Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Views from a Train

St. Paul’s historic Union Depot got a multi-million dollar makeover several years ago. It’s a beautiful old neoclassical building that has seen more than a hundred years of train travel. At one point, it controlled 9.24 miles of St. Paul track age and terminal facilities. Today it serves inter-city rail, inter-city bus and local bus services. The light rail has a stop outside the station’s head house.

Marlene and I

I’m told that when my sister and I were still in diapers my mother took us out to California by train for a promised job that never materialized. Marlene got sick and our mother brought us back to Minnesota. As legend has it, I was fascinated with train travel even back then as a toddler. So much for California train travel until now.

I’ve always had this fascination with ‘riding the rails.’ It’s one of many fantasy journeys like circumventing the globe on a tramp steamer that I never did fulfill. Sharon and I got our first taste of Amtrak travel several years ago when we took a trip from Annapolis, Maryland to Manhattan, New York. We’ve done that trip now several times. With a tip of my hat to Steve Goodman (‘The City of New Orleans’) the man got it right. There is something mystical, mysterious, and a bit romantic about rail travel.

San Diego’s Old Towne transit hub was the starting off point for our latest venture steel-bound. Old Towne is the second stop for the Amtrak Surf liner that travels from San Diego up the coast to Santa Barbara.

For someone like me still wedded to my car and bicycle, Old Towne Station presented a fascinating cornucopia of transportation modes. Commuter trains, regional rails, buses, cars, Uber, bicycles, skateboards, sore feet and of course, Amtrak, all converge on that web of tracks along with the less fortunate who gather there.

Hobo with coffee and cop in the background

Feeding the Pigeons


Grocery store; pay to pee and watching for slippery fingers all day

New age traveler; phone and suitcase on wheels

I quickly realized that the only way to travel by train is in Business Class with reserved seats. Call it an age thing but Coach Class seemed like steerage on the Titanic; a backwash of humanity and crowded quarters. It may be cheaper but it isn’t worth it.

While peering out the window I was like a kid in a candy story. Every scene that flashed by filled me with excitement. The highly concentrated coastline rolled by from La Jolla, through Ocean-side while skirting the back of towns in Carlsbad and Dana Point. Then the train swung east toward Santa Ana, Anaheim, and finally Los Angeles.

LA Canal

LA Downtown

By the time we got to Union Station our time schedule was way out of whack but none of us cared. L.A. was the halfway mark and from there we headed northeast. It was one city melding into another; all of them forming the industrial underbelly of the region.

Finally business and industry began to thin out and we were pushing east through rolling foothills and finally came upon vast agricultural fields of plenty. Fullerton, Van Nuys, Oxnard, and Chatsworth were all farming communities.

Racing an Olds 88 (we won)

Finally, the ocean

Then as pending fog began to creep ever closer to the shoreline we were back to the beach communities at Ventura and finally Santa Barbara. A sleeping transient greeted us at the depot.

Bum sleeping at the depot

Me standing by train

Santa Barbara train station

We only had one overnight in Santa Barbara and the now fog-bound city never revealed its beautiful beaches or blue ocean.

Santa Barbara in the fog

Rain, drizzle, fog and dirty train windows hid the foam-splashed beaches on the way back south. It was a marvelous trip never the less.

Traffic on the 5

Finally, because of rail reconstruction that weekend, we were transferred to a bus for the remainder of our trip back to the Old Towne transit hub. Traveling the ‘5’ down to San Diego reminded me how much I enjoyed the comfort and convenience of train travel.

We’re imagining another train trip in the near future. Traveling the length of the state sounds pretty interesting. It would mean hugging the coastline with its spectacular views and a wealth of story ideas thrown in at no extra cost. It would be retracing old jaunts through the Golden State from my younger years. Rail research that appeals to the kid wrapped inside this old fashioned traveler.