Nobody Drives in LA — Riding the Pacific Surfliner to San Diego

Nobody Drives in LA

I’ve now lived in Los Angeles for eighteen years. Even though most of my dreams still seem to unfold in Missouri, I’ve been in California longer than I’ve been anywhere else. However, as much as I love exploring cities, I rarely make it over to the state’s second largest, San Diego. Furthermore, as much as I love traveling by train, I’d never ridden the rails to there until last autumn, when I finally took Amtrak‘s Pacific Surfliner to visit a friend who found himself spending a few November days in “America’s Finest City.”

The Surfliner at Amtrak
The Pacific Surfliner at Union Station

As American passenger trains go, the Pacific Surfliner is a popular service, exceeded in ridership only by Amtrak’s Northeast Regional and Acela Express lines. Unlike those, however, the Pacific Surfliner is not “high speed”… or even “higher speed.” It is, in fact, quite slow. Its 560 kilometer route between San Diego and San Luis Obispo takes nine hours to make and the train chugs along at an average of 66 kilometers per hour.


While the US has the largest railway network in the world — it is also one of the slowest and most antiquated. American passenger rail lags behind arguably more advanced countries like Austria, Belgium, China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Korea, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Taiwan, Turkey, the UK, and Uzbekistan. Along much of the rail network, freight trains are given priority over passenger trains, adding even more time to already frustratingly long journeys. That will change with the launch of the California High-Speed Rail, currently under construction  — but right now it looks a long way from being operational.

California High-Speed Rail
Image: California High-Speed Rail Authority

The high-speed rail being built in two parts. Phase 1, which may or may not be finished by 2029, will connect San Francisco‘s planned Transbay Center with Anaheim‘s Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center. Phase 2 will extend the system from Orange County to San Diego, but as yet has no construction timetable exists. That means that there will likely be a period where rail users will travel from San Francisco to Anaheim in just two hours and forty minutes — but then spend another two hours and fifteen minutes to complete the last 18% of the trip to San Diego aboard the Pacific Surfliner.

Train Information
Train Information

For now, though, there is no high speed rail anywhere in the state, though, so traveling from Los Angeles to San Diego means either a roughly three hour trip on the Pacific Surfliner — or by some other means — most likely an automobile. There are some occasions when I like to drive — such as on long road trips. I love spending nights in neon-lit motels, mornings in diners, and days heading down back roads stopping to enjoy the sites and attractions along the way. However, I doubt that the slog from Los Angeles to San Diego is anyone’s idea of a romantic drive.

The roughly 200 kilometer journey takes anywhere from two and a half to four hours, depending on how soul-crushing the traffic. Most of the sites and attractions and consist of break lights and billboards — mostly, it seems, for lap band surgery or Chick-fil-A. If the gridlock gives your eyes time to wonder, you might be lucky enough to spy the odd cell phone tower whimsically disguised as a palm barely poking over a freeway noise barrier.

Near the border between Orange and San Diego counties, the motorist passes the decommissioned San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, the containment shields of which are frequently remarked to somewhat resemble a giant pair of female breasts. This surely is the titillating highlight of the long drive — and a reminder that you’re only half-way there. Cast enough glances seaward and you might catch sight of the Pacific Surfliner traveling along the coast, the tracks of which are appear from the freeway to be soothed by the soft, lapping waters of the Pacific.

The Surf viewed from the Surfliner
The Pacific Ocean viewed from the train window.
Wetlands view from the train
Passing through the San Elijo Lagoon

The main reason that I don’t head to San Diego more often, though, isn’t so much the journey as the destination itself. Without wishing to cast aspersions on the state’s second largest city nor contribute to any silly rivalry that likely doesn’t exist, I’ve yet to really fall for San Diego. I have made a few advances, though. In the Pre-Wikipedia years, someone assured me that San Diego’s Ethiopian community rivaled that of Los Angeles, so I vainly drove around the North Park neighborhood looking for Ethiopian restaurants. Being also the pre-Yelp years, I failed to find any — but I did stumble across a hip-hop club where I spent a reasonably pleasant evening. I made a couple of trips to the San Diego Zoo to visit a hyena. Once, on my way out, I got caught up in conversation with some howler monkeys and failed to notice that the zoo had been closed with me locked inside. More recently, I explored Little Italy on behalf of a woman who’d commissioned me to make a map, which I did, trying my best to channel the spirit of the recently departed Massimo Vignelli. (Click here to vote for individual San Diego neighborhoods to be explored).

