All Aboard the Coast Starlight

“There isn’t a train I wouldn’t take, no matter where it’s going.” Edna St. Vincent Millay, 1921

In 1971, when Amtrak was created as a national passenger network, the Coast Daylight was one of the few Southern Pacific routes that was retained in the new era of American rail.

The Coast Starlight really earns its name, just as the Coast Daylight did, between the stops of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo. The route runs on the coastal line between Los Angeles and San Jose giving passengers outstanding view of the Pacific Ocean. It’s only fitting that the cover of the ninth edition of USA by Rail by John Pitt features an aerial photograph of Coast Starlight, Number 14, snaking along the coast between Santa Barbara and SLO.

A stylized sketch of the “Queen of Steam” on the Coast Line, a GS-4. This locomotive and tender weighted in at 358 tons and was capable of speeds of 110 mph. 28 of these beautiful locomotives were produced, coming into service April 1941 and the last GS-4 was retired in October 1958.

The Coast Starlight provides service between Los Angeles and Seattle, a distance of 1,377 miles. It takes the train 34 hours and 50 minutes to complete the journey. While the General Electric P42DC locomotives are capable of speeds of 100 miles an hour, the average speed of the Coast Starlight is 40 mph.

The Coast Starlight, train number 14, pulls into Santa Barbara Station. The train was on time and I boarded here for my trip to the next stop: San Luis Obispo.

The coach passengers lined up and the conductor scanned our tickets. The car attendant assigned us a seat. I climbed aboard and found my seat on the second story on the Eastside of the train. In other words: the side without ocean views. I was not going to spend much time in my assigned seat because I headed over to the lounge car, got a beverage, and found a seat in the observation car. This car is lined with large picture windows and skylights that gives the rider outstanding views.

I started a sketch in my smaller Stillman & Birn Delta Series spiral sketch book. When you are on the top story of the train, things can get a little bit shaky so fine details and crosshatching were out. Instead I opted for a Micron Pigma sepia brush pen. Using this sketching tool helped me to keep things loose and expressive.

A quintessential Southern California view with the Pacific Ocean and palm trees. I was now sketching in one of the most scenic stretches of the Coast Starlight. A portrait of the coast and a self portrait of the sketcher.

Part of the joy of train travel is the people you meet on your journey, albeit a very short journey, I met a travel writer and fellow birder in the observation car. We birded the beautiful coastal afternoon (harriers, red-tails, and turkey vultures) and talked about our travels and writing and sketching. You certainly would never have this experience driving the coastal route in a car.

The Starlight pulled into San Luis Obispo Station on time where the train stopped for about 15 minutes while passengers unloaded and loaded and the station agent divested the cars of trash and helped to load luggage.

A retort from the engine signaled that the Coast Starlight was leaving. The platform was now emptied of passengers stretching their legs or having a smoke and all the doors were closed. The train slowly pulled out of the station toward the toughest climb on the Coast Line, crossing Stenner Creek on the trestle, curving around to the right on the Horseshoe Curve toward the summit of Cuesta Grade and eventually, to Seattle, Washington.


Santa Barbara Station

The Surfliner was an hour late and I would have even less time to spend with Santa Barbara’s beautiful station. I had to catch the number 14, Coast Starlight back to SLO at 12:40 PM. So I figured I had time for a quick 45 minute sketch and an even shorter lunch but I couldn’t wander too far from the station. Revisiting the “Queen of the Missions” was out of the question.

I walked around the station, “shaking hands”with the place. The Santa Barbara passenger station was completed in 1905 and designed in a Spanish Mission Revival style, very much reminiscent of Burlingame Station. This building has all the hallmarks of Mission Revival: arches, a star window (in imitation of Mission Carmel), and adobe tiled roof.

The woman’s waiting room at Santa Barbara Station. Above the fireplace is a base relief representation of Father Serra, founder of the Alta California Missions. He is spreading his arms wide, waiting to hug any neophytes that happen to be in the Station’s waiting room.

