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The Coast Starlight

October 21, 2011

I chaired UIST 2011 this week. A fair bit of work, a fair bit of stress. Thankfully everything went pretty smoothly and many folks expressed that they’d had a great time. To reward myself I’d arranged to take Amtrak’s Coast Starlight back from Santa Barbara to San Jose rather than flying. While significantly slower (roughly 7.5 hours instead of 2), after a busy week I was looking forward to the more leisurely pace. Plus the Coast Starlight is reputed to pass through extremely pretty countryside.

After my ride yesterday, I have to say that it was hands down the best train ride I’ve ever been on (although the ride from Zurich to Montreux in Switzerland might be a close second). The ride was just so much more relaxed and civilized than plane travel these days. Instead of a long wait and hassle at airport security, people just sat around the train station and ambled onto the platform when the train arrived. The conductors assigned seats on the fly, and folks boarding were extremely polite as they found their seats and stowed their luggage.

And then we were off. After noisy (due to both the engines and the passengers) flights, the train ride (both the train and the passengers) were surprisingly quiet. I think everyone was absorbed in watching the scenery, reading books, or watching movies.

Shall we start with the scenery? For the first hour and a half or so out of Santa Barbara the train hugged the coast. There were beautiful views of both the ocean on the left and rolling hills and mountains on the right.

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Once we headed away from the coast, we got into golden grasslands and mountains.

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After San Luis Obispo and Pasa Robles, we headed into the Salinas Valley (the “salad bowl of America”), where farm after farm filled the valley. It was at the start of the valley that I discovered the Lounge car, which I really wish I had found earlier. Floor to ceiling windows on both sides, with seats facing the windows to make it even easier to enjoy the views. I spent the rest of the ride in that car until the sun set, at which point I headed back to my seat.

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And shall we talk about the seats? Leg room. Lots of it. And plugs for power right at your seat. Plenty of overhead luggage space. So much better than being crammed into a cramped airplane seat and having the person in front of you recline into your lap.

And the Lounge car also had a cafe on the lower level where you could buy snacks and drinks. And the Dining car served real food and took dinner reservations. And the price of this nearly 8 hour excursion through the picturesque California countryside? I paid $42 for my reserved coach seat, roughly 15% of what a plane ticket would have cost me. And the ride was much more leisurely and pleasant. It was downright civilized.

I realized that in our society we prize speed and efficiency. But after my train ride back from Santa Barbara I wonder whether those benefits are really worth what we give up in exchange. Sometimes I’m sure they are. But I personally am looking forward to another opportunity to ride the Coast Starlight.

From → Fun, Travel

  1. Jeff,

    A great post. Seems like we have something in common, namely, a love of trains. Mine extends beyond real trains to model trains as well, see


  2. Jeff permalink

    Some great shots Jim!

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