San Diego's Little Italy -- informed, if not obviously, by Vignelli Associates' work
Pendersleigh & Sons Cartography’s oil paint map of Little Italy (prints available from 1650 Gallery)

Rightly or wrongly (and Little Italy aside), I’ve never really sensed that there were many experiences I could have in San Diego that I couldn’t more conveniently have in Los Angeles. A San Diego defender pointed to its port character — but Los Angeles has the largest, busiest port in the entire hemisphere. You may’ve also noticed that Los Angeles has some sunshine and beaches. Is it possible that, like a healthy sized moon orbiting a gigantic planet, San Diego’s atmosphere has been sucked away by the gravity of its much larger neighbor? I’m not sure — but the appearance of “Gaslamp Quarter” on a map of San Diego seemed like a possible sign of life, conjuring as it did fond memories of drinking beer and eating ketchup chips in Vancouver‘s romantically lit, drizzle-shined Gastown.

In the end, the impetus to return to San Diego when a Minnesotan friend from my college days, Pete, notified me that he was in town for a tech conference at the convention center — not exactly the sort of thing which appeals to me in the slightest but I hadn’t seen Pete in years and that, along with an excuse to take the train, were more than enough reason to head over. I don’t remember whether or not Pete actually suggested or even mentioned the train but I knew he’d approve. In college we bonded over a shared love of Star Trek, beer, bath products, music, scented candles, and various forms of transport. At one time we looked into taking a steamboat to New Orleans (too expensive) and another, we briefly pondered training to become airship pilots. “Why hasn’t Top Gun been remade with blimps?” we both wondered.

Union Station waiting area
The waiting hall of Union Station
Quiet corner of Union Station
Union Station’s historic ticketing hall

It’s impossible for me not to swell with excitement when entering Los Angeles’s Union Station, a glorious building designed by the great John and Donald B. Parkinson. There’s always a romance to train travel, no matter the destination. I’ve only taken a handful of trips with Amtrak before — the Coast Starlight, the Adirondack, and the Acela Express — and although I wish that the former two traveled more speedily, they’re all very appealing ways from getting around.

The Fullerton Transportation Center
Life from a train window, at the Fullerton Transportation Center in Downtown Fullerton (or “DTF” as it’s been rebranded)

The Pacific Surfliner was, though its journey less extraordinary, still pretty enjoyable — certainly more than all other means of travel available to me. From the windows of the train, for example, even the seemingly boundless sea of red-tiled suburbs between North Orange County and San Diego acquires a degree of attractiveness. I explored the train from car to car, popping in and out of the Seaview Café Car, naturally, and relaxing as the view passed by me more quickly than I’d expected. Unlike some trains, there was no observation car but the it’s all very clean, comfortable, and dignified.

Inside the Surfliner
Inside the Pacific Surfliner

The Pacific Surfliner route began in 1938, as the San Diegan. The first trains left the station on 27 March. It was operated by the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway and continued to be until 1971, when the Amtrak agency was created to assume the bulk of the nation’s inter-city passenger rail services. In 1988, the route of the San Diegan was extended to Santa Barbara, followed by the extension to San Luis Obispo. “San Diegan” having not accurately reflected the extent of its route for twelve years, the train was renamed Pacific Surfliner in 2000.

I arrived at San Diego’s Santa Fe Depot, a small, fairly quiet train station built by Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway in 1915. In addition to Amtrak it’s served by the San Diego Coaster and San Diego Metropolitan Transit System. As unlikely as it seems, it’s apparently the tenth busiest Amtrak station in the nation — although it only handles 7% of the ridership of the busiest, Penn Station. Even though serving a much  smaller city, even Sacramento Valley Station serves more riders than the Santa Fe Depot. Its vibrancy would’ve increased considerably if, as early designs had called for, it had been chosen as a terminus for California High-Speed Rail. Instead the southern terminus is currently planned to be built at the present sight of the Green Line trolley’s Washington Street Station — next to the San Diego International Airport and three stops from the depot.

Just as San Diego Depot seems less busy than the facts assure us it is, so too does San Diego feel much smaller than the census reflects. It certainly feels less urban than San Francisco, California’s fourth largest city. The waterfront area around the convention center looks a bit like San Francisco as it appeared on several Star Trek: The Next Generation (filmed at the San Fernando Valley‘s Tillman Water Reclamation Plant). In Star Trek’s utopian city, people stroll across vast lawns tended by Starfleet’s groundskeeper, Mr. Boothby. In San Diego, they mostly use automobiles to get around, it seems. Still, the San Diego’s Downtown — Centre City — seems weirdly quiet, like that of Phoenix, another large city that still feels more like a suburb with highrises than a city in the conventional sense. Of course, another of San Diego’s nicknames, albeit one San Diegans are probably less keen to promote, is “Phoenix By the Sea.”

I walked along the largely treeless streets — described by boosters as “sun splashed” but which struck me as “gratingly shade deprived” — keeping my eyes open for bookstores or restaurants at which I might want to grab a bite. Like many a financial district, however, most of the food options seemed to be along the lines of sandwich and bagel chains — the primary sustenance of accountants and their ilk, it seems. I didn’t see any book stores. The “sun splashed” sidewalks started to wear me down, and unable to find anywhere that I wanted to eat, my thoughts turned to getting something to drink. San Diego is widely known for its craft beer scene, after all.

