Night Train Update: Coast Starlight

The Seattle to LA Coast Starlight is indicative of Amtrak’s current sate of distressed grace.

The lounge in Portland's Union Station

Two external factors are hell on the U.S. passenger rail system: a Republican controlled Federal government and a booming economy. In their current incarnation, Republicans are unwilling to provide the ducats required to build a 21st century mass transit system, because it cannot be provided by the “free market” given the unescapable fact that dense passenger rail system infrastructure and technology cannot be profitable in and of themselves and must be funded publicly. The other inescapable facts concerning the positive economic and environmental externalities associated with state of the art trainage are conveniently tossed down an Orwellian memory hole (no doubt provided by lobbyists from recently bailed out automotive companies). Historically low unemployment adds insult to injury by making air travel affordable and faster than VFM coach seats (still the best long haul deal in the U.S.), and folks are also willing to borrow in order to posses cars and travel with them, carbon footprint be damned.


Once considered the Cadillac of Amtrak routes (referential pun intended), the Coast Starlight used to boast separate dining and bar cars for sleeper class passengers as well as wine tastings and other perks such as movies. Those are all gone along with glass tableware and about 20% of the menu in the multi-class dining car. Those dishes that remain have all deteriorated with many ingredients that used to be actually cooked swapped out for processed crap that gets over-microwaved just to make sure you get the point.

The dining car

And Amtrak’s policy on alcohol is becoming outright draconian, especially if you happen to be in Dalit class where you are threatened with ejection from the train should you be caught with any booze that does not originate from the high priced company store in the bar car (and which did not possess a working credit card machine for our return trip). Sleeper car denizens can still bring their own hooch into their compartments, but try to bring it to the diner like in the old days and you will feel the wrath of Amtrak. Oh and do not even think about cannabis when traveling through three recreationally legal states, regardless of delivery mechanism–it’s that dang Fedrawl Gummint thang again.

Nice landscape

Despite or in spite of Amtrak’s forever decline, the Coast Starlight is still worth the ride, particularly the Portland to LA leg. This slice contains the only real coastal stretch from San Louis Obispo to Santa Barbara, as well as the mountains of southern Oregon. Regardless of direction, you want to secure a west facing sleeper if at all possible. Otherwise the observation car above the bar is your best bet for spectacular views of the California coast. On TeamMago’s recent journey the lowest unemployment rate in fifty years seemed to have everybody on the road, resulting in a rather sparsely populated observation car. One relatively recent improvement is the addition of a nice business class car to the train (must be a “free market” innovation), making less than overnight trips up and down the Left Coast a no brainer.

Taking a walk

Another reason to ride this particular train is the state of the tracks. Notwithstanding the fatal 2017 derailment of a “high speed” Amtrak train in Oregon, the trackage we experienced was far better than either the Empire Builder, the City of New Orleans, as well as significant stretches of the Capital Limited, the Lake Shore Limited, the Palmetto, and the Silver Meteor/Star. The cars themselves were also in batter shape than most we have ridden over the decades, no duct tape, no towels crammed into cracks, working toilets, etc.  And we actually arrived in LA ahead of schedule (there may have been tachyons involved) as well as on time in Portland (insert Mussolini Cheeto jokes here). LA’s Union Station is also the jewel in Amtrak’s facility crown.

Big salad with chicken

MagoTip: Three meals a day in the dining car can be a bit much given the current state of the menu and the requirement to ingest high-priced beer and wine that is mediocre at best. Of the dwindling sleeper class perks, our current fave is having a meal carried from the diner to one’s compartment by the car’s steward. We found the big lunch salads which were unimaginative but fresh, paired quite nicely an Oregon Pinot Gris (as compared to the overpriced California plonk on sale in the bar car). But save the accompanying rolls for stoning mass tourism apostates who think cars and planes should be preferred to civilized rail travel.

Morgan Hart was launched in 2011 as a website and virtual storefront to showcase Patti's software and Morgan's content. Dedicated to slow travel, culinary excess, and ripping good yarns, MagoGuide is the digital scriptoria for the Mago Scrolls, Morgan's historical fiction series about the Punic Wars in general and one Mago of Syracuse in particular. Although Morgan has written a great deal of non-fiction over the years in the form of specialized journal articles, book reviews, op-ed pieces, and (his personal favorite) the most unpopular coffee table book in the history of the planet, he always viewed himself as a happily frustrated novelist. Get more information about Morgan's novel and travel writing at our Products page.

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