Santa Barbara Station was one of seven stations that the Coast Daylight served. The route parallels El Camino Real, the Royal Road, that connected 21 of the Spanish Missions along Alta California’s Coast.

GS-5 Number 4458, pulls into Santa Barbara Station at an unspecified date. The loco pulls train No. 99, a northbound Daylight to San Francisco. There were only two GS-5 locomotives built. Numbers 4458 and 4459. (Union Pacific Museum Collection: SP photo)
Golden State-4 number 4443 taking on water at Santa Barbara in January 1948. The train stopped in Santa Barbara for only four minutes before heading south towards Los Angeles. (Alan Miller Collection: Frank Peterson photo)

The train station served the ever growing resort town on the Pacific Ocean that catered towards the high-end.

A sign of the wealth and affluence of this area is the Pullman car that is on static display near the train station. Pullman passenger cars where a huge improvement in comfort and safety from the rickety, wooden cars that were uncomfortable and sometimes downright dangerous. They were the height of luxury at the time, for the well-off passengers who could afford to ride on one.

But the Pullman car at Santa Barbara is something very different. In the later part of the 20th century, Pullman produced passenger cars for the extremely wealthy, that could cost up to half a million dollars, which was twenty times the cost of a standard Pullman passenger coach. These cars were considered “mansions on wheels”. They where coupled to the end of a passenger train and at Santa Barbara there were siding tracks where these luxurious cars would over-winter as their owners stayed in nearby posh hotels.

After my sketch I walked down State Street toward the Pacific Ocean and I was passed by a twenty-something driving by in a brand new Rolls Royce, a modern Santa Barbarian mansion on wheels.

Some things like the station and mission remind us of a very different time while others show us that things remain very much the same.


All Aboard the Pacific Coastliner

There is no better way to experience the California Coast than by train. You don’t have to worry about keeping your eyes on the road, the engineer has that covered.

I planned a short train excursion from San Luis Obispo to Santa Barbara. I would head south on the Pacific Surfliner, an AMTRAK rail service from SLO to San Diego. I would then return on the Coast Starlight, one of the few routes that AMTRAK took on from the Coast Daylight. This train (Number 14) starts in Los Angeles and ends in Seattle, running on much of the route used by Southern Pacific’s most famous passenger line, between Los Angeles and San Jose anyway.

I would have a little over three hours to sketch Santa Barbara’s Mission Revival Station and have lunch before heading back to the station to catch the 12:40 Coast Starlight.

The Coast Surfliner pulling into San Luis Obispo Station for its 6:55 AM departure. SLO is the northern most stop on the Surfliner.

I boarded train number 774 and we left at 6:55 on the dot. Once the houses and streets where left behind us soon to be replaced with oak covered Californian rolling hills and plowed farmland.

Once we passed through Guadalupe, the line curved to the east and the Pacific Ocean appeared for the first time. We skirted the edge of Vandenburg Air Force Base and our next stop was the appropriately named Surf. Surf is a former Southern Pacific railroad town. Now there is nothing left but sand dunes and a railroad platform.

Shortly after Surf, our train ground to a halt. The conductor informed us that the engine had lost power, well that was pretty oblivious. We were delayed for almost an hour as the engineer tried to get the locomotive running. You couldn’t beat the view, a stunning panoramic of Big Blue.

While we waited to resume our journey, I watched an entertaining black phoebe hawking for insects in the coastal scrub. I saw many raptors on the route: red-tailed hawk, northern harrier, osprey, bald eagle, America kestrel, peregrine, and many turkey vultures. Four northern flickers fleeing from the oncoming train was a nice bonus.

The delay did give me some extra time to work on my sketch without the movement of the train causing my line-work to waver (featured sketch).

