Dreaming of the Night Train: Sleeping from LA to the Bay Area

A sleeping compartment on Amtrak. Adjusting existing schedules could provide overnight service from L.A. to the Bay Area. Photo from Amtrak website.

Like many Californians, I travel regularly between Los Angeles and San Francisco, often taking an early morning flight. The crack-of-dawn wake up, the airport traffic, and the security pat-downs and delays are exhausting. Wouldn’t it be nicer just to crawl into bed in L.A. the night before and wake up in the Bay Area?

During Jerry Brown’s first reign as Governor, that was a possibility. There was an overnight train called “The Spirit of California,” with compartments and real beds. The Spirit left L.A. around 9 p.m. and got into Oakland at 7:20 a.m. and Sacramento at 9:50 a.m. That’s slow, of course, but it didn’t matter since passengers slept through most of the trip. It also served cities along the route, including Oxnard, Santa Barbara, and San Jose. But it was killed in 1983 by Brown’s successor, Republican Governor George Deukmejian.

Today, there are overnight buses. But even if you can sleep in a bus seat, you wake up in morning rush-hour traffic. With California’s population doubled and our roads and airports congested, maybe it’s time to bring back a night train.

High speed rail between Los Angeles and San Francisco won’t be completed until 2029 at the earliest. Until then, Amtrak’s Coast Starlight will remain the only direct train from L.A. to the Bay Area. Currently, the Starlight leaves L.A. at 10:10 a.m. and arrives in Oakland at 9:24 p.m.–too slow to be of use to anyone but the most leisurely travelers. Since it continues to the Pacific Northwest, it already has sleeping cars. Its schedule could be shifted by twelve hours, so that it left L.A. in the evening and traveled to the Bay Area overnight. That said, the shift might anger people in cities further north, like Portland, Oregon, where it would stop at 3:30 a.m. instead of mid-afternoon.

Another option, say rail advocates, is to extend Amtrak’s California Zephyr. That train arrives in Oakland at 4:10 p.m., where it waits until 9:10 a.m. before heading back to Chicago. Instead, it could hold in Oakland for a few hours and then head to L.A. overnight. “It becomes a labor issue about who crews the train,” explained Paul Dyson, President of the Rail Passenger Association of California and Nevada, adding that some additional equipment would be needed. “The state could say to Amtrak: ‘We want you to do this,’ and Amtrak would come back with an invoice for the state.”

However, Sacramento has been delegating responsibility for California’s existing rail services to regional government groups and Joint Powers Authorities (JPA). Someone would have to form a coalition to fund an overnight train that runs through multiple sectors of California. But why would a JPA based in San Luis Obispo, for example, support a train that rolls through at 3:20 a.m.? “Amtrak has looked at extending the Zephyr to Los Angeles,” explained Chad Edison, Deputy Secretary for Transportation for the California State Transportation Agency. He said the money to do it would have to come from Washington.

How much money are we talking about? Amtrak failed to provide even rough estimates. But the Zephyr, according to the most recent figures I could find, requires a $56 million annual subsidy for its Chicago to Oakland service. Extending it to Los Angeles shouldn’t increase that by much, especially given that California Amtrak routes perform better than the national average. But either way, it seems unlikely the additional funds will come from Washington, given the current political climate.

Extending the Zephyr, rescheduling the Starlight, or bringing back a sleeper train in some other way, would add a more practical, direct service between Northern and Southern California while we wait for HSR. But absent a coherent push from Sacramento, reviving the night train will remain just a dream.

23 thoughts on Dreaming of the Night Train: Sleeping from LA to the Bay Area

  1. Thanks! Weird that I couldn’t find it when searching Facebook. (Maybe I mis-typed something.)

  2. I like that idea, though they’d need to add some sleeper cars to that train to be a more direct competitor to the Cabin service, but I like the concept.

  3. Interesting! Never heard of Dreamstar before today and they don’t appear to have a Facebook presence. It will be interesting to see what becomes of them, but if they’re soliciting input about their proposed service, I would think they should have a social media presence by now. Kinda makes me wonder.

  4. How about extending the Surfliner? You would only need to extend one train a night in each direction, so track rights shouldn’t be too much trouble.
    That would provide overnight service all the way down to San Diego.

  5. The return of the Coast Daylight (train between San Francisco and LA) was proposed and partially planned several years ago, but nothing has happened so far. Perhaps the timetable could be shifted to overnight, and/or improvements to the line can be implemented to increase the speed to 110mph.

  6. The current experiment on the Silver Star is NOT a success… but that’s arguably because they replaced the diner with absolutely nothing. Amtrak’s national “cafe” menu, which is really bad, was the only remaining food option — and that’s not attractive for people taking a trip which is a lot longer than overnight (verging on 24 hours).

    They’ve recently changed the Silver Star cafe menu to offer a slightly more reasonable selection of stuff (the stuff they offer on the Northeast Corridor), which might bring back some of the customers.

    The dining cars are awfully expensive to operate. If you arrange a train which starts after dinnertime and arrives early in the morning, you don’t need them. They become important for trains which are running for 10+ hours *during the day* as well. You could avoid that with a LA-SF train.

