The Great Train Adventure Part 1

[I took over 250 photos on the 12 hours that passed on December 7th 2009. I managed to edit it down to 160 photos. Very recently I took a quick poll on Twitter and the overwhelming response was that everyone wanted to see them all. So, I'll be bringing them to you in instalments.]

Go grab yourself a cup of coffee, tea or whatever your poison. Take a read and enjoy the first quarter of my journey with me.


On the Amtrak coffee cup are the words “Change how you see the world.” Often these things are just a clever marketing ploy designed to ensnare the imaginations of a certain subset of people. What makes good marketing is when there’s so much truth in the promise being made that it can’t be argued any other way.

When I lived in the UK I travelled by train frequently and often along one of the longest routes on the island (Edinburgh -> London). I longed for the days when travel wasn’t as stressful and inconvenient as flying. Sure, flying is fast, but that’s about all it has going for it. Canada has a very minimal train network and it takes about ten times longer than it should do due to the abundance of freight trains that get priority on the lines. Via Rail does have a Vancouver -> Toronto route that makes a few stops along the way and one day I hope I can take it. Unfortunately that is one of only three routes available in Western Canada. Out of the other two one is on Vancouver Island and the other is for a small part of northern BC. The cross-Canada journey takes a total of 3 days 15 hours. I believe there are more routes in Eastern Canada and they make a good method of travel similar to Amtrak (and other networks) in the US.

Of course since I got my Canadian permanent residence in 2008 I’ve been able to make trips to the US and I hope to be able to continue taking advantage of this position. I’d heard so many good things about Amtrak in the past two years that I simply had to try it for myself. I knew there was a Seattle -> LA route called the Coast Starlight and I’d been dying to take it after my friend Charley jumped on from here to Portland, OR. December around the time of the Induced Epidemics show in LA was the perfect opportunity for me to sample the wonder that is the west coast via train. Ideally I’d have taken the train the whole way there and back from Vancouver, but unfortunately I didn’t have enough time that month for the full 70 hour round trip.


And so in the end I decided the only way I could satisfy my dire need for a train journey was to finally visit San Francisco and the good friends I’d made at SD Comic Con last summer. The journey between LA’s Union station and Oakland’s Jack London station takes a good 10 hours, while driving [I've heard] only takes 5 hours. What with the fact that I can’t drive myself and I’d hate to bully one of my friends into a road trip they never intended to take it was the perfect opportunity to take the train. Even though I’m a huge sucker for road trips I always feel bad that I can’t share in the driving duties and even if I could I’m sure they’ll never be as relaxing and beautiful as a train journey can be. With that I purchased my ticket (a mere $58) and eagerly awaited the day I’d be able to spend soaking in the world around me.

Of course before I could do this I had to get myself to LA for the show, visit my LA friends and do a couple of photo shoots. The only way to achieve that without using up the time I didn’t have was fly. There I was again heading to Vancouver airport, fighting the crowds and sitting in a tiny metal tube with gigantic mechanical wings while I tried not to make eye contact with any of the other stressed passengers. The whole time I’m left wondering if physics is really just some crazy black magic and one day it’s all going to fail me.

I told you that I found flying stressful.


In contrast the minute I arrived at Union Station in LA and walked through the giant and beautiful oak doors I felt safe and home. I do believe the interior of that station is the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in all of LA. It most certainly gives the desert’s sunrises a run for its money. I’m sure I’ve mentioned numerous times in the past my fascination with everything American [mostly western] as I grew up a small child in the backend of England. I would sit and watch old American films every Sunday afternoon and dream of the day when I could go live that life for myself. In reality a good 20+ years later it doesn’t disappoint. Sure, things have changed and it’s not the Wild West out here anymore, but all you have to do is scratch off that shiny surface and underneath it all is my movie memories and they’re preserved! I like to think the world will carry on this way for people like you and me who revel in the great accomplishments of human beings.

For the many hours from when the train pulled out of the station to when it finally got dark outside at 5.30pm I only looked away from the window a few times. Once to get a coffee in the truth-filled Amtrak cup, to doodle a squid on my napkin and to answer a few questions from a delightful fellow traveller. The rest of the time I was absorbed completely and only the music from my iPod and the world rushing by outside existed.


The day started out with one of southern California’s rare overcast and rainy days. While far from typical I definitely wouldn’t have changed anything. It gave the streets of LA and the beginnings of the coastal desert a surreality that I’ll never forget. The fog was thick and low and the rain streaking past the windows brought back my fondest memories of train travel in the UK. One of the first differences I noted, however, were the amount of times the train crossed a level crossing on a regular street. In Vancouver we have train tracks all over the city and so many crossings that they just blend into the buildings around them. Nearly all of the street train tracks that criss cross our fair city aren’t in use today and so it never really crossed my mind that the giant Amtrak train would be zipping past busy intersections and passing through quiet suburbs.

Leaving LA the conductor pointed out locations that had once been used in many a Western film that I remember gracing my screen as a child. Back then they were completely deserted areas that were perfect for the iconic chases and shoot outs, but today they’re surrounded by urban sprawl and swimming pools. As the train made its way to the first coastal stretch of the journey the obvious human influences became scarcer and glimpsing the sea on the horizon I sat back in the giant reclining chair, popped up the leg rests and knew that I’d made the right choice for travel between LA and Oakland/San Francisco.


Below is a gallery of the rest of the first 40 photos for you to get just a small taste of what’s to come in the other 3 parts of my Great Train Adventure. Next up will be the coastal portion of my adventure.

Do you take the train regularly? What’s your favourite route [wherever in the world you are]? Please feel free to share your stories, since I’d love to hear.

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  1. Posted January 18, 2010 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    I totally love this story and the pictures, I’m looking forward for the next parts. I’m with you about traveling. I don’t like flying. Yes, it’s fast, but I just don’t like it. Now I’m living in Barcelona, 1000 Km away from my hometown, and sure I can fly to there in just 1 hour and a half but I do take the train and I don’t really care it takes 14 hours to get there, I love it. Most people think I’m totally crazy so I’m glad to read I’m not the only one who feels that way. One of my dreams is to travel Europe by train. I’m such a romantic, I know. :P

  2. Posted January 18, 2010 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

    Great photos. If you ever do board The Canadian in Vancouver and head to TO, I’d love to see your shots of the trip… just think what you could do with kind of material!

    Vivian is Virtual
    VIA Rail’s tour guide

  3. Jerry Morrissette
    Posted January 18, 2010 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

    Looks like a good time; very relaxing and great for the creative mind to just roam free for hours.

  4. Posted January 19, 2010 at 2:09 am | Permalink

    So amazing. Love the writing, love the pictures. You are so talented it’s disgusting! ;)

  5. jonnytrrrash7
    Posted January 19, 2010 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    great post. you’ve just about convinced me to take my first train ride somewhere!

  6. Posted January 19, 2010 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

    That’s how I felt about the whole of the USA, like just a little scratch would reveal all kinds of things that we’ve managed to scrub away forever over here. Oh God, I miss it so much. Beautiful, beautiful pics as ever, makes me want to get on a train and ride forever. Next up you must do SEA – PDX, some of the best scenery I’ve ever seen. Can’t wait for the next installment C! xx

  7. cherry
    Posted January 24, 2010 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    Charley – Yes! I’m going to be taking the Coast Starlight the other way in April all the way to Oakland.

  8. cherry
    Posted January 24, 2010 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    Jonny – you won’t be disappointed, really. I

  9. cherry
    Posted January 24, 2010 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    Sabro – I think I would do the same. People used to ask me why I didn’t just fly from Edinburgh to London all of the time! I would love to see Spain by train one day.

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