Great rail journeys: From Los Angeles to Seattle by Amtrak train

"The last of the great train stations."

When it opened in May 1939, no-one could foresee that Los Angeles' Union Station would soon receive this accolade. Train travel had helped knit the vast territory of the United States together, after all, and every major city wanted a rail terminal that proclaimed its significance and prosperity.

Even now that aircraft have taken most of the market for long-distance travel, LA's main station remains a magnificent piece of architecture. When it was built, the Spanish-inspired Mission Revival style was all the rage in California, and here it was blended with art deco to create a monument to travel.

Its lofty halls are topped with ceilings of timber beams, supporting giant circular chandeliers above floors of patterned tiles. Passengers wait for their departures in rows of comfortable cushioned armchairs, illuminated by natural light from tall windows. Outside, there are gardens in which to take a breath of fresh air.

It's impressive, a fitting curtain-raiser to the epic train journey I'm about to take: all the way north from Los Angeles to Seattle, with stopovers at San Francisco and Portland. The trip and accommodation has been organised by train travel specialist Railbookers Australia.

The Amtrak train that plies this route is the Coast Starlight, which offers a variety of accommodation from regular seats, to a suite that can accommodate four adults.

Sleeper passengers have access to Amtrak's Metropolitan Lounge at Union Station, a comfortable space with hot drinks, snacks and free Wi-Fi. Then we are led to the train by a staff member and it's all aboard for Seattle.

American train stations have low platforms, which makes the silver double-decker carriages loom high above us on the platform. Sleeper accommodation is on the upper deck, so it's here I find my compact Superliner Roomette (a great name for a '70s rock band, in my opinion) with its two armchairs that convert to beds.

Settling in, I get the feeling these carriages have been around for a while; they've been fully refurbished but the chunky lighting control panel next to my seat resembles that of a 1960s aircraft, or perhaps the Starship Enterprise. 

At 10.10am we slip out of LA through light industrial areas, then residential, where I peer into the backyards of neat, tiled bungalows. The San Fernando Valley landscape is looking parched from drought but we'll soon be tracking the Pacific coast and there'll be plenty of water to see over lunch.

Meals are included in the fare for sleeper passengers. The dining car is also accessible to those travelling upright in the train's nether regions. There's also a sleeper-only treat: the Parlour Car, a refurbished 1950s carriage with a bar and its own food menu. The third upstairs zone, open to all, is an observation car with high curving windows and seats facing the view.

As on a cruise, a large part of long-distance train travel's appeal is the socialising. I'm seated for lunch with three Americans: a solo traveller from San Diego who's visiting friends in Oakland, and two friends heading for a reunion in Portland.

We have a great time together over a pub-style lunch as the ocean passes by our window, beyond motor homes parked above the shoreline. It's not fancy food but it's tasty. My vegie burger is fashioned from black beans, something of a Californian specialty, and the strawberry cheesecake that follows is, well, very pink.

This is my first encounter with American travellers using the train for a practical journey from A to B rather than a holiday jaunt, but not the last. On long-distance rail trips in Australia and Canada, a large proportion of my fellow passengers have been foreign tourists. Here there are plenty of locals.

There's no smoking room on the Coast Starlight, so at each station stop there's a huddle of smokers getting a quick fix. I use the short break at Santa Barbara to stretch my legs instead, admiring the palm trees around the station and chatting to our sleeping car attendant Daysi as she waits by the door for stragglers.

Then it's goodbye to the coast as we swing inland to the hills and farms of northern California. From the observation car, I try to take photos through the curved glass without catching a reflection – one of the great challenges of train travel – then pass through to the Parlour Car as a wine tasting session is underway. It seems the right time and place for it, as we pass through prime wine country.  

It's here I meet another Australian traveller, who tells me he's with a group of rail enthusiasts who are visiting the four corners of the US by train, barely pausing long enough after each long journey to change to the next connecting service. 

Rather him than me, I think, though I sense the appeal of travelling ever onward on the rails. Long-distance trains seem both a part of the landscape and separate from it, like a long narrow town in motion, always removed from the troubles of the world.