Working on the line work of the interior of the Coast Surfliner. Rail travel can be slow, especially when the train breaks down. All the better to bring along a sketchbook and pencil case. One can never be bored when sketching! (Although I knew I would have less time with my Santa Barbara Station sketch. )

The southbound Surfliner slowly started up again on our journey toward San Diego, albeit one hour off schedule.

Pelagic birding from the second story of the Coast Surfliner.

The shadow of the Surfliner on a trestle on a Pacific Coast beach. At times on the Coast Route, the train seems to be on the very edge of the Pacific Ocean. This line is stunning.

The Coast Surfliner being pushed to San Diego as it leaves Santa Barbara Station running one hour late. Overall a wonderful ride, except for the breaking down part. Now it’s time to sketch!


Stenner Creek Trestle

The longest railway bridge on the Daylight is the 930 foot long, Stenner Creek Trestle, built in 1894. Just north of San Luis Obispo, this bridge is at the southern end of the famous Horseshoe Curve that climbs up north to Cuesta Grade.

The 17 miles of railway line between Santa Margarita and San Luis Obispo is said to be the most expensive work undertaken on the Coast Line. Engineers had to get over the rugged Santa Lucia Mountains and the construction price was said to be $3 million or $300,000 a mile. Tunnels and trestles had to be built and in 1893, 1,200 men were working on the line.

I wanted to see and sketch this trestle and see parts of the Horseshoe Curve, without getting too close to the Men’s Colony near the Horseshoe Curve (this is not an art colony). Being a planner, I am a teacher after all, I did a quick map of the location in my notebook based on google maps. This really helped me visualize the location before I headed down to the Central Coast.

Cuesta notes

San Luis Obispo is an interesting location on the Coast Starlight because it is the point on the line when both trains pass each other. Train 11 arrives at SLO from Seattle at 3:20 PM and Train 14, from Los Angeles, comes in shortly afterwards at 3:35. So I was able to see two trains cross over the Stenner Creek Trestle within half an hour!

A southbound Coast Starlight, train number 11, with an eight car consist crosses the Stenner Creek Trestle, 80 feet over Stenner Creek. This AMTRAK passenger train started its journey in Seattle at 9:00 AM the previous day and was running about ten minutes late.

An archival photograph taken in 1939, from roughly the same spot, of a Coast Daylight with a helper coming down from Cuesta Grade and crossing Stenner Creek Trestle. The scene after 70 year remains the same, except for the difference in motive power. (Union Pacific Museum Collection: SP photos)

This is the sort of railroad touchstone that remains timeless and is still in use today. I could almost hear the Daylight crossing this trestle.

A Seattle-bound Coast Starlight enters the timeless trestle. I would be on the same Coast Starlight the following day. Read more about it in another post.

The number 14 Coast Daylight climbing up above the Horseshoe Grade toward Cuesta Summit. This train left Los Angles’ Union Station at 10:10 AM. The curve is so sharp that if you are in the middle of the train you can see the front and end of the train. You just have turn your head from left to right.


San Luis Obispo Station (Post #300!)

San Luis Obispo marks the midway point on the Coast Daylight passenger route between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The town is named after the Spanish mission that was founded in 1772 by Father Junípero Serra. It became an important railroad town because it was at the southern end of Cuesta Grade.

It was a division point on the then Southern Pacific Railroad (now Union Pacific) and because of it, the town had shops to service the locomotives, a roundhouse to turn engines around, and a wye to turn the massive cab-forward around (because it could not fit on the turntable.) This large articulated 4-8-8-2 engine was designed to go through the long show sheds and tunnels over Donner Summit but later, in the 1950s, pulled freight over the coast line and acted as a help engine.

SLO Roundhouse

A quick brush-pen sketch of the site of the roundhouse and turntable. While now little is left of the roadhouse, at the height of operations, the yard employed 44 men. The pile in the foreground are rusted railroad spikes. The line of boxcars in the background have been waiting in storage on a track siding for three weeks.