  7. It’d be great. HSR through the Central Valley in the long term. Overnight train on the coast in the short term. And when CaHSR is finished, we can work on improving the coastal route to get 110 mph operations with electrification, double tracking and tilt trains that can join the HSR corridor up the Peninsula and also serve Transbay. What a state we’ll have in the future with reliable 220 mph trains inland and the 110 mph trains on the coast!

  8. Then perhaps just offer it as a Thursday-Sunday option to start, then see about growing ridership in the future. Also, seek ways to speed up the trip.

  9. I believe the Western High Speed Rail Alliance is actually looking into such a thing. As you’re probably already aware.

  10. Huh, I never thought about the meal cost and its impact on the sleeper prices but that’s a really good point.

  11. I absolutely believe there’s a market for this. Flying is uncomfortable. So is driving, and that option takes 6-9 hours from LA to the Bay, so you’re already sacrificing part of your day.

    But if you can board a train in the evening and arrive at your destination the next morning, having been able to sleep in comfort overnight, it would be appealing. I know I would have loved it on my many trips from Monterey County to LA and back.

    A sleeper would cost less for the passengers than a trip from LA to Seattle or SF to Chicago. It would cost more than a promotional fare on Southwest, but probably would be comparable to the actual fares you get if you’re not booking the flight months in advance.

    At bare minimum this is worth exploring.

  12. Part of what makes sleeper tickets so expensive on Amtrak is that they also include “free” diner car meals, and diners are horrifically expensive to run with Amtrak’s cost and staffing structure. They’re currently doing an experiment with one of the NY-Florida trains, running it without a diner and with cheaper sleeper tickets, and it seems to be a success thus far. So a dinerless night train would presumably have cheaper tickets than the current $170 one way price from Oakland to LA.
    And a well-timed night train also has some distinct advantages. With, say, an 8 or 9 am arrival, you can be there in time for morning meetings without having to wake up at 3 am for that first flight at 5:30 and without having to spend the night and pay for a hotel.

  13. Although the Night Coast bus is often full on Thursday, Friday and Sunday nights from San Jose to Santa Barbara, the rest of the week ridership is poor. The 2 am bus from LA to Bakersfield also has poor ridership most of the week.

    Sleeper service is very expensive to maintain. You could do a “slumbercoach” operation but the costs are going to be easily $150 or more one way – much more than even the $45 same day fare on Bolt or Megabus. Most people, though, on a hypothetical overnight train would be in coach, sitting on a slightly bigger seat than on a bus (since you would be using the Amtrak California Cars or their replacement, not the Superliners with long distance seating). But you now have to crew a train with a conductor, food service attendant, and engineer, rather than a driver. There might be benefit in serving places on the Central Coast in the middle of the night, but the ridership there is likely going to be minimal, especially when better times are available on other service.

    Logistically, the Zephyr is serviced at the Oakland shops. Is there even space to service an overnight train in Los Angeles?

    The San Joaquin Valley Rail Committee evaluated extending the San Joaquin train to Los Angeles, and even with Union Pacific’s vehement opposition to passenger rail on Tehachapi, it would still take five to six hours from Bakersfield to LA. Overall, people who can afford it fly since it’s not that expensive; people who can’t take the overnight bus. Most people would rather have four or five hours of sleep on their own bed than six or seven hours of poor sleep in a chair. There might be a demand on three nights of a week, but as a taxpayer I do not want to pay to run empty trains on a Tuesday night.

  14. I reckon that it could work, assuming that the government were to rebuild the line. The fact is that a 30mph (if that) ride from Emeryville to Chicago isn’t fun especially if there’s a bridge washout or if you’re stuck behind multiple freight trains.

    Connecting CA to Chicago with better train service, thought not necessarily sleeper service, makes a lot of sense. If the existing lines were to be rebuilt, people would use a 125mph service if it was consistent, reliable, and was competitive with a Greyhound ticket. There’s three major cities between Oakland and Chicago on the route, two of which have rail systems of their own (SLC and Denver).

    It *could* work, but it would also require a large capital cost. People aren’t ready for that, but personally I reckon that in 10-20 years they *might*. Train travel is convenient and affordable. But, as it stands nobody is going to rely on a long distance excursion train for any sort of serious traveling. Mind you, if someone will ride a Greyhound coast to coast (shudder) they’ll ride a train if it’s affordable. As it stands 300,000 people ride the CAZ every year despite it being the mess it is.

    Just my two cents.

  15. I’ve taken the Cal Zephyr in a sleeper room all the way from SF to Chicago, and I’ve also taken the Coast Starlight LA to SF, so I’ve got a little relevant experience.

    I’m not sure there is much market for this service, unfortunately. Sleeper rooms are pretty dang expensive, so the options would essentially be a 3 hour trip on a plane, counting early arrival time at the airport, or a 12 hour night time trip on the train for 3 times the price.

    The best selling point for long distance Amtrak travel is the experience itself. Watching neighborhoods and views zip by while you sip an adult beverage in comfort. A night train eliminates that selling point, and just leaves a slow and expensive service to stand on its own.

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