Train buff rides again


I’m a train buff, a fan, an enthusiast. I love seeing them go by and I love riding on them.

Growing up on Blaine Avenue just four blocks from where the old Burlington crossed over the old Santa Fe, I saw some of the finest passenger trains in the world. I used to hang out near (and yes, even on) the Lincoln Street overpass where the Zephyrs and Chiefs crossed paths. I adored the scoop-nosed Pioneer Zephyr and longed to ride the Super Chief into the sunset toward California.

I still have timetables from the 60s when the last of the varnish rolled through Galesburg before Amtrak. The Burlington ran the Ak-Sar-Ben, Nebraska, Denver, California and American Royal Zephyrs as well as a Quincy local. The Santa Fe ran the Chief, the Super Chief, the El Capitan, the San Francisco Chief, the Grand Canyon, the Texas Chief, the Kansas Cityan/Chicagoan, and the Kansas City Chief.

Eventually, I would ride on many of these – even fulfilling my dream to ride the Super Chief to California.

I’ve had many adventures on trains – like arriving in Sacramento over 24 hours late on the California Zephyr because the Burlington service crew at Galesburg forgot to put water in the steam heater tank and we froze up in Omaha, got sidetracked New Year’s Eve in Wyoming, and got caught in a traffic jam at Winnemucca and had to go through the Feather River Canyon on the Western Pacific because of a train wreck on the main line of the Union Pacific. On that trip I made up a story to tell my children that my daughter and I later turned into a screenplay that was purchased by Walt Disney Pictures (though never made into a movie) and helped pay her way through UCLA.

So I keep riding trains. Last fall, it was the Chunnel Train under the English Channel from London to Paris, another EuRail from Paris to Munich for Oktoberfest, and finally the Franz Liszt Express from Budapest to Vienna.

Two weeks ago, I added a new train to my collection –the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner. This is what used to be called the San Diegan because its principal traffic came between Los Angeles and San Diego. Actually it also runs north to Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo– which is why I came to ride it.

My son David and his wife Robin presented me with a grandson, Kaden Dillon Monson, on April 8th in Ojai, Calif. Ojai is just half an hour up into the mountains from Ventura and an Amtrak stop, so I rode Train 775 – the Central Coast Pacific Surfliner – from there to my local station at Grover Beach.

The Sunday train was right on time and nearly empty because of a powerful winter storm which had roared across California on Friday and Saturday and discouraged travel along the coast. The ride was comparable to EuRail and the train even had the same kind of snack bar as EuRail. Most of the cars were two levels – and a good thing, too – because the views of cliffs and surf were spectacular. Amtrak uses the Southern Pacific Coast line, and it literally rides the edge of the continent. From Ventura to Guadalupe, it is never more than a quarter mile from the ocean. Much of the time, we ran right on the edge of high cliffs which drop precipitously into the surf below.

Because the early EsPee builders would not challenge the towering Santa Ynez Range, the line makes an end run around the mountains. This means you ride right through Vandenburg Air Force Base – home of our west coast rocket program – and can view large orbital rockets like the Titan on their huge gantries and towers. In a setting sun, the sight is breath-taking.

However, this location leads to one of the most lonely, windswept and forlorn Amtrak stops in America – Surf station. It’s really only a trackside shelter and parking lot stuck in the middle of sand dunes – but it serves Vandenburg, Lompoc, Buellton and Solvang, so a lot of people get on or off there.

Santa Barbara station is its direct opposite – a lovely mission-style building surrounded by green lawns and flower beds at the train’s principal stop north of L.A.

Despite "going in the hole" (taking a siding) for the deluxe Coast Starlight just south of Surf, we still arrived at Grover Beach right on time. This station serves the Five Cities area which is my home, and my humble double-wide is just a 15-minute walk away. In fact, the train goes past the rear of our mobile home park on its way to its last stop – San Luis Obispo – against the base of the San Lucia Range. (The early morning southbound is my alarm clock!)

My total elapsed train time was three hours and six minutes, which is roughly forty minutes longer than it would take to drive – and with none of the hassle.

One last note of interest: they don’t turn the train around. It runs south with the engine in front but north with the engine in the back and the driver in a little control cabin in the last car as the locomotive runs in reverse. Weird-looking but effective.

And the icing on the cake – the cost one-way (for a senior citizen like me) was $17, round-trip $34! Methinks I’ll ride the Surfliner again this summer to see little Kaden.