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Riding commuter trains between Los Angeles and San Diego

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Not allowed to drive following my surgery, I decided to take the train to San Diego for a short overnight trip.

Most people will gladly pay $29 to ride the fairly frequent Pacific Surfliner run by Amtrak California. They have 11-12 trains a day each direction. In fact, even more trains on weekend than weekdays, and take about 2:40. A pretty good service.

But since all I have is time, I decide to try the cheaper alternative of taking the Metrolink and Coaster commuter trains. How does it work?

First, there aren't that many Metrolink trains direct from L.A. Union Station (LAUS) to Oceanside where one can connect to the Coaster to SD. [There may be some connections possible at Orange, but one need to check schedule carefully. And that'd mean Metrolink-Metrolink-Coaster double connections.]

For direct trains, first one departs LAUS on weekdays at 8am, arriving Oceanside at 9:55a; and that was what I rode. The connecting Coaster departs over an hour later, at 11:03a, arriving San Diego Santa Fe at 12:02p. So, total trip time is 4 hours, 1:20 long than AMTRAK, mainly because of the long connection time at Oceanside.

The only other possible weekday connection is:

LAUS 3:20p - 5:18p Oceanside 5:35p - 6:45p SD Santa Fe

On Sat, one such possible connection:

LAUS 12:45p - 2:43p Oceanside 4:33p - 5:35p SD Santa Fe

No Coaster service on Sunday.

For the return trip, weekdays, there's only one such connection, and that's what I took:

SD Santa Fe 2:15p - 3:15p Oceanside 3:35p - 5:30p LAUS

One Saturday, the one connection possible:

SD Santa Fe 12:25p - 1:26p Oceanside 2:10p - 4:08p LAUS

The cost for Metrolink LA to Oceanside is $13.50 each way. [They sell a same-day R/T for $25.75 but won't work for overnight trips to San Diego.] Coaster Oceanside to SD is $6.50. So, total cost is $20, saving $9 over AMTRAK.

Since I've never been to Oceanside, the 68 minute layover was great for me. It is a short walk to the pier and the nice beach there, or there are a few coffee places near the station. For the 20-minute layover on the return, the Metrolink was already at Oceanside, so one can simply transfer and sit on the train.

The transfer itself requires taking the underpass, either via steps or a long ramp, so that takes 5 minutes itself.

Both Metrolink and Coaster use very new and comfortable bi-level trains (same type first used by Toronto's GO and now other commuter systems). From the upper level, I can get very nice views of the ocean. They are significantly nicer than say New Jersey Transit or Long Island RR trains. [AMTRAK's Pacific Surfliner also uses bi-level cars, of a different type.]

A few tips:

- At Los Angeles Union Station, all trains depart to the North. So, to get a view of the Ocean later on, you should sit on the east side while train is at the platform. This applies to AMTRAK as well.

- The Coaster ticket gives you free transfers to buses, trolleys, etc of the San Diego transit system within 2 hours of purchase of your Coaster ticket. So, if you need to utilize such free ride, don't buy your Coaster ticket too early like right after you get to Oceanside; instead wait until closer to the Coaster departure.

- At San Diego Santa Fe, the Blue Line Trolley stops right next to the Coaster, but if you need to transfer to the Orange Line instead, it's a very short walk across one roadway to the America Plaza stop. Don't wait up to 15 minutes on the Blue Line for one stop for the transfer to Orange Line.

- From San Diego to L.A., you can buy your Metrolink ticket at a machine at San Diego Santa Fe. Do that, because there are not that many Metrolink machines at Oceanside, and you may have to wait. With a ticket already, you can head straight to the Metrolink train via the underpass.

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