California Rail Travel

 

California is served by an extensive network of local, regional, statewide, and national rail lines. While local and regional rail travel is generally efficient, statewide rail service is a mixed experience. National train service is very inefficient, so it is useful more for scenic trips than for efficiently getting between destinations.

 

Statewide & National Service

 

Amtrak provides national rail service on 5 lines lines serving California:

  • California Zephyr: Operates from Emeryville (San Francisco Bay Area) to Chicago via Sacramento, Reno, Salt Lake City, and Denver.
  • Coast Starlight: Operates from Los Angeles to Seattle via the San Francisco Bay Area, Sacramento, and Portland.
  • Southwest Chief: Operates from Los Angeles to Chicago via Flagstaff, Albuquerque, and Kansas City.
  • Sunset Limited/Texas Eagle: Operates as a single train from Los Angeles to San Antonio via Palm Springs and Tucson. The Sunset Limited continues from San Antonio to New Orleans while the Texas Eagle continues to Chicago Austin and Dallas.

Amtrak California, which is a state-funded service operating in cooperation with national Amtrak service, operates 3 lines entirely within the state:

  • Capitol Corridor: Operates from San Jose to Sacramento via Oakland and Emeryville. Limited service continues to Auburn.
  • Pacific Surfliner: Operates from San Diego to San Luis Obispo via Orange County, Los Angeles, and Santa Barbara.
  • San Joaquin: Operates from Oakland or Sacramento to Bakersfield via Emeryville and Fresno. Extensive bus connections are provided to Los Angeles, Yosemite National Park, and other destinations.

Of the 3 intrastate services, the Capitol Corridor service is operates in a somewhat autonomous manner. However, all Amtrak services are through ticketed.

The most popular rail lines for tourists are the Pacific Surfliner, Coast Starlight, and California Zephyr routes. The first two traverse scenic coastal areas in Southern and Central California, and the latter traverses the Sierra Nevada mountains (and Rockies in Colorado). The Capitol Corridor service is often used by tourists going from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe or vice versa, and the San Joaquin service is often used by tourists trying to reach Yosemite.

Railserve maintains a list of active Amtrak discounts.

 

Local & Regional Service

 

All metropolitan areas in California have local and regional rail service.

Los Angeles

Regional rail service is provided by Metrolink. Subway and light rail service within Los Angeles is operated by Metro.

Although Los Angeles has a reputation as a haven for driving, the subway and light rail service is fast and efficient, making it an attractive alternative to driving for most tourists. LA's rail service is supplemented by an extensive bus system, which includes excellent (but often crowded) Metro Rapid service.

San Francisco Bay Area

Regional rail service is provided by BART and Caltrain. BART is a subway service (often overhead in suburbs) that efficiently links San Francisco to SFO and Oakland airports, while Caltrain is a conventional train service that is more useful for travel to/from San Jose only.

Muni operates light rail service (called "Muni Metro") within San Francisco. Muni also operates streetcars and cable cars, as well as buses and trolleybuses. VTA operates light rail service in the San Jose area.

San Francisco (and the East Bay communities of Oakland and Berkeley) are densely developed, and tourists often rely on BART and Muni to travel since driving is a hassle. Tourists often opt for a rental car when visiting San Jose (outside of the small downtown area) because Caltrain and VTA are arguably limited in their usefulness, and buses provide connectivity to a limited number of places (to the beach town of Santa Cruz, for example).

San Diego

Regional rail service is provided by Coaster, and light rail service within San Diego is operated by the San Diego Trolley.

There is also the SPRINTER Light Rail service in Northern San Diego County between Oceanside and Escondido.

While San Diego is a sprawling locale, it can be navigated without a car so long as one is willing to use buses in addition to the Trolley.

Sacramento

Sacramento has an efficient light rail network operated by Regional Transit. However, most visitors have a rental car on hand because they are likely traveling from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe or another more popular tourist region.