California Zephyr or Coast Starlight?

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ParanoidAndroid

OBS Chief
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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?
You can leave LA 4 hours later than the CS on a Thruway bus, go to Sacramento with a bus-train-bus double transfer, and still get to Sacramento an hour and half before the Starlight arrives. The San Joaquin is a fast route.
 
C

Cal

Guest
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!
First time doing this...

Note: I have never been on the Zephyr, and I haven't been on the Chief recently. However I have seen tons of reviews, video and articles.

First of all, they are both great, it really just depends what you want.

With the Chief: On the first day you get to enjoy sights of the Chicago suburbs and then Illinois farmland (Me, being in the the LA suburbs, I love looking at both of them.) The second day you wake up in the Colorado Plains, then enter New Mexico with the Raton Pass, which is a little part of the Rockies and a beautiful place. You then go through New Mexico and the great Southwest Desert, passing through Albuquerque. The next day you should wake up in Cajon Pass, or in the Los Angeles suburbs and then will be able to enjoy (if on time) some time in the Metropolitan Lounge before connecting to the Starlight. NOTE: IF you are late they will hold the Starlight for your train, they have done it before with the Sunset Limited and I'm sure they would do it for the Chief. Once you get on the Starlight you enjoy some Los Angeles suburbs, then for hours you enjoy the spectacular Pacific Ocean. Then you will cut inland and enjoy some California Farmland, which is lovely in it's own way. You will then pass through the bay area, possibly seeing San Jose, depending on when you go. You should wake up the next day in Northern California, and enjoy the beautiful scenery around Klamath Falls and then go straight through the amazing Cascade Mountains. Then through the Willamette Valley, which is honestly very pretty and a nice ride.

On the Zephyr, you will have basically the same views as the Chief on the first day. Then the next day you will wake up around or before Denver. You can enjoy some fresh air, and then breakfast in the diner. Then you will ascend into the middle of the Rocky Mountains. This part of the trip is spectatulalar, and unless you are literally 10+ hours late you won't miss it. You will enjoy mountain and canyon scenery for most of the day. When you awake, you should be somewhere around Reno, enjoying a bit of the Nevada Desert before going into the Sierra Nevadas, which is also very pretty. You then descend down directly into the suburbs of Sacramento. From here, you get what seems to be a not-very-appealing layover in Sacramento. On the Starlight, you should go straight to bed and then wake up in Northern California, same as the Chief.

Personally, I would go for the Chief/Starlight! You get plains, beautiful southwest desert, ocean, California farmland, Cascade mountains, and Willamette valley. It would make for a lovely vacation, and that layover in Sacramento just seems not good. As you would board the Starlight tired. When going the Chief route you also get to go straight through the middle of the street in Oakland on the Starlight, it's really neat!

Also, despite which route, I would suggest you go in the summer! Longer days, so more scenery. When you go in the summer you will be able to see more of Northern California. You will also be able to see San Jose, when travelling in the Fall and Winter, it's way past dark by the time you reach San Jose. And the ocean views are much better in the Summer.
 
C

Cal

Guest
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.
I have seen video, and heard of instances where they held the train for a late inbound train. Example below.

The Sunset Limited/Texas Eagle, scheduled to arrive into Los Angeles at 5:30 AM was running several hours behind. There were many connecting passengers to the Starlight. Luckily, Amtrak held the Starlight for the inbound Limited/Eagle and the passengers made their connections.

Amtrak will also do their best to have the late inbound train arrive on the same platform as the outbound train for a seamless transition.
 

Cal

OBS Chief
Joined
Jan 23, 2021
Messages
996
Location
Socal
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.
Don't worry. On Amtrak routes that you can book online (such as the one you are taking), they guarantee a connection. If the train is late, they will hold your Coast Starlight. Or they will find a way to get you on the Coast Starlight one way or another.
 

tgstubbs1

Lead Service Attendant
Joined
Mar 3, 2020
Messages
384
I got the impression that the Zepher is a slower and older train. I found the windows in the lounge car kind of hazy, for example.

Both trains have great scenery so I hope you can use the alternate on your return trip. It would be better to take the SWC west and then take the CZ east.

You also should be able to make the connections somewhere other than Sacramento. If you take the CZ to Emeryville your layover should be shorter.
 

