my trip from Los Angeles to Salem, Ore., a roomette and tickets for two cost $440.
Amenities: A wine and cheese tasting is held both afternoons of the trip for travelers who booked passage in a sleeping car. Tastings occur in the Pacific Parlour Car, which supposedly offers Wi-Fi but it did not work when I tried it.
Details: Amtrak.com or 1-800-872-7245.
-- Rob Owentravel
First Published September 9, 2012 4:00 AM