A SWITCHING engine is backing Amtrak's Superliner, the Coast Starlight, alongside the platform in Los Angeles's Union Station. Travel clerk Curt Bormann is watching the operation and discussing the boarding plan with an agent via two-way radio. It will be another 30 minutes before passengers will arrive from San Diego to join those already lining up in the station.
``There is always a line for this train,'' Mr. Bormann says. ``The scenery makes this one of the most popular Amtrak trains in the country. Everyone wants a seat on the left side of the train with a view of the ocean.''
Some of the most spectacular scenery in the United States lies along its western coastline, and the best way to see it is from the windows of this train.
``Although the track parallels the highway along much of the route, the most scenic part of the trip - along the coast around Vandenberg Air Force Base - is visible only from the windows of the Coast Starlight,'' says Bormann. ``Passengers discover that trains give them great freedom to travel. There is no traffic to fight and no map to decipher - just the special camaraderie and adventure of train travel.''
For us the adventure begins before we board the train. Entering Union Station is like stepping into a 1930s movie. Built in 1939, the California mission-style building, with its touches of Art Deco, was the last major railroad terminal to be erected in the US. Its open-air patios and cathedral-like halls have been the setting for countless Hollywood movies, including ``The Way We Were.''
While the station may be a period piece, the train we will be riding is pure 1980s. The sleek Superliner cars are large - double-deck structures 85 feet long, 16 feet high, weighing over 75 tons. Deluxe rooms each have a shower and toilet, and some can be combined into suites. Economy rooms have no toilet or washbasin but offer a private space and a bed for the night.
At the end of each car, on the upper level, a family room offers views from each side and a quiet place for children. Special rooms for physically handicapped travelers occupy similar space on the lower level.
Even regular coach seats are large, comfortable, and reclinable, and they offer panoramic views through picture windows. All passengers can take their meals in the dining car and visit the club car, where games and videotaped movies are available.
At precisely 9:55 a.m. the train departs. We pass through the industrial area north of Los Angeles, and in about an hour the city gives way to the rugged Santa Susana Mountains, where passengers can be heard trying to spot places where ``The Lone Ranger'' and ``North By Northwest'' were filmed.
Soon the train begins to run along the coast, where the Channel Islands, a refuge for pelicans, cormorants, and red foxes, can be seen about 20 miles offshore. One of the most startling sights occurs just north of Ventura. Everyone wants to know if that is really a banana plantation just across from the beach. Here, at his Seaside Banana Gardens at La Conchita, Doug Richardson raises several exotic varieties of bananas, including sweet Lacatans.
Farther north along the route, the huge tower of the Space Shuttle launch pad comes into view. It is along the wild coast north of Point Arguello, and we are never quite prepared for the sight of high technology in the middle of this pristine coastal scenery. Sandy inlets, crashing surf, and the yellow flowers of the giant coreopsis form the natural splendor of the coastline, and it is only from the train that the public can catch glimpses here of America's space and missile launch facilities.
From Santa Maria north, the scenery varies from rolling oak-studded hills to the farmland of the Salinas Valley.
We adjourn to the dining car, where stewards are folding napkins and setting tables for dinner. Gone is Amtrak's flirtation with airline meals. Real food is back, though not haute cuisine. Dishes include oven-baked chicken for $7.50 and a daily selection of fresh fish for $8.
At a special snack counter in the club car, sandwiches are available until late at night. Clarence Whiting, one of the three chefs on today's train, has been cooking on Amtrak for 16 years.
``It's pretty much like working in a hotel,'' he says with a smile. ``Only you have to have a little more balance, since the kitchen is always moving.''
As night falls, the train pulls into Oakland, where San Francisco-bound passengers can take a connecting bus. From here the train route is inland to Sacramento, then up the Sacramento River Valley to Oregon. Here, on clear, moonlit nights, one gets spectacular views of Mt. Shasta - its white slopes glowing softly in the dim light.
Morning comes near Klamath Falls, Ore., where we catch views of working sawmills from the dining car, as we breakfast on buttermilk pancakes and sausage. On today's journey, the train is surrounded by the majestic beauty of the Pacific Northwest. We climb into the snowcapped splendor of the Cascade Mountains and see rocky streams, waterfalls, and tall Douglas fir. North of Eugene we pass by a llama farm, and, as we approach Portland, we go through the fertile Willamette Valley, where the Cascades rise on one side and the Coast Range on the other.
The bridge across the Columbia River takes us into Washington State. Here the tracks parallel the Columbia River and take us past Castle Rock, where traces of gray ash from the Mt. St. Helens eruption can still be seen.
Finally we come to Puget Sound, and, as the train pulls into Seattle, we get a glimpse of the new Museum of Flight, built around the little red brick building that was the birthplace of Boeing Aircraft.
At 6:10 p.m., we disembark, in time to catch the sunset over the sound and have a leisurely dinner at Labuznik, our favorite Czechoslovak restaurant at the city's venerable Pike Place Market. We arrive in Seattle rested, relaxed, and relishing the images of some of America's most beautiful landscape.
If you go
For specific information call local Amtrak travel or ticket agents, or toll-free 800-USA-RAIL.