The Amtrak Pacific Surfliner route between Santa Ana and Los Angeles-Union Station

The (semi)regular route that I use for getting somewhere which I enjoy the most, hands down, is the one where I get to wait, on either end, in two of the loveliest train stations on the West Coast and quite possibly anywhere. Union Station has been made legendary enough time and time again thanks to a slew of movie appearances, both exterior and interior (easy to understand why). I’ll always still associate it with the police station sequence in Blade Runner (this shot makes it clearer), and a year or so ago I was walking out of the station and passed by some sort of filming of a thievery sequence for something, possibly a TV show. As for the Depot in Santa Ana, it’s nowhere near as famous but matches the same general psuedo-mission/adobe style that to me really is Southern California’s collective hallucination of history (and quite a damned good one it is as well). Both are great buildings to visit, to poke around in, to kill some time, so getting the chance to go there always provides a gentle thrill.

The journeys themselves, meanwhile, have gotten even better. I’d been using the general Los Angeles-San Diego Surfliner route for a long while during college and the early years of grad school, since that’s how I’d get home to see my folks. The part where the train moves directly along the coast in south Orange County and north San Diego County in particular is one of those gorgeous passages everyone should get a chance to see sometime, when the sun is out and the ocean stretches away. But then they moved to Carmel and I didn’t use the trains for a heck of a long time. By the time I started using the route again for LA trips from Orange County, Amtrak had finally upgraded their old passenger cars (at least on some routes) for the far more enjoyably modern Surfliner cars, double-deck suckers that just feel far more comfortable and open than the old ones, better seats, always air conditioned just right on hot days. There’s also the Metrolink trains that cover the same ground — equally good cars and seats, but since they don’t run on the weekends on that route, it’s Amtrak for me.

Going up from Santa Ana means waiting patiently in the courtyard of the station, small but perfectly laid out, a patio more than anything else, with a wrought iron gate leading out to the track. The train swings around the corner from the right, no more than a one or two minute stop, and we’re off. I always head upstairs and look for an open set of two seats where I can find it — usually I’m lucky even during the busiest of days, as was the case this past holiday weekend. Though I bring books or an iPod with me most times, usually I just sit back and stare out at the landscape — all LA basin suburbia bleeding into industrial zones the closer we get to LA, but there’s still plenty of moments of sudden beauty, the graffiti in the flood channels and the parks that we pass. It takes about an hour and it’s so perfectly comfortable all the way along that I think even if I did have a car I’d probably just want to do this instead.

Returning from LA two days ago, I was surrounded by a crowd heading down south for the holiday weekend, as well as the races down in Del Mar. It was one of the most packed times I’d ever seen the train, and part of me did wish more people would take it in general just because it’s so great as it stands. Then again, maybe I wouldn’t always get a row to myself if that were the case.