While the seductive nature of train travel has taken on mythic proportions for writers and musicians, the romance of it, when it comes to the rest of us, has fallen on deaf ears — cars are cheaper, planes quicker. Trains aren’t practical anymore. The thought of playing Cary Grant to some stranger’s Eva Marie Saint isn’t enough of an incentive. It’s just too much time spent waiting when we could get there so much quicker. But for me, the idea of America’s endless miles, unknown towns, and maybe even catching a glimpse of a farmer’s daughter, quells those desires for convenience.
For the like-minded, there’s Amtrak, the nationalized passenger-train service that has been forced to compete with an instant-access world. Its newest rail line, the Pacific Surfliner, replaces the aging San Diegan, and covers the same San Diego–to–San Luis Obispo terrain. The Surfliner appeals to business travelers, who can access the Internet from their seats, and to families, who can avoid the torturous car ride. Among the many stops are the tourist destinations of Santa Barbara, Anaheim and Grover Beach (near Pismo Beach). With eight new trains, the Surfliner offers 11 daily roundtrips from L.A. to San Diego, four to and from Santa Barbara, and one to and from San Luis Obispo.
The route tends to get busy, with 465,000 passengers on the San Diegan last summer alone. This was confirmed on a recent trip to Santa Barbara, where the rail’s soothing hum was muted occasionally by screaming 12-year-olds and 10 a.m. bloody mary drinkers relishing the journey. However, by the time we reached Ventura, everyone had fallen silent and was gazing out at the sobering image of crashing waves beneath us. The train took an hour longer than would a car, but we arrived at Santa Barbara’s old mission-style station without the wrecked nerves the 101 typically inspires. The station is in the heart of downtown, on State Street, barely half a mile from the beach.
On the way back, we entered the Valley at night into an amazingly serene Van Nuys. From the Simi Valley Pass, the endless stream of lights gave the city some sense, some peace. The children slept, and the rest of us relaxed without anticipation as we crept toward our final destination.
For reservations, call 1-800-USA-RAIL; roundtrip tickets between L.A. and San Diego cost $44; L.A. and Santa Barbara, $32.