Guide To Amtrak/Passenger Trains In California (2024)

Last revised: January 1, 2024

By: Adam Burns

California, the golden state of the United States, boasts an extensive and diverse passenger train network. With its vast territory and vibrant cities, the state's rail system plays a vital role in providing efficient, reliable, and sustainable transportation options for residents and visitors alike.

This article provides a brief overview of the current passenger train services available in California, highlighting their key features, routes, and contributions to the state's transportation landscape.

9384672358929009827365798478.jpgAn Amtrak California service, with Control Car #8306 in the lead, rolls through Oakland's famous Jack London Square on July 31, 2007. Wade Massie photo.

Amtrak

There are a number of Amtrak's long distance trains serving the state of California, as well as regional services mentioned in greater detail below.  

California Zephyr: The legendary California Zephyr was made famous by the Burlington, Rio Grande, and Western Pacific which jointly operated it between Chicago and San Francisco.

Initially launched in 1949 it became popular for its fine accommodations, many domes for unparalleled scenic views, and friendly service.

Amtrak acquired the name in 1983 and while the CZ runs a slightly different route from the original remains one of the carrier's most popular long-distance trains.

Coast Starlight: The Coast Starlight operates between Seattle and Los Angeles utilizing the route long served by Southern Pacific's beautiful streamliner known as the Shasta Daylight, which ran as far as San Francisco/Oakland.

The Coast Starlight name first appeared in 1974 offering coach accommodations and Superliner sleeping services.

Southwest Chief: This long-distance train heralds back to Santa Fe's legendary Super Chief running between Los Angeles and Chicago via the Southwestern region of the United States.

Amtrak was forced to drop the Super Chief name in 1974 via a request by AT&SF due to declining service. At first it was known as the Southwest Limited but in 1984 changed to the Southwest Chief.

The train still runs a similar routing as the original providing coach accommodations and Superliner sleeping services.

Sunset Limited: This venerable train was the only of its kind for many years under Southern Pacific. It originally began service in 1894 running between Los Angeles and New Orleans via Louisiana and Texas, no other railroad offered such a routing.

While the train's accommodations were always first-class it was many years before SP upgraded it as a streamliner, which finally occurred in 1950. It was retained by Amtrak and later extended to Florida's Northern Panhandle albeit after Hurricane Katrina it was again truncated to its original routing.

Texas Eagle: The Texas Eagle was a top train operated by the Missouri Pacific running between St. Louis and many points throughout the Lone Star State. It first debuted in 1948 and survived, albeit with far fewer accommodations until Amtrak.

The name was revived on October 2, 1981 and today it operates between Chicago and Dallas/San Antonio with connections available to Los Angeles. The train's accommodations currently includes coaches and a range of Superliner sleeper arrangements.

Amtrak California

Amtrak California is a joint partnership between the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) and Amtrak. It operates several intercity and regional services across the state, promoting seamless travel experiences for passengers. The key Amtrak California services include:

a. Pacific Surfliner: This popular coastal route stretches from San Diego to San Luis Obispo, connecting major cities like Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and Anaheim. Offering breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean, the Pacific Surfliner is a preferred mode of transportation for both commuters and leisure travelers.

b. Capitol Corridor: Linking the state capital, Sacramento, with the Bay Area and Silicon Valley, the Capitol Corridor serves as a crucial transportation artery in Northern California. With stops in cities such as Oakland, Berkeley, and San Jose, this route facilitates convenient travel for commuters and students.

c. San Joaquins: Operating through California's Central Valley, the San Joaquins connect the Bay Area with the San Joaquin Valley and Sacramento. This route provides important connectivity between cities like Bakersfield, Fresno, Stockton, and Sacramento, catering to a diverse range of travelers.

Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART)

Bay Area Rapid Transit, commonly known as BART, is an extensive rapid transit system serving the San Francisco Bay Area. While not strictly a passenger train service, BART plays a crucial role in the region's transportation infrastructure, connecting cities like San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, and Fremont. It offers convenient access to major airports, downtown areas, and popular attractions, serving as a lifeline for millions of commuters.


20867234723657232873682070923738.jpgMetrolink F59PHI #886 leads a commuter train under the Olive Avenue Bridge in Burbank, California on August 2, 2007. Wade Massie photo.

Local Commuter Services

In addition to the aforementioned regional and intercity train services, numerous local commuter trains operate within California's major metropolitan areas. These include:

Caltrain

Caltrain, a popular commuter rail service, serves the San Francisco Peninsula, connecting San Francisco and San Jose. This brief overview aims to assist passengers in about the Caltrain system.  For complete scheduling and ticketing information, please visit the Caltrain website.

The Caltrain line runs approximately 77 miles from San Francisco's 4th and King Street Station to San Jose's Diridon Station. It includes several stops along the way, serving major cities like San Mateo, Redwood City, Palo Alto, and Mountain View. The line operates seven days a week, with varying frequencies throughout the day.

The service offers a detailed timetable accessible on their official website or through mobile applications. It is essential to review the timetable to determine the departure and arrival times of trains and to plan your commute accordingly.

Caltrain divides its stations into six fare zones, and ticket prices are based on the number of zones traveled. Familiarize yourself with the fare zones to ensure you purchase the correct ticket.

Their website features a trip planner tool that allows passengers to enter their origin and destination stations, along with the desired travel date and time. The trip planner will provide the most convenient and efficient train options for your journey.

Coaster

Operating along the coastline of San Diego County, Coaster provides transportation options for commuters and travelers between Oceanside and downtown San Diego.

It stretches approximately 41 miles between Oceanside and downtown San Diego's Santa Fe Depot. Along the way, it serves notable cities and destinations such as Carlsbad, Encinitas, Solana Beach, and Old Town San Diego. The Coaster operates primarily on weekdays, with limited service on weekends and holidays.

Coaster's timetables are available on their official website or can be obtained from stations. Review the timetable to determine the departure and arrival times of trains, allowing you to plan your commute effectively.

The stations are categorized into three fare zones, and ticket prices vary based on the number of zones traveled. Familiarize yourself with the fare zones to ensure you purchase the correct ticket.

Utilize Coaster's trip planner tool available on their website to enter your origin and destination stations, along with the desired travel date and time. The trip planner will provide you with the most convenient train options for your journey.

Altamont Corridor Express

The Altamont Corridor Express (ACE Rail) commuter service offers fast and convenient transportation that connects the Central Valley with the Bay Area in California. 

The ACE line spans approximately 85 miles, linking Stockton in the Central Valley with San Jose in the Bay Area. The route includes several stops, such as Tracy, Livermore, and Fremont. ACE operates on weekdays, catering primarily to commuters traveling between these regions.

The service provides detailed timetables on their official website and at stations. Review the timetable to determine departure and arrival times, allowing you to plan your commute effectively.

Tourist Trains

California's tourist trains offer a great way to relax while enjoying the state's natural wonders, cultural heritage, and fascinating history.

From the Napa Valley Wine Train's fusion of culinary delights and wine tasting to the Skunk Train's journey through towering redwood forests, these trains provide unique and memorable adventures for tourists.

Whether exploring wine country, delving into the redwood groves, or immersing oneself in California's gold rush history, these scenic trains offer an enchanting way to discover the Golden State's diverse landscapes and iconic attractions.

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