December 05, 2017

Photo Essay: On the Sleeper Car to San Diego

I've taken plenty of Amtrak trains in my day—between New York and Boston, Syracuse, and Philly, each many times over.

But I've never had a trip so long that I needed to sleep on the train.

But on Saturday at 7 a.m., as I was standing on the platform of Track 9B at Los Angeles Union Station, that was all about to change.

I wasn't actually going that far—just to San Diego, a mere three-hour journey—but it was sure to be an adventure. After all, I was riding in a car that was just being towed by Amtrak and not actually owned or operated by Amtrak.

No, the Pacific Sands of 1950 predates the formation of Amtrak by more than 20 years. It's a relic from the Pullman Company and the Union Pacific, both of which were duking it out with the rise of car culture and in the advent of the jet age to keep train travel relevant. And one of the ways they did that was by outfitting their stainless steel cars with the Pullman Porters, who'd been serving luxury-class train passengers since right after the start of the Civil War.

They'd turn your bed down at night, flip it back up in the morning, and bring you coffee and pastries or even deliver dinner to your bedroom or roomette. And if you needed anything in the meantime, you'd just press the call button.

The corresponding number on the call panel would light up, and as long as the porter hadn't gone to bed yet, he'd more or less be at your beck and call. It was a demanding job at times, one frequently held by former slaves in the earliest days of the Pullman sleeper cars.

Of course, by design, the roomettes provide everything you need—from a built-in, pull-down sink... a built-in, flip-top, air compression toilet...

...and even some climate control.

But even though you may not have to leave your accommodations, you may want to—if only to catch a good look at the view from the open back platform.

Amtrak doesn't let you do that these days, but since this Pullman sleeper car is privately owned and was just hitched to an Amtrak, we were allowed to slide open that back door and hang out the window as soon as the train made a turn toward the Pacific Ocean, right after San Juan Capistrano.

You don't get the same experience driving to San Diego—even if you're just riding in the passenger seat.

And, since this is a sleeper car, it performs double-duty as both transportation and hotel—a kind of roving (or, at least, rolling) B&B for the modern traveler with vintage inclinations.

Starting late Saturday morning, our home base became San Diego's historic Santa Fe Depot.

Built by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway to welcome visitors to the Panama-California Exposition of 1915-1917... features the same Spanish Colonial Revival architecture and tile work found in the extant structures from the Expo in Balboa Park, just a couple of miles northeast.

The blue and white sign was added to the terra-cotta, red-tiled roof in the 1950s.

But inside the waiting room, you'll find century-old oak benches and redwood beamed ceilings...

...original tile featuring the Santa Fe cross...

...and even exhibits of historical photos and artifacts.

But we weren't sleeping in the train station—but, rather, on the train. And after an early-morning departure and a full day in San Diego, we were ready to hit the hay shortly after 10 p.m.

In my little cocoon, I zipped up my blue curtains, latched my roomette door, and pulled down the vinyl shade that blacked all the City Center lights out. The white-noise hum of Amtrak's ground power lulled me to sleep, and woke me up when it surged a couple of times early in the morning for the first of Sunday's inbound and outbound Amtrak trains.

I found myself wishing that the Pullman sleeper had actually been moving while I was sleeping on it. Moving trains always put me to sleep. I find the motion irresistible.

But we had another whole day to explore San Diego before we'd head back to LA Union Station and crash once again in our own beds, which felt almost too large and too airy to me upon my return.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Union Station, Open to the Public
Photo Essay: Union Station's Ticketing Area, Closed to the Public
Photo Essay: Union Station's Harvey House Restaurant, Closed to the Public
Photo Essay: Last Chance Weekend Scenic Excursion, Fillmore to Santa Paula
Photo Essay: A Last Ride on the Last Red Car

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