It was here at San Luis Obispo that northbound Daylights took on a helper to make it over the Cuesta Grade and its where a southbound train had their helper locomotives taken off.

The passenger depot was built in 1943 in a Mission Revival Style, slightly echoing the Spanish Mission that the city is named after.

Across the tracks from the station is the 65,000 gallon water tower used to water the steam locomotives that worked this division. The tower was built in 1940 and has been saved from destruction by the city of SLO. Often engines and crew where changed here but the Daylight GS-4 locomotive would make the entire San Francisco to Los Angeles run without being changed out at San Luis Obispo.

The station is still used as a passenger station although freight trains over Cuesta Grade have stopped. Both the Coast Surfliner and the Coast Starlight stop at this station. But more on these routes in a later post.

Three hours after leaving Santa Cruz, I set up my camp/sketch chair across from the station and sketched an elevation view of SLO Station. It was a glorious morning!


Salinas Station

After sketching historic passenger train stations between San Francisco and San Jose, I decided to expand my scope by visiting all of the existing stations on the Daylight Route from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

Salinas is probably best known as the birthplace of writer John Steinbeck. It is also known as the “Salad Bowl of the World” because its marine climate makes it an ideal location for agriculture. But I was here because it was the third Daylight stop on the line out of San Francisco. This would be the connection point for any traveller from the Monterey Bay Area wishing to head south to The City of Angels or north to the City of Saint Francis.

Salinas Station was built by Southern Pacific in 1941. It is designed in an Spanish Revival Style, with its red tiled roof, mixed with touches of the then popular Art Deco style, shown by its clean lines, letter design, and interior.

The station’s construction coincided with the rise of Southern Pacific’s premier passenger train, the Daylight Limited. Promoters called the Daylight, “the most beautiful passenger train in the world”. And this was not mere hyperbole.

This station bears a few commonalities with the two Daylight stations that still exist in the Bay Area, Palo Alto and San Jose. All three stations have murals painted by John MacQuarrie. And two of these murals feature Southern Pacific’s most beautiful locomotive at the the time the GS-2. This streamlined 4-8-4 is in the Palo Alto Station and here at the Salinas.

When the station was completed in 1941, the zenith of Southern Pacific’s passenger steam locomotives had arrived in the “super power” of the GS-4. The increased ridership of this route is evidenced by the the fact that Southern Pacific ordered 28 locomotives from the Lima Locomotive Works between 1941 and 1942.

The John MacQuarrie mural at Salinas was painted in 1941 (the same year as the Palo Alto mural) and prominently features the star motive power at the time, the Golden State 2 (GS-2). Six of these locomotives were built and went into service in 1937.

It was a beautiful winter day in Salinas with a high of 70 degrees. I walked around the station and at the platform, a Los Angles bound Coast Starlight was paused to pick up passengers for destinations to the southland. This Amtrak train replaced the Daylight in 1971. At least from Salinas to Los Angeles.

Salinas station was a station that was still in use. There are actual humans attending to the ticket window who could actually answer questions and issue tickets. The interior contained bathrooms, food vending machines, and benches for passengers waiting for their train to arrive. It was nice, for a change, to see a train station being used for its intended purpose.

It’s great to see that Salinas Station is still a vibrant station on the former Daylight Route. The car to the right is where I would probably be: the Lounge Car! To the right is a couple waving their loved one goodbye and safe travel.

I set up my camp/ sketching chair across from Salinas Station and started to sketch. I originally wanted to sketch the station from a formal view but the parking lot was being rebuilt and was fenced off. So I sketched a little bit off center.

Next to the station is the Monterey & Salinas Valley Railroad Museum. They have a collection featuring a Southern Pacific steam locomotive switcher, a Southern Pacific caboose, and a few rail cars on static display.

Southern Pacific switcher Number 1237 on static display in Salinas. This locomotive is pointing to the north but will likely never move north again.