The bars themselves, however, were across the board the sort that don’t appeal to me, since I detest being accosted from all corners by televisions or professional sports. In the right mood I might enter a sports bar with an ethnographer’s eye but what I saw suggested that the bros inside the bars were pretty much the same as the bros on the sidewalk. Many donned what could be characterized as San Diego’s folk costume, sportwear and a baseball caps with sunglasses perched atop the brims instead of over the wearer’s eyes. Also, vaping is a must.

The Gaslamp Quarter ended up being a bit of a disappointment. There weren’t as many highrises as in the rest of the Center City but aside from that and the existence of a few attractive brick hotels, I perceived few differences between it and the surrounding neighborhoods. What’s more, apparently the district was historically lit with electric lamps and the titular gas lamps were only added in the 1980s as Victorian bait for gullible tourists such as myself.

Field Bar
Cozy corner in the back of the pub

Since I was there, thirsty, and had just about had as much sun splashing as I could take, I ducked into The Field Irish Pub — despite the fact that in my experience the words “Irish Pub” in the name of a bar generally refer to otherwise run of the mill sports bars with Guinness on tap and a jukebox full of Flogging Molly.

The Field Irish Pub turned out to be a pleasant surprise. Apparently it is a turn-of-the-[presumably 20th]-century country pub” which was “shipped piece by piece from Ireland.” Anyway, there were only two or three televisions and the jukebox may or may not’ve been full of “Celtic punk” but it was comfortingly dark. Furthermore, though neither San Diegan nor a craft beer, a few restorative pints of Smithwick’s improved my mood sufficiently. After a text from Pete, I headed back to the convention center, where I waited for Pete amongst the vaping conventioneers and eavesdropped on conversations about “team building.”

Already familiar with Little Italy and knowing it to be both walkable and full of good restaurants, I suggested it to Pete and that’s where we headed. We wined at El Camino, placed second place (to a much larger team) in a bar trivia at Bolt Brewery, wined (again) and dined at Sorrento (I think), and then for optimistically bought some more wine, which we took back to the Hilton San Diego Bayfront but didn’t drink (I don’t think). It was probably the most expensive hotel room I’d ever been in but not especially more interesting than any other. It did, however, have a swimming area — so we headed there.

In the pool area we found a hot tub which we shared with a young woman. Shortly after, an unpleasant man on a phone joined us. The person on the other end of the phone as well as those of us assembled in the jacuzzi were treated to a tale of woe in which our hapless hero claimed to be aggressively pursued by would-be seductresses. To reject their advances required massive amounts of personal character, which he assuredly possessed. Nonetheless, his ungrateful wife apparently failed to adequately praise him for his moral stamina and this was the source of his woe. On cue, the woman quietly exited the hot tub and walked to another one, which didn’t have a loud man on a phone in it. I too had had enough, of both hot air and hot water and decided to swim a few laps in the pool.

Santa Fe Depot Panorama
Panoramic view of the Santa Fe Depot interior

The next morning was a bit foggy and under those circumstances, the lifelessness of San Diego’s largely empty sidewalks was something I welcomed — even if the undiminished sun was not. At the train station I had a fairly long wait for Pacific Surfliner which gave me time to appreciate the architectural charms of San Francisco architects John Bakewell Jr. and Arthur Brown Jr.‘s Spanish Colonial Revival design — and to burn off the rest of my morning, mental fog with some blisteringly hot coffee.

Santa Fe Depot
Getting ready to board the Pacific Surfliner

Heading back to Los Angeles I realized that I was no more sold on San Diego than I had been before — but even with its sluggish speed, I had been won over by the train. High-Speed Rail, or what other countries simply call “the train” can’t arrive soon enough — but whether high-speed or low, if I’m every summoned to San Diego again I will take the train.

Boarding the Surfliner in San Diego
Boarding the Surfliner in San Diego


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Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in generating advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICS, Hidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art MuseumForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRWWhich Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of Brightwell’s maps are available from 1650 GalleryHe is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.
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3 thoughts on “Nobody Drives in LA — Riding the Pacific Surfliner to San Diego

  1. San Diego has a claim to fame among electric railway fans–It was the first city in the US to have a built from scratch (almost) light rail line, after the great die-off of the 1950s and early 60s. Nine years before Los Angeles got back on track (figuratively and literally) San Diego opened the line from the Santa Fe station to the Mexican Border. This ready made market assured that there would be plenty of passengers, and the one line has grown into an extensive system. Probably the most important omission is the lack of rail service to Balboa Park and the Zoo. The old streetcar system did go to the zoo, but it was “bustituted” in 1949.

    Liked by 1 person

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