Once again, yours truly just went riding the rails around California. The occasion was Amtrak's March 13 detour of the southbound Coast Starlight train due to planned trackwork at San Jose.
At Oakland, all passengers bound for points south (other than the final destination of Los Angeles) disembarked and took the bus (too bad for them). Then we rabid railfans hopped onboard to join the LA-bound people, making for a small but lively nonstop "express." (Experienced riders will appreciate the ironic quotation marks; Amtrak is known to operate at an average speed well under 55 miles per hour.)
So the doubledecker train creaked out of the East Bay, leaving the main line and snaking up scenic Niles Canyon to Sunol, then on to Pleasanton, Livermore, over green Altamont Pass (dotted with cows and windmills), and into the smoggy Central Valley.
We traveled the old Southern Pacific route alongside Golden State Highway (99) via Modesto, Merced, Fresno, and Bakersfield. Fruit and nut orchards stocked with beehives were in pink-and-white bloom. The human landscape was a messy mix of truck stops, motels, gas stations, taco wagons, and junkyards.
The real visual treats began as we climbed up the grade and around the Caliente horseshoe bend to the Tehachapi loop, where the tracks wind corkscrew 360 degrees. On a long freight train, the engineer can look down and see the tail end of his train disappearing into a tunnel that he is passing above.
Photographers affectionately known in the railbuff community as "foamers" appeared at various spots along this line, taking pictures of our train negotiating these dramatic curves through the mountains.
As the sunlight faded, we rolled past Mojave, with its high-desert boneyard airport full of parked jetliners, and passed Palmdale and Lancaster on our way into Soledad Canyon, and finally across the San Fernando Valley toward our final destination, grand old Union Station in Los Angeles.
Our "train crew" stayed overnight at nearby Metro Plaza Hotel (next to Olvera Street), and in the morning returned to Union Station for the ride home on the beautiful coast route. Along the way, we saw miles and miles of fields planted with broccoli and strawberries. A huge, orange sunset greeted us as we passed Elkhorn Slough and Moss Landing. Arriving in the Bay Area, we left the train and gladly breathed the clean, cool air.
If you are interested in Amtrak detours or regular runs or private trains, register at amtrak.com and explore sites like trainorders.com and publications like Trains magazine. If you have rail news of interest, please click Comments (below) to share it with our readers.