Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Train! The Train!

I have an arm injury that makes driving uncomfortable (Also typing, thus my photo-heavy posts as of late). So, when I needed to go to the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books recently, I took the new Exposition Line from my friend's house to get there.

What a revelation! Instead of fighting traffic and searching for expensive parking, I rode in a shiny new light rail that dropped me off at the USC campus for $1.50. It was a wonderful way to experience Los Angeles. I lived in LA for over 25 years, and I keep thinking about what a huge difference having an actual transit system like this would make for the city. Suddenly it feels more accessible. More tied-together.

To get back to San Francisco, I took Amtrak's Coast Starlight train.

Amtrak gets a bad rap, which I feel is not entirely fair. Okay, not fair at all. The problem with Amtrak is that as a country, we do not fund it adequately. We subsidize driving in all kinds of ways, but the idea of a national rail system sends some people into screaming fits about socialism. I've ridden a lot of trains in other countries, and it's absurd to me that the US doesn't take more pride into supporting and expanding rail. There's no better way to get from city to city, and no better way to actually see a country than to ride its trains.

The Coast Starlight is a spectacular ride. Once you head north out of Los Angeles, the route hugs the coast, at times so close to the ocean that it feels like you can dangle your feet in the waves:

The route roughly parallels the 101, so after a time you head inland, through the Middle Kingdom around Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo:

Past San Luis Obispo, you experience some of California's agricultural and industrial heartland:

You get to experience all this sitting in comfortable coach seats (way more room than the cattle car ambiance of most air trips these days) or hanging out in the observation car, where strangers will ask you if you want to share their bottle of wine, or in the dining car, where you get to eat decent meals with real silverware. If you're lucky enough to travel first class, you have your own compartment (I'm doing this, I swear).

You ride the train, you can read a book. Take a nap. Stroll to the observation car. Visit the snack car, where the Amtrak worker announces over the PA that "there's pizza and beer, come on down!"
If you choose to eat in the dining car, you share a table with other travelers. This can be a mixed experience. But it's never boring.

During lunch, one of my table mates said something that I found pretty profound:

"Other forms of travel take time. This gives you time."

She was so right.