20th Century Rider

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Joined
Jan 26, 2020
Messages
1,353
Location
Oregon Coast
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!
The CZ arrives in LA at 9pm while the Chief leaves at 8pm... so you spend an entire day in LA at own cost. Don't like that midnight connection in SAC either. But the CZ has some of the best scenery in America. This would be my suggestion...

Take the CS to Emeryville and overnight there, getting off after bkfst at 8am... lots to see and a free shuttle takes you around.
Then board the CZ and enjoy the entire route.

Or take the CS to Ventura or Oxnard and overnight there... continuing on the next day to LAX on the Surfliner [has a good business class] with easy connecting time. During your transfer at LAX if you have time enjoy Little Mexico right across the street.

I've done this before and it worked very well for me.;)

Below... pics of Little Mexico across from Amtrak station... and some yummy food to enjoy while there:

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20th Century Rider

Conductor
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Jan 26, 2020
Messages
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Location
Oregon Coast
The CZ arrives in LA at 9pm while the Chief leaves at 8pm... so you spend an entire day in LA at own cost. Don't like that midnight connection in SAC either. But the CZ has some of the best scenery in America. This would be my suggestion...

Take the CS to Emeryville and overnight there, getting off after bkfst at 8am... lots to see and a free shuttle takes you around.
Then board the CZ and enjoy the entire route.

Or take the CS to Ventura or Oxnard and overnight there... continuing on the next day to LAX on the Surfliner [has a good business class] with easy connecting time. During your transfer at LAX if you have time enjoy Little Mexico right across the street.

I've done this before and it worked very well for me.;)

Below... pics of Little Mexico across from Amtrak station... and some yummy food to enjoy while there:

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BTW... forgot to mention that the scenery on the Chief is ok... but can't compare to what you see on the Zephyr... noted by many as the best Amtrak route for scenery. Many highlights such as the Sierra Nevadas the first day and the Rockies the second day followed by a spectacular decent into the Denver area.
Amtrak_California_Zephyr.jpg


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anumberone

Conductor
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BTW... forgot to mention that the scenery on the Chief is ok... but can't compare to what you see on the Zephyr... noted by many as the best Amtrak route for scenery. Many highlights such as the Sierra Nevadas the first day and the Rockies the second day followed by a spectacular decent into the Denver area.
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Great photos. But I think you have her route confused. She was coming west and then heading North on the Starlight.
 

Bob Dylan

Conductor
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May 31, 2009
Messages
22,118
Location
Austin Texas
The CZ arrives in LA at 9pm while the Chief leaves at 8pm... so you spend an entire day in LA at own cost. Don't like that midnight connection in SAC either. But the CZ has some of the best scenery in America. This would be my suggestion...

Take the CS to Emeryville and overnight there, getting off after bkfst at 8am... lots to see and a free shuttle takes you around.
Then board the CZ and enjoy the entire route.

Or take the CS to Ventura or Oxnard and overnight there... continuing on the next day to LAX on the Surfliner [has a good business class] with easy connecting time. During your transfer at LAX if you have time enjoy Little Mexico right across the street.

I've done this before and it worked very well for me.;)

Below... pics of Little Mexico across from Amtrak station... and some yummy food to enjoy while there:

View attachment 20398

View attachment 20399
In "Normal" times, this is an excellent idea.

However LA is currently a "Hot Spot" for COVID and there are all kinds of restrictions, rules and guidelines that make being a tourist there no fun! (For Example, Philipe is to go only, No indoor dining).

The Sacramento option and the CZ is probably your best bet till we return to Daily Trains!
 

pennyk

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This thread was started in early 2019 and my previous responses were posted in early 2019, before my December 2019 cross country trip. I took the California Zephyr to Sacramento and then the Coast Starlight to Seattle (before returning east). Because of my unpleasant layover in SAC in 2010, I decided to get a hotel room in Sacramento for the duration of my 2019 layover. I had plenty of HH points and booked a room at the Embassy Suites, which was a fairly easy walk in daylight. I was able to take a real shower, take a short nap, go out to dinner, and attend the Embassy Suites happy hour which was full of runners who had run the Sacramento International Marathon that day. (I am a former marathon runner and loved seeing so many runners - especially the first timers). The hotel's shuttle delivered me to the train station a little earlier than necessary, but the wait was comfortable in the "first class" area.

That was the second time I did the CZ, CS, Empire Builder, CL, SM trip and loved it both times. Seeing so much snow and below zero temperatures was a plus for me during my 2019 trip. I hope I have another cross country trip in me.

