California Zephyr or Coast Starlight?

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Ellen S

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Looking for some route advice. I'm traveling from Buffalo, New York to Portland, Oregon in May - taking the long way and using it as an opportunity for a leisurely but scenic ride in a romette. The options I'm considering from Chicago are either the California Zephyr with a connection to the Coast Starlight in Sacramento - OR - the Southwest Chief to LA with a connection to the Coast Starlight. (I've ridden the Empire Builder a couple times already.) Of the two routes, which do you prefer? Do I need to worry about the making the connectionn in LA with the SW Chief? On the other hand, what's it like hanging around in Sacramento at 11:59 p.m. waiting for the CS to pull in? I've been following the forum discussions for a long time and look forward to your sage advice and ideas. Thanks!
 

pennyk

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I personally like the California Zephyr better than the Southwest Chief.  However, I did not enjoy my layover in Sacramento when connecting from the California Zephyr to the Coast Starlight.

On the other hand, I absolutely love the scenery on the Coast Starlight around Santa Barbara.  However, there may be a risk of missing the connection in LA.
 

cpotisch

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Definitely take the Zephyr. It is a much, Much, MUCH prettier train than the Chief, and will likely be significantly cheaper (the Chief is a bit more expensive end-to-end, and you have to pay for the extra 12 hours on the Starlight). Also note that there's quite a bit of of rough trackage on the Chief, and the 8:00 AM arrival into LAX isn't ideal either.
 

Sauve850

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I personally like the California Zephyr better than the Southwest Chief.  However, I did not enjoy my layover in Sacramento when connecting from the California Zephyr to the Coast Starlight.

On the other hand, I absolutely love the scenery on the Coast Starlight around Santa Barbara.  However, there may be a risk of missing the connection in LA.
I agree I do not like the layover in SAC.  CZ is a great ride but I think the Chief to CS is a much better train trip. CS is great going from LA.
 

pennyk

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I did the layover in 2010 before the renovation of the station.  After detraining from the CZ, I went to the Railroad Museum and stayed until closing at 5pm.  I walked around Old Town and the neighboring mall (which I am not sure is there anymore).  I went back to the station around dark (it was late August so it stayed light for a while).  There was a group of about 15-20 of us waiting and we tried to entertain ourselves.  It was hot, since the station was not airconditioned and the seats were uncomfortable.  There were fans that cooled things off a bit.  

The station has since been renovated and my guess the wait is more comfortable. If I did this again, I likely would get a hotel room for the time of the layover.
 

Rasputin

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I have not been on the Coast Starlight northbound nor have I ever connected with the Starlight from the Zephyr at Sacramento.  If you were going to spend a day or two in Sacramento or in San Francisco, I would say take the Zephyr and the Starlight.  If not, then the long layover at Sacramento would certainly discourage me.  If the Starlight is late you could be boarding it in the wee hours after long, tiresome wait there when, had you boarded the Starlight in LA, you would (hopefully) be asleep in your room when you pass through Sacramento.   

The route of the Zephyr is exceptionally scenic but if I were doing your trip, I would take the Southwest Chief to LA and board the Coast Starlight there.  It just sounds like a more pleasant and relaxing trip and the Southwest Chief and Coast Starlight are very scenic routes.     
 

Rasputin

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Definitely take the Zephyr. It is a much, Much, MUCH prettier train than the Chief, and will likely be significantly cheaper (the Chief is a bit more expensive end-to-end, and you have to pay for the extra 12 hours on the Starlight). Also note that there's quite a bit of of rough trackage on the Chief, and the 8:00 AM arrival into LAX isn't ideal either.
Just wondering how you can be so critical about the Southwest Chief route when it appears, from your routes travelled, that you have never been on that train.  
 

cpotisch

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Definitely take the Zephyr. It is a much, Much, MUCH prettier train than the Chief, and will likely be significantly cheaper (the Chief is a bit more expensive end-to-end, and you have to pay for the extra 12 hours on the Starlight). Also note that there's quite a bit of of rough trackage on the Chief, and the 8:00 AM arrival into LAX isn't ideal either.
Just wondering how you can be so critical about the Southwest Chief route when it appears, from your routes travelled, that you have never been on that train.  
Lots and lots and lots of reading, research, and videos. ;)
 

cpotisch

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Lots and lots and lots of reading, research, and videos. ;)
I hope you get the opportunity to ride the Southwest Chief sometime.  It is a great train and a great route.
I don’t doubt at all that the Chief is a great train, and you probably noticed that it’s on my wish list. I just don’t think (from what I’ve heard and seen) that it’s better than the Zephyr (which I have taken, BTW).
 

Rasputin

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I don’t doubt at all that the Chief is a great train, and you probably noticed that it’s on my wish list. I just don’t think (from what I’ve heard and seen) that it’s better than the Zephyr (which I have taken, BTW).
Oh, I regard the Zephyr as the most scenic route in the Amtrak system and if that was the only question, I would say take that train.  However in the context of the original question, I think, based on my experience, that the Southwest Chief to LA and the Coast Starlight to Portland would provide an overall superior trip.
 

