Take the A Train

Santa Barbara to Florida

Rex's USA Diary

Los Angeles

I was disappointed that while I was on the west coast I had not even set eyes on the Coast Starlight. Instead I was being quite capably transported into the dusk aboard the less-magically named #796.

One aspect of my travels which I had been looking forward to was experiencing my journey aboard AMTRAK's named trains - many names which had been inherited from the early days of rail in America. The Coast Starlight had gained its name in 1971 when AMTRAK was formed. They had merged two of Southern Pacific's prior trains and their names - the Coast Daylight and the Starlight. The Coast Daylight was originally named the Daylight Limited which had run on this line since 1937, headed by a steam locomotive sporting an orange and black livery.

Daylight Limited

Los Angeles

The run south from Santa Barbara was in the dark. Consequently, I didn't see any nude bathing going on at Summerland Beach or paragliding at Bates Beach. I did see the lights from the oil platforms out at sea again though. We stopped briefly at Simi Valley, the location of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, plus a few other stops before we breezed into Union Station Los Angeles about 10 minutes ahead of schedule.

I had visited LA on other occasions, so this was just a transit point for me and, with time on my hands, I wandered out to the front of the station and took a snapshot of this fine old Spanish hacienda-style building.

Union Station, Los Angeles

Eastward Bound

It was still New Year's eve 2003 when my next train, the Sunset Limited, quietly pulled out of Union Station at 1030 PM on a warm and balmy Wednesday evening. I relaxed back in my seat knowing I would have time to read (listen to) a few books before the train pulled into Orlando Florida, three days later.

Sunset Limited

I know you will be interested in this train's pre-history! Good choice, for the Sunset Limited is the oldest, continuously operating named train in the United States, introduced in 1894 by the Southern Pacific Railroad. It had run as an all-Pullman train featuring the classic dark olive green painted sleeping cars with black roofs and trucks. The Sunset route was established 20 years before the Panama Canal had opened, so vastly shortened the time to reach the west coast from the Atlantic Ocean and Carribean Sea. You will understand why this was Southern Pacific's premiere train and route.

At the time of my 2003-2004 journey there was obviously no hint that in August 2005 Hurricane Katrina would hit the US southern coastline and devastate much of it. Following that disaster and the destruction of rail lines east of New Orleans, the 'Sunset' has operated over a shorter route between Los Angeles and New Orleans, see map.

Sunset Limited Route

The early part of my train ride was in the dark, but the line took us east out through a gap between the San Bernadino and San Rosa mountains via Palm Springs. I was fascinated to later understand we had passed by the Salton Sea with its altitude of -72 meters. Hmm, had I slept through a train ride below sea level?

Salton Sea

Other thoughts that come to mind on that journey were seeing our train travel through rice farms, and understanding the farms also bred shrimp in the same water; and peering over a shaky looking wire fence at a spread of little homes in the desert, then understanding I was looking across the border into Mexico.

Mexican Border

And so, after a long period of sitting, sleeping and listening to books we eventually pulled into the Orlando railway station on Wednesday 3 Jan. On Monday 5 Jan I took the Silver Star to Miami.

Silver Star
Silver Star

My original goal had been to get down to Key West, but I didn't have much luck with buses on that route. Eventually I just did a lot of walking around Miami. I hadn't grasped that Miami was the retirement capitol of New Yorkers and that they had brought their skyline with them.

Miami Skyline