The first photo is from the CZ in the Sierra Nevadas. The second photos is from the CS. My avatar photo is from the railfan window of the CZ in the Sierra Nevadas.

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caravanman

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Nottingham, England.
Just a heads up that the original post is nearly 2 years old...
I like that a person who has not actually travelled the routes has posted, but beware of second hand info!

EDIT: oops, Penny beat my post by 30 seconds!
 

anumberone

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This thread was started in early 2019 and my previous responses were posted in early 2019, before my December 2019 cross country trip. I took the California Zephyr to Sacramento and then the Coast Starlight to Seattle (before returning east). Because of my unpleasant layover in SAC in 2010, I decided to get a hotel room in Sacramento for the duration of my 2019 layover. I had plenty of HH points and booked a room at the Embassy Suites, which was a fairly easy walk in daylight. I was able to take a real shower, take a short nap, go out to dinner, and attend the Embassy Suites happy hour which was full of runners who had run the Sacramento International Marathon that day. (I am a former marathon runner and loved seeing so many runners - especially the first timers). The hotel's shuttle delivered me to the train station a little earlier than necessary, but the wait was comfortable in the "first class" area.

That was the second time I did the CZ, CS, Empire Builder, CL, SM trip and loved it both times. Seeing so much snow and below zero temperatures was a plus for me during my 2019 trip. I hope I have another cross country trip in me.

The first photo is from the CZ in the Sierra Nevadas. The second photos is from the CS. My avatar photo is from the railfan window of the CZ in the Sierra Nevadas.

View attachment 20406View attachment 20407
The old Sacramento Station although maybe historic, was a pretty crude place to get stuck at. I had a 6 hour wait for A late running Zephyr that was accompanied by huge jackhammers removing concrete in front of the station, that I thought was going to knock the building down. I don't think my ears stopped ringing til we got to Truckee. Otherwise, Sacramento is pretty much a sleep thru both directions on the CS
 

Cal

OBS Chief
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I got the impression that the Zepher is a slower and older train. I found the windows in the lounge car kind of hazy, for example.

Both trains have great scenery so I hope you can use the alternate on your return trip. It would be better to take the SWC west and then take the CZ east.

You also should be able to make the connections somewhere other than Sacramento. If you take the CZ to Emeryville your layover should be shorter.
Both of the trains originated in the Amtrak system the same way. So they really aren't different ages. The equipment on them are the same too. The windows must've been hazy due to poor cleaning.

And the Zephyr is slower becuase it has to go through three mountain passes; Donner Pass, Soldier Summit, and the Rockies. Of course it will be slower.
 

tgstubbs1

Lead Service Attendant
Joined
Mar 3, 2020
Messages
384
Sorry I didn't mean to insinuate the trains were worn out or anything. The scenery while traversing those passes is spectacular, so slower can be better.

The lounge car I experienced seemed to have a brown or tan color scheme. It could have been a car that's been refurbished or retired by now.

There's no excuse for a person not riding both the Zepher and the Chief at least once so they can make up their own minds about which route they like.
 

anumberone

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Sorry I didn't mean to insinuate the trains were worn out or anything. The scenery while traversing those passes is spectacular, so slower can be better.

The lounge car I experienced seemed to have a brown or tan color scheme. It could have been a car that's been refurbished or retired by now.

There's no excuse for a person not riding both the Zepher and the Chief at least once so they can make up their own minds about which route they like.
For sure, I have to get the Chief and the Builder a done deal before I'm through.
 

tomfuller

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863
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Crescent Oregon (17 miles from Chemult)
A few years ago (2015?) I took the CZ from SAC to Galesburg IL. I rented a car from Enterprise which is about 150 yards from the station. I drove the car I rented for a week about 3500 miles in 20 states. Instead of taking the CZ back, I waited for a couple hours after the CZ left to ride the SWC. On the second morning myself and two other guys had breakfast in the dining car with Mark Murphy who was at that time the Amtrak VP of long distance routes.
The train was late enough into LAX that I made a cross platform transfer to the Coast Starlight without going into the station.
I do remember another trip where the Coast Starlight got to SAC at 3AM. We slept pretty well once we were on the train.
I also remember going to a movie at a multiplex that is within walking distance of the SAC station.
Last February the Sunset Limited was late enough into LAX that we were bused (bus full) from LAX to Bakersfield and took the San Joaquin all the way to Martinez. A couple of us went to a Greek restaurant for a good meal and then waited for several hours at MTZ for the CS that we had missed in LA.
 