Ryan

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I hope you get the opportunity to ride the Southwest Chief sometime.  It is a great train and a great route.
Concur. Love the Chief and would take it for this trip. 

Also, the cost difference depends on the day of travel.  Saying one is more expensive than the other is a bit overly broad. 
 

cpotisch

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Also, the cost difference depends on the day of travel.  Saying one is more expensive than the other is a bit overly broad. 
Yes, but the odds are that it's more expensive, since the respective buckets are more. And that's also why I used the word "likely" in my original post, since the odds indicate that that will likely be the case, but don't guarantee it.
 

Maglev

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I would also recommend taking the Chief. One factor that has not been mentioned is the excitement of departing on a train as it  originates from a grand terminal like Los Angeles Union Station.
 

SP&S

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The CZ and CS are two of the most scenic routes in the country.  Unfortunately for you some of the finest scenery on the Starlight is between LAX and SAC.

Wanna consider something crazy?  (And I've done crazy things to catch a train before)  Take the Zephyr to SAC. Fly from SAC to LAX, stay in LA overnight, and take the Starlight from LAX to PDX. 
 

Devil's Advocate

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I think, based on my experience, that the Southwest Chief to LA and the Coast Starlight to Portland would provide an overall superior trip. 
&

Concur. Love the Chief and would take it for this trip.
&

I would also recommend taking the Chief.
Agreed.  For me the Coast Starlight is the most varied and interesting route in the system.  The California Zephyr may have higher highs but there is no part of the Coast Starlight that isn't visually appealing to me, whereas the CZ isn't that interesting East of Denver.  Add in the poor connection from the WBCZ to the NBCS and the Southwest Chief wins.
 
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Thank you to all for your input and advice. Given the potentially tiring layover in SAC, I've decided to take the SWC to LAX and board the CS there. I'll save the CZ for another time. Now, about the SWC being late to LA and missing the connection to the CS. There's only two hours in between....which seems a bit hit-or-miss to me, but maybe not. I can't spend the night in LA due to some pre-set plans in Portland. So, just wondering, will Amtrak make accommodations (bus perhaps?) to catch passengers up with the CS if the connection is missed due to the SWC being late? Thanks again in advance for your thoughts/experiences/suggestions.
 

Bob Dylan

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Yep, you either be Bustitued to  chase the Starlight up the Coast,( once they even bused us to LAX to catch the Starlight) or ride an Ambus from LAX to Bakersfield.  

You'd then catch a San Joaquin Train to catch up with the Starlight around  Sacramento or the Bay Area.

Good luck!
 
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Rasputin

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Of course anything can happen with Amtrak but there is a lot of padding in the western portion of the Southwest Chief schedule into LA.  You will be travelling in May so these shouldn't any winter delays (although last May we went through a 20 minute snowstorm in Arizona).  We were early into LA.

Hope you have a great trip.  You will see a lot of varied scenery. 
 

cpotisch

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Thank you to all for your input and advice. Given the potentially tiring layover in SAC, I've decided to take the SWC to LAX and board the CS there. I'll save the CZ for another time. Now, about the SWC being late to LA and missing the connection to the CS. There's only two hours in between....which seems a bit hit-or-miss to me, but maybe not. I can't spend the night in LA due to some pre-set plans in Portland. So, just wondering, will Amtrak make accommodations (bus perhaps?) to catch passengers up with the CS if the connection is missed due to the SWC being late? Thanks again in advance for your thoughts/experiences/suggestions.
Since it’s a guaranteed connection, Amtrak is obligated to get you to your destination and pay for any costs associated with doing so. They will usually put connecting passengers on a bus to meet the train, but if the Chief is just too late for that to work out, you will likely have to spend a night in LA, though Amtrak will pay for it (they cover lodging, food, and transportation to and from the station). If that happens, I recommend you call Customer Relations afterward to get compensation. But obviously that doesn’t help if you have something to do in Portland that day...
 

Rasputin

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Is the SJ really so much faster than the Starlight that it can catch up in the event of a delayed Chief?
Yes.  The Starlight has a bit of slow trackage around the Cuesta Grade and other places. It is very scenic but not fast.  The San Joaquin runs through relatively flat country and makes good time. 
 

Ronbo

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Thank you to all for your input and advice. Given the potentially tiring layover in SAC, I've decided to take the SWC to LAX and board the CS there. I'll save the CZ for another time. Now, about the SWC being late to LA and missing the connection to the CS. There's only two hours in between....which seems a bit hit-or-miss to me, but maybe not. I can't spend the night in LA due to some pre-set plans in Portland. So, just wondering, will Amtrak make accommodations (bus perhaps?) to catch passengers up with the CS if the connection is missed due to the SWC being late? Thanks again in advance for your thoughts/experiences/suggestions.
If you miss your connection to the Starlight at LA and get bussed to Bakersfield and then to Sacramento via San Joaquin, you’ll miss a lot of what the CS has to offer. Why not leave a day earlier and “plan” on an overnight in LA? Just a thought. 
 
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