Passenger rail in the U.S. doesn’t compare in speed or modernity with rail in Europe, Japan, or Korea. However, what it lacks in those areas, it more than makes up for in scenic beauty, the opportunity to really see the country, and the chances to meet and talk with people from all over the U.S., and all over the world. If you are outgoing, and not in a hurry, Amtrak (the train) is a great way both to tour the U.S. and to use the English that you have come so far to improve.
From E.C. San Francisco, there are two major rail routes. The Bay Area is near the midpoint of the West Coast route taken by the Coast Starlight between Los Angeles and Seattle. It is also one endpoint of the East/West route between Chicago (and New York / Boston) and San Francisco, the incredibly beautiful California Zephyr. But for now, let’s talk about getting to L.A. by train.
Taking the Coast Starlight (in either direction) takes close to 12 hours. Southbound, you leave San Francisco (Emeryville station) at around 9 am, and arrive in Los Angeles (Union Station) at around 9 pm. For this reason, if you aren’t familiar with the area, this may not be the best option. Instead, you can take another train / bus combination [the San Joaquin] that will get you to L.A. by 4, giving you time to get to your hotel, clean up, go to dinner, etc., before getting a good night’s sleep. I recommend getting to L.A. this way (or flying, or driving one way), and then coming back to the Bay Area on the Starlight. So what if you get in at 9 or 10? You live here!
If you do go south on the Starlight, you pass a wide range of typical California landscapes. After leaving the Oakland area behind , you pass through what was once a wild town of saloons, gambling halls, and whorehouses. The buildings remain, but are slowly sinking into the marshy land that lies at the edge of San Francisco Bay. After San Jose, you wind through hills until you come suddenly to Elkhorn Slough, where you may see a huge variety of waterbirds. Then you skirt Monterey Bay, and head down the second most important agricultural valley in California, the Salinas. If you eat vegetables while in California, they probably come from here.
At the end of the valley, you wind through typical California hill country, climbing slowly without noticing it, until you suddenly begin the long downhill (with many tunnels and magnificent views) that leads to San Luis Obispo, home of California Polytechnic University. Shortly after that, you turn west onto military land that most people cannot get to, and suddenly you are on the coast. From here to Ventura, you will be on the water. I’ve seen wild pigs, foxes, coyotes, and deer along the tracks, and offshore, whales and dolphins. The only features of California that you don’t get to see on this route are the desert and the high mountains. But there are other trains that can show you those as well.