Amtrak from Portland to Houston: The Coast Starlight

Growing up in Houston, I was always interested in long-distance train travel, but it was never realistic. Only one passenger train stops in Houston, the Sunset Limited—and only three days a week. After running between Los Angeles and Orlando for many years, the route was shortened to end in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, as well. Now, it is Amtrak’s least popular route; at less than 100,000 riders, the Sunset Limited carries the fewest passengers per year of any Amtrak train.

That said, I live in Portland now! And as a software engineer with a remote job, I found myself with enough spare time and money to make this impractical trip, nonetheless. So, I signed up for an Amtrak rewards card and started planning.

Trains have so many opportunities for selfies.

This one was taken just south of Oakland.

My Route

Getting from Portland to Houston entirely via rail requires two trains: the Coast Starlight from Portland to Los Angeles, then the Sunset Limited from Los Angeles to Houston.

When the Amtrak website initially presented me with this route, I thought “What luck!” because it seemed like Los Angeles would be an ideal city for a transfer.

…then, I realized that the time allotted between arriving and leaving in Los Angeles was only one hour, which made me extremely nervous.

Unfortunately, in the United States, freight trains have right of way over passenger trains, which means that Amtrak trains are frequently multiple hours late. I experienced this once, when I planned a trip from Seattle to Portland and accidentally booked the Coast Starlight instead of the Cascades: my train was declared “delayed” over and over again, so I sat at home watching the estimated departure time constantly increase until it was clear I wouldn’t arrive in Seattle until four hours later than I’d planned. By car, Seattle is only three and a half hours away. 🤷‍♀️

Nonetheless, I didn’t want to have to fly to Los Angeles, so I decided to plan a trip starting on a Tuesday. This gave me more buffer time, since I could take off one full week at work—and if my first train arrived late, I could just spend an extra two days visiting friends in Los Angeles, then catch the next train to Houston over the weekend.

I decided to book with fingers crossed that I would leave Portland on a Tuesday afternoon and arrive in Houston sometime midday on Friday.

The Coast Starlight

Portland’s Union Station

I’d taken trains out of Portland’s Union Station many times before, so I knew what I’d signed up for and arrived about half an hour before scheduled departure. After checking with a clerk at the front desk, I was directed to the Metropolitan Lounge, where someone from the train would know to fetch me.

In larger cities, the Metropolitan Lounge has a selection of snacks and drinks—and at least in Chicago, there are showers, too! In Portland, it’s not much: just a room with slightly more comfortable chairs than the lobby, plus some free coffee, juice, water, and soda. After a few minutes of waiting, someone did come to collect me, and we headed to the train!

My First Roomette

The attendant showed me where the bathrooms were, then directed me to my roomette.

My roomette on the Coast Starlight.

My roomette on the Coast Starlight.

Amtrak has three different classes of fare: coach, business, and sleeper. Within the sleeper class, there are a few different options across two different kinds of trains—but since I was riding solo, it made sense to go for the smallest room, which accommodates up to two riders snugly. During the day, there are two chairs that face each other. Then, at night, an attendant comes by to fold down the chairs into a single bed, as well as drop down a second single bed from the ceiling if it’s required. You share one shower and several toilets with about ten other roomettes in your car.

Even as a big and tall person over 6’, I found this arrangement fine! The roomette itself was 6’6” long, which is just enough room that I could lay down without issue. The bed was a little narrow, but as a side sleeper, I made it work. The toilets, while small, were usable—and the shower, while also small, was just enough to get by for a several-days-long trip.

I’ve been told that if you call into the Amtrak line, you can ask to pick your roomette—on either side of the train, and on either the first or second level. I’ve also been told that the second floor is preferable to the first!

That said, I actually just took whatever roomette they gave me, and it turned out to be fine. My roomette on the Coast Starlight was on the first floor, facing east. This made the bathrooms easier to get to, and it meant that the sun was shining on me for as little of the trip as possible, which I preferred!

Anyway, about ten minutes after I settled into my roomette, the train took off towards Salem.

The Ride

Day 1

Despite having been to Portland’s Union Station many times, I’d only ever taken Amtrak north to Seattle. So, getting to ride south through Portland was a bit of a treat, in and of itself!

Similarly, I’ve lived in Oregon for three years now, but I don’t own a car. So, I’d only traveled outside of Portland twice before, and getting to see the scenery was welcome difference to traveling by plane.

I was excited to take pictures, but the windows on my train were a little dirty, and it took some trial and error to figure out how to make it work. Fortunately, although I had thought a DSLR camera would take better-quality images, I decided to use my phone camera to geotag for a later project. This provided the unintentional upside of Google’s on-device machine learning image processing, which helped work around the dirt on the train windows. Eventually, I also discovered that if I pressed my Pixel phone right up against the window, it would be able to compensate for most of the grime!

After about three and a half hours, we reached Eugene. I haven’t been to another proper city in Oregon before, so I was really glad that we rode through Eugene. The forest views were great during fall, and the craft breweries we could see even just from the train made it seem like a great place to return to next spring.

The view from the Amtrak station in Eugene, OR, facing west.

The view from the Amtrak station in Eugene, OR, facing west.

That said, once we passed through Eugene, there wasn’t much to look at aside from thick forests—which were great to look at, but not very photogenic. After another hour or so, it became dark enough outside that I stopped trying to photograph anything at all. By the Klamath Falls station, I was tired enough that I just gave up, set up my bed, and went to sleep. 😂

Day 2

When I woke up in the morning, it turned out I’d slept through most of southern Oregon and a good part of northern California. I turned my roomette back into chairs and had some breakfast—by which point it was past 8am, and we were already in Martinez, just outside of Concord.

A view from the Coast Starlight in Martinez, CA, facing south.

A view from the Coast Starlight in Martinez, CA, facing south.

I lived in the Bay Area for three years, so I was excited to ride through town! We passed through Emeryville around 9am, then went through Jack London Square. I used to live in Downtown Oakland and could always hear the trains go by, so even if only out of nostalgia, this was one of my favorite parts of the trip.

After Oakland, it was several more hours to Los Angeles—and while the views of southern California were beautiful, they were also rather bleak.

I kept tweeting out photos, and occasionally someone would ping to ask if I’d used a filter. Alas, no: it turns out that southern California is just this yellow.

After passing through some oil fields, we approached San Luis Obispo. I’d never actually been to this part of California before, but I’d been told it was especially pretty.

It didn’t disappoint! This was my favorite stretch of the Coast Starlight, as well as one of my favorite parts in the entire trip.

By the time we left San Luis Obispo, it was around 4pm—and truth be told, I didn’t find the scenery very excited, by comparison. I ended up just reading a book for a few hours and having dinner, by which point it was time to prepare for our final stop in Los Angeles.

I’d been worried about making it to Los Angeles on-time all day, but that fear turned out to be unfounded! We were scheduled to arrive at 9pm and ended up arriving around 8:30pm.

With an hour to spare before it was time to board the Sunset Limited, I hurried off into the station to find some snacks and freshen up.