Ocean Rail: Riding the Pacific Surfliner in Southern California

The year 1915 was a big one for San Diego. To celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal, California's southernmost city threw a two-year-long party: the Panama-California Exposition.

To welcome visitors to this event, a new train station, the Santa Fe Depot, was built in the pseudo-Spanish Mission Revival style.

I'm at that station to catch Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner train, which runs north through Los Angeles and Santa Barbara before terminating at San Luis Obispo. 

There's a lazy sunlit vibe about the station interior, with passengers relaxing on curved timber benches and buying snacks from an old-fashioned kiosk. 

My wife Narrelle and I have business class reservations for the 9.25am service, but as seats are unreserved we've shown up early to nab seats upstairs on the left-hand side, for views of the Pacific.

Though it has plenty of legroom and width, my seat turns out to be less than comfortable due to its short base and overly reclined back. But the carriage interior is airy and light, with self-serve coffee and pastries at one end. 

After clearing San Diego's suburbs we pull into line with the coast, passing beachside towns such as Carlsbad with its mock-Tudor facades. Then, north of Oceanside, we pass a US Navy base with mysterious white spheres out the front. 

As we approach San Clemente the rails hug the coastline even closer; I'm literally looking down on people sunning themselves and preparing to surf.

It's too good to last. From San Juan Capistrano our route heads inland, and from here to Los Angeles it's nonstop urban sprawl.

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LA's Union Station is a magnificent palace of Mission Revival and art deco architecture. But we're heading on to Santa Barbara, so we merely pause here before sliding out of the City of Angels as we arrived, passing industrial sites and peering into residential backyards. 

As it's lunchtime, I head downstairs to the cafe and order a three-cheese sun-dried tomato panini, then take it back in my seat to accompany a complimentary business class treat: a small bottle of Californian cabernet sauvignon.

Beyond the built-up zone we strike a landscape of rocky hills that might have featured as an alien planet in an old Star Trek episode, then flit in and out of long tunnels.

At Ventura we rejoin the Pacific coast, with its picturesque parade of beaches and parked motorhomes. Then we're in Santa Barbara. After five hours and 40 minutes on board, it's time to break the journey.

Our hotel is walking distance from the train station, and on the way we spot The Brewhouse, a pleasant-looking pub which serves its own craft beer. This instantly becomes our local.

Two days later, after exploring the city's attractive mock-Spanish architecture, we're ready to board the 10.22am Pacific Surfliner for the two hour and 40 minute run to San Luis Obispo.

The train arrives punctually, but this time is composed of single-level carriages with brown vinyl seats.

The conductor, Jake, explains these are Horizon cars, most commonly found in the Midwestern states. As the Pacific Surfliner service has become increasingly popular in recent years, they've had to bring in these to cope.

We pass through Goleta then rejoin the coast south of Los Padres National Forest. The shoreline becomes craggier as we go, the rails running above cliffs with a sheer drop to the ocean. 

As we round a promontory, a great cloud of mist hovers above the water. There's a strange sense of being somewhere in Europe – Scotland, perhaps, or Ireland. Aside from a few grazing cattle, there are no living creatures to be seen.

Unexpectedly, we pull into a station. This is Lompoc-Surf, where people can alight to go surfing. It's on the edge of Vandenberg Air Force Base, says one of the train crew, which explains the quiet territory around it.

It takes quite a while to traverse the military base, then suddenly we're out the other side and passing through the small farming community of Casmalia.

Our last glimpse of the Pacific is at Grover Beach, a town packed with motorhomes. Then we turn inland for the final stretch to San Luis Obispo. 

SLO turns out to be a friendly, relaxed college town. As it's a Thursday, in the evening we join the weekly Farmers' Market which takes over the main street and turns into an impromptu street party. 

At the top end of Southern California, it seems the perfect place to leave the line.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

amtrak.com

GETTING THERE

Qantas and partners connect to San Diego via Los Angeles. See qantas.com.au

Amtrak fares for the entire Pacific Surfliner route start at $US61 for coach class, $US82 for business class.

STAYING THERE

The Sofia Hotel, 150 West Broadway, San Diego. Rooms from $US169 per night. See thesofiahotel.com

Avania Inn, 128 Castillo St, Santa Barbara. Rooms from $US135 per night. See avaniainnsantabarbara.com

Holiday Inn Express, 1800 Monterey St, San Luis Obispo. Rooms from $US125 per night. See hiexpress.com

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Visit California

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