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California by Train

Last month, I wanted to travel around a bit and write Green Stars reviews of restaurants, cafés, stores, etc. In the end I decided to travel by Amtrak (the semi-private US rail system) after discovering that their California Rail Pass is a pretty good deal. So, I’m going to describe how the rail pass works (since nobody that I know has ever heard of it!) and in the next post I’ll highlight a few places that I reviewed on my travels.

What’s the greenest way to travel?

If you’d like to find out more about the carbon footprint of various modes of transport, here’s a useful guide. (Spoiler: coach/bus is the greenest way to travel, followed by train, in most scenarios.) According to the guide, Amtrak usage has shrunk from a high of 1.3 billion passengers annually in the 1920s to 26 million in 2007. Only 1% of intercity passengers travel by Amtrak while air travel now accounts for 40%. I have to admit that I’ve considered the cost of Amtrak travel to be a bit prohibitive, but the CA Rail Pass is an exception, if you use it wisely 😉 I think it’s a nice way to see California, especially for a change of pace from often-exhausting travel by air or road. 

California Rail Pass – Logistics

The CA Rail Pass costs $159 (per person) and covers 7 days of travel within a 21-day period. The picture above shows available routes. You can also get a rail pass for the entire US, which works a little differently (it goes by journey legs rather than days).

Within each 24-hour period, you can take as many trips as you like, but once you go past midnight you’re into a second day (so if you board a train at 10 p.m. and arrive the next morning, you’ll have used 2 days of your pass).

You need to have a ticket (besides your rail pass) to board each train. You can call Amtrak to book tickets and then pick them up at whatever station you nominate, or just show up at a station and book them on the spot.

You don’t have to book all of your travel at once. I booked only one or two travel days at a time, making four separate trips (12 individual legs) over three weeks, two of which were day trips.

You generally don’t need to plan far in advance. I bought tickets on the spot for most of my trips and, even though it was peak-season, there was only one time where I had to change plans slightly (on the Coast Starlight, the busiest route).

Not all of the Amtrak employees know how the rail pass works. Twice, a station agent didn’t know how to book my tickets when I handed them my rail pass. Be patient and politely suggest that their colleague may know how to do it. Worst case scenario, call Amtrak (1-800-USA-RAIL) and book tickets by phone and then the agent can print them right away.

You can’t travel the same stretch of track more than four times. So, you can’t make more than four one-way journeys between any two neighboring stations. I presume this rule is to prevent people from using the pass for their commute.

The pass also covers Amtrak coaches. Coaches can get you to a lot of destinations not covered by rail, such as Yosemite, Napa, Tahoe, Santa Cruz, etc. A few coach destinations in Nevada are also covered: Las Vegas, Carson City, and Reno.

California Rail Pass – Experience

Seats are large and comfortable. There’s a lot more leg room than economy class on a plane and seats also recline back a long way, making it feasible to sleep. Bring a blanket or wrap up warm for overnight trips – the air conditioning keeps the trains fairly cool. Seats also have electrical outlets. Some commuter trains,  such as the Capital Corridor and Pacific Surfliner, have basic WiFi. More on WiFi availability here.

On commuter trains you can sit anywhere. On the longer routes like the Coast Starlight you need to meet the conductor at the door of the train, and a seat will be assigned to you.



Most commuter trains are punctual but delays are common on the cross-country routes. Since the Coast Starlight takes 36 hours to get from Seattle to LA, it’s not unusual for the train to accumulate a 1-hour delay. It was about 90 minutes late when I picked it up in Sacramento and then it sat at the platform for 30 minutes while the conductor attempted to seat 50 sleepy new passengers (it was after 1 a.m.). This was the most bizarre aspect of Amtrak for me. You can track trains online but don’t completely rely on it – the trains can make up time between stations.

The observation car (a.k.a., Sightseer Lounge) on the Coast Starlight and other cross-country routes is a great feature. You can get away from your regular seat for a change of scenery, have a beer or glass of wine and gaze out through the floor-to-ceiling windows. On some sections (e.g., from the Bay Area to Santa Barbara) there are National Park guides in this car providing a commentary to go with your view. You learn a lot about California agriculture, history, geology, and wildlife.

All trains have a café car with its own seating where you can get pizza, burgers (including vegan), beer, wine, etc. The longer routes like the Coast Starlight also have a formal dining car, which is a bit pricier and requires a reservation (which you make on the train).

If you’re going to the Bay Area you can pick up tickets for the local metro system (BART) at reduced cost in the café car ($10 tickets for $8, and you can buy as many as you like).

Here are ethical guides to a few places I visited on the rail pass:

Santa Barbara and Dunsmuir, California

Davis, California

I’ll leave you with this video to get you in the mood. Cheerio!

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