Traveling by train is hands down my favorite.
End of story.
Maybe it’s because I grew up in rural America and public transportation was never an option. It was so not an option that when I was out walking/running, people would stop to offer me a ride, because traveling by any method other than by car was not completely understood.
My first experience with public transportation is when my grandma took me and my mother to England and Scotland when I was 10. Most of our travel was on public transit — bus, subway and train. Even then, I remember loving it, even when my grandmother and I got on a bus and my mother did not. We managed to all find each other and have an enjoyable trip even without the advent of cell phones.
Now, whenever I travel away from home, I take public transit as much as I can. It’s not so easy to do where I live, rural-ish California. We have a public transit system, but it doesn’t run as often as it does in urban areas. Because I’m not used to there being any public transportation options, I overlooked Amtrak running right through the city in which I live.
Taking the train in the United States is slower and more expensive than driving (in some cases), but my preferred way of travel. When I can, I opt to take the train. Taking the train, I’ve come to realize, is something that many people aren’t familiar with in the U.S. I’ve been giving advice, often lately, about riding the train, so I’m compiling all of my tips and information in one place to help others take the train and have a good experience.
How to find out where the train provides service, start with amtrak.com. I live on the West Coast and we only have Amtrak running long distances. The East Coast has Amtrak and other train services (we took a train that wasn’t Amtrak between New York City and Baltimore). From Baltimore, we took Amtrak into Washington, D.C.
Where I live, I’m 20 minutes north of San Luis Obispo, which is the originator of the Pacific Surfliner which runs all the way to San Diego. Ten minutes north is Paso Robles, which is also a stop for the Coast Starlight, which runs between Seattle and Los Angeles. There is one Coast Starlight train running in each direction each day.
For those that live in north San Luis Obispo County, I recommend starting in San Luis Obispo when traveling south because there are more options. I don’t use the train when traveling north because of the limited options. The train is scheduled to depart Paso Robles every day at 4:37 p.m., that’s not always the case. I’ve taken friends to the station to go north a couple of times, and both times the train was quite late. Now, even when it’s reported that the train is running late, you should still show up in advance of the scheduled time of departure because sometimes the train is able to make up time and show up on time. It’s frustrating to not know, but there are a couple of wineries at the train station: Anglim and D’Anbino. Both have fantastic wines and you can see the train tracks from the bar, so you won’t miss the train. The last time we went, we paid for our tasting early on so we could run out the door when her train arrived. We had plenty of time to get out the door and to the train.
I’ve looked at taking the train up to San Francisco for a weekend, but we wouldn’t get there until later in the evening and would have to catch a bus to Oakland in the early hours on Sunday, so not leaving a lot of time to explore the city. I would rather drive. Maybe I’ll change my mind at some point. We’ve taken the train from Oakland to Paso Robles at the end of a three-week vacation. We got the Amtrak bus near the top of the penisula of San Francisco at 7 a.m. and then got on the train in Oakland around 9 a.m. (the train was late coming from Seattle) and got to Paso Robles about 2 p.m.
Going south, we take the 6:55 a.m. train from San Luis Obispo, which originates there, so it’s always on time, so be on time or you will miss the train. One time, when we took the train to Union Station in Los Angeles so we could fly to Kansas from LAX, we almost missed the train. I was running with our luggage and my 5-year-old trailing behind, worried we’d be left behind, when the engineer leaned out the window and said “I won’t leave you.” That took a huge weight off my shoulders and we jumped through the first open door and were on our way.
Day trip from SLO
San Luis Obispo to Santa Barbara
We took the 6:55 a.m. train from SLO, arrived to Santa Barbara about 9:30 a.m. From the train station, it’s not a far walk to the Santa Barbara Zoo, State Street or the beach. The cost is $42 one-way or $84 roundtrip.
Heading home, there are several options, get back on the train at 11:44 a.m. and arrive in SLO at 2:30 p.m., 12:40 p.m. on the Coast Starlight and arriving at 3:22 p.m.; or 5:44 p.m. and arrive at 8:36 p.m. Taking the train round trip for one adult is $84 and $42 for children 2 to 12 and free for children younger than 2. There are other options that involve taking an Amtrak bus from the Santa Barbara train station to the San Luis Obispo train station. I’ve done that a few times. Though not my favorite, it’s not bad and gives you more options for getting back if the train doesn’t work.
Paso Robles to San Luis Obispo or visa versa
The train journey between Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo is gorgeous, even if it doesn’t go by the ocean on that leg. It’s fun to see where we live from a different perspective. Several years ago, my daughter and I got to go on a wine-train excursion with the Central Coast Railroad Museum as a member of the media. The one we went on was a Sunday afternoon excursion. We started at the Paso Robles Amtrak Station, wine tasted at Anglim Winery, then boarded a small shuttle bus and went to Pomar Junction Winery for more wine tasting and lunch. From there, the bus took us to the San Luis Obispo Amtrak Station, where we boarded the Coast Starlight for an hour-and-a-half train ride to Paso Robles.
The nonprofit offers the wine-train excursions on Friday nights once a month. The participants board the 3:35 p.m. Coast Starlight to Paso Robles and then are taken by shuttle to Pomar Junction Winery for the winery’s Train Wreck concerts. All passengers are then transported back to the SLO Train Station by shuttle. The cost is $85 per person, a 10 percent discount given to Central Coast Museum members.
There are two trains running between Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo each day, one south and one north. The southbound train stops in Paso Robles at 1:38 p.m. and arrives to San Luis Obispo at 3:07 p.m. The northbound train departs SLO at 3:35 p.m. and arriving to Paso Robles at 4:37 p.m.*
The cost is $24 per one-way trip between Paso Robles and SLO, $12 for children between 2 and 12.
I am planning a trip between the two cities with my daughter. While I was planning to take the train from Paso Robles to SLO and then take the train back, there is less than 30 minutes scheduled between the arrival and departure, so not a lot of time to do anything in SLO. Instead, I am planning to park my car at the Paso Robles Train Station, take the RTA bus, route 9, to downtown SLO. According to Google Maps, it’s a 13-minute walk (about a half mile) from the bus stop to the train station. The bus departs from the bus station 10 minutes after the hour and arrives to SLO one hour and 13 minutes later.
* Note that all the times listed in this post are scheduled times and the actual time of departure and arrival could be different.