San Clemente Pier.
San Clemente Pier.

After several attempts, I’m off to Santa Fe, NM, to visit my friend, the author Janet Lowe. Wanting to get some rest, avoid airports and try something different, I opted for the overnight trip on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief.

Leaving San Diego on the Pacific Surfliner, its a bit more than two traffic-free hours to the classic Los Angeles Union Station. After less than an hour’s layover, I’m in my roomette for the overnight to Lamy, NM on the Southwest Chief.

Funny thing about Amtrak, or rather what most folks think about it. We hear of the delays, derailments and downsides, its budget problems and complaints about public subsidies. Of course, freeways and airports — and now US auto makers — are far bigger pigs at the public trough than the trains. When I was talking about taking this trip, friends and acquaintances generally would snort about Amtrak being a waste of money, or say “what a neat idea” and then sort about it being a waste of money.

Plain fact is that transportation systems have always been supported by some sort of tax money, whether it was the land grants from the feds that got the railroads built, the airports constructed with either military or federal dollars, or the state and federal bucks that built — and are now trying to patch potholes from coast to coast on — the interstate highway system. Get over it.

Santa Fe depot in San Diego.
Santa Fe depot in San Diego.

For their landgrants, the railroads built everything, including stations. The trip starts off at our beautiful Santa Fe Depot, near the bay in downtown San Diego.

My mid-day train on the Pacific Surfliner is about half-full, with folks embarking and debarking along the route. A few years ago, Amtrak renamed and upgraded the equipment, and along the years since the ’71 takeover from Santa Fe has changed the name from the San Diegan to Pacific Surfliner. It now goes as far as San Luis Obispo once a day but the other trips end at Santa Barbara. A cafe car has snacks but it’s best to bring your own ($2.50 for a bottle of water).

The tracks still hug the coast to past San Clemente and the afternoon sunset can be spectacular. Through the heavily tinted windows, the San Clemente pier (the train stops there) is a beautiful, California vista.

Inside, the cars are similar to other commuter lines that Amtrak offers around the country. This route is the busiest outside of the Northeast corridor… a big traffic drop, but still the easiest way to get from downtown-to-downtown, Los Angeles to San Diego.

It seems that the trip through the LA passenger yards takes the longest of the trip, but it was good to see some investment on the part of Amtrak. Newish looking shops, wash facilities and activity in the old roundhouse. It’s a hub for the rail system, with three long-distance trains a day either starting or ending here. We pass the Mission Tower and go up the incline to what’s been called the “Last of the Great Stations,” the last huge passenger train station built before WWII and the decline of passenger traffic that came after.

The hour’s layover gave me just enough time to wander the halls of the station, which was fairly busy for a Saturday evening. Now as hub for LA’s subway, local and regional transit systems, there was a decent crowd at the Traxx restaurant and about three-fourths of the waiting room seats were filled. A couple, just married probably minutes earlier, were having their wedding photos taken by one of the fountains in the plaza. I thought they were models. I don’t know much about wedding gowns, but this one looked spectacular, as did the bride. Can’t tell you much about the groom. As I was wandering around the front of the building a few minutes later, their limo went by with the new Mr. and Mrs. screaming out of the back window. Happy life to them.

The call went out at 6:25 for the Southwest Chief, Track 11, and off I went for the overnight to Santa Fe. More to come.