Cal

OBS Chief
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Socal
For sure, I have to get the Chief and the Builder a done deal before I'm through.
I have taken the Builder 28 Eastbound recently, it's a lovely trip. Make sure to take it Eastbound and wake up early so you can enjoy Glacier National Park!

I've been on the SW Chief but I was three, so I don't remember it. Hopefully, if COVID cases are low, I will be taking it from Fullerton to Chicago in late March and the Eagle back home.
 

Cal

OBS Chief
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Sorry I didn't mean to insinuate the trains were worn out or anything. The scenery while traversing those passes is spectacular, so slower can be better.

The lounge car I experienced seemed to have a brown or tan color scheme. It could have been a car that's been refurbished or retired by now.

There's no excuse for a person not riding both the Zepher and the Chief at least once so they can make up their own minds about which route they like.
I have no idea about that lounge car, I don't have nearly as much knowledge on Amtrak (or railroads in general) as many of the people on this.

And yes, people should definitely take both before deciding!
 

Ringfinder

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Apr 4, 2013
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25
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Lima Ohio
First time doing this...

Note: I have never been on the Zephyr, and I haven't been on the Chief recently. However I have seen tons of reviews, video and articles.

First of all, they are both great, it really just depends what you want.

With the Chief: On the first day you get to enjoy sights of the Chicago suburbs and then Illinois farmland (Me, being in the the LA suburbs, I love looking at both of them.) The second day you wake up in the Colorado Plains, then enter New Mexico with the Raton Pass, which is a little part of the Rockies and a beautiful place. You then go through New Mexico and the great Southwest Desert, passing through Albuquerque. The next day you should wake up in Cajon Pass, or in the Los Angeles suburbs and then will be able to enjoy (if on time) some time in the Metropolitan Lounge before connecting to the Starlight. NOTE: IF you are late they will hold the Starlight for your train, they have done it before with the Sunset Limited and I'm sure they would do it for the Chief. Once you get on the Starlight you enjoy some Los Angeles suburbs, then for hours you enjoy the spectacular Pacific Ocean. Then you will cut inland and enjoy some California Farmland, which is lovely in it's own way. You will then pass through the bay area, possibly seeing San Jose, depending on when you go. You should wake up the next day in Northern California, and enjoy the beautiful scenery around Klamath Falls and then go straight through the amazing Cascade Mountains. Then through the Willamette Valley, which is honestly very pretty and a nice ride.

On the Zephyr, you will have basically the same views as the Chief on the first day. Then the next day you will wake up around or before Denver. You can enjoy some fresh air, and then breakfast in the diner. Then you will ascend into the middle of the Rocky Mountains. This part of the trip is spectatulalar, and unless you are literally 10+ hours late you won't miss it. You will enjoy mountain and canyon scenery for most of the day. When you awake, you should be somewhere around Reno, enjoying a bit of the Nevada Desert before going into the Sierra Nevadas, which is also very pretty. You then descend down directly into the suburbs of Sacramento. From here, you get what seems to be a not-very-appealing layover in Sacramento. On the Starlight, you should go straight to bed and then wake up in Northern California, same as the Chief.

Personally, I would go for the Chief/Starlight! You get plains, beautiful southwest desert, ocean, California farmland, Cascade mountains, and Willamette valley. It would make for a lovely vacation, and that layover in Sacramento just seems not good. As you would board the Starlight tired. When going the Chief route you also get to go straight through the middle of the street in Oakland on the Starlight, it's really neat!

Also, despite which route, I would suggest you go in the summer! Longer days, so more scenery. When you go in the summer you will be able to see more of Northern California. You will also be able to see San Jose, when travelling in the Fall and Winter, it's way past dark by the time you reach San Jose. And the ocean views are much better in the Summer.
I've stayed in Emeryville at a Sears Home. The lady came to the train and picked my wife and I up. the next morning she took us back to the train south. Great place to stay and reasonable. I can get the Phone number for you if you like. I agree, this is the way to go to LA, down the coast to LA is a Beautiful Train Ride. I'd get a Roomette if I were you, if not the Window Car is Awesome. When we went, they still had Wine Tasting at no cost. mmmmm
 
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