As night falls we eat again, then at 9.30pm, more than 11 hours since we left LA, we reach Oakland. Passengers for San Francisco alight here and are bussed across the bay to San Francisco – and I go with them, waving goodbye to my San Diego friend as I board the waiting coach.

Four nights later, after sampling the city's famous eccentricity and steep hills, I reboard the Coast Starlight, one station on at Emeryville. The train has been delayed an hour or so by a car parked across the line past Oakland, we're told. Probably routine, though police are apparently involved in this mini-drama, playing out as we wait beneath the station's purple neon sign.

As it's late evening when we finally board, the bunks in my Superliner Roomette have been made up by car attendant Roger. He's also left a handy sheet detailing mealtimes and smoking breaks, and next morning directs me to the shower downstairs. I've set a 6am alarm for this, as it's always best to be the first in a shared bathroom while it's still immaculate.

Curiously, Amtrak's dining room staff are not as cheerful on the Oakland-Portland segment as were their counterparts on the LA-San Fran run. Maybe it's the earliness of the hour, as passengers trickle in for a 6.30am breakfast, but there's an air of bossiness as they direct us to seating and strain to understand my Aussie accent ("Cheddar. Cheddarrrrr!"). 

Not for the first time, I reflect on the relative brusqueness of US waiters when there's little chance of a tip, compared to those at a regular restaurant.

Still, there's plenty of impressive scenery as we cross the state border into Oregon. This is wooded countryside with stands of pine and spruce trees between lakes and rivers, and cosy small towns with timber buildings. Occasionally a snow-capped mountain will pop up beyond the treetops. I'm particularly taken with Mount Shasta, which reminds me of the Paramount Pictures logo.

Feeling uplifted by nature, I descend to the cafe in the train's lower level to buy a snack, and am stunned by the amount of waste produced in the process. Food is heated inside plastic bags, then placed on paper plates and garnished with condiments from plastic sachets. The debris then goes into the bin. Ah, America.

I spend the day shuttling between my cabin, the dining car, and the observation and Parlour cars. It's amazing how quickly the time passes, between chatting to staff and fellow passengers, and admiring the view.

In the late afternoon, about 90 minutes late, I alight at Portland's own Union Station, marked by a tower flying a US flag. 

After another four-night break, spent mostly exploring Portland's excellent craft beer, coffee and food scene, I step aboard my final train. Opting for an earlier departure to Seattle, I'm travelling business class aboard Amtrak's Cascades service.

This train links Portland to Seattle four times a day, with some services continuing across the Canadian border to Vancouver.

Travelling business class allows me to use the station's lounge, a spacious area with an vague air of Wild West saloon in its decor. On board the train, the business class car contains three seats across in a 1-2 setup. My single seat is surprisingly narrow, though there's plenty of legroom. One car away is a cafe-bar.

There's Wi-Fi available, but also impressive landscapes dominated by water, as we cross the broad Columbia River into Washington State.

Journey's end is Seattle's King Street Station. Built in 1906 and recently renovated, it's another monument to the golden age of the railways. 

Everywhere I look, there are gleaming marble panels, elegant chandeliers and signage composed of shiny brass letters. A mosaic floor near the exit marks the points of the compass.

Over the next few days, numerous Seattle residents tell me that the station was until recently an eyesore, its original fittings concealed by various "modernisation" attempts in the 20th century. 

Now, fully restored, it's back to its impressive original state. It may not be the last of the great train stations – predating LA's Union Station by a few decades – but it seems a suitably grand place at which to end my northward trek. 

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

amtrak.com

GETTING THERE

Qantas flies to LA and San Francisco, see qantas.com.au

STAYING THERE

Hotel Normandie, Los Angeles, hotelnormandiela.com. From $US180 per night.

Holiday Inn Express Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco, hiefishermanswharf.com. From $US180 per night.

Crowne Plaza Portland Downtown, Portland, cpportland.com. From $US190 per night.

Warwick Seattle, warwickhotels.com/seattle. From $US200 per night.

SEE + DO

Railbookers Australia can arrange train and accommodation packages in the US, see railbookers.com.au.

Tim Richards travelled by train courtesy of Railbookers (see railbookers.com.au).

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