A transit trip to LA – Amtrak, Metro, Universal

Some thought from my weekend trip to LA to see a concert at the Gibson Amphitheater at Universal.

Including thoughts on Amtrak’s San Joaquin, the LA subway and the infrastructure around Universal City.

Note: My D key is not always working, I’ve done my best to find errors, but I may have missed one or two.

I’ve ridden the San Joaquin many times before, but I was surprised to see something I hadn’t seen – a train car that wasn’t the standard California Car I’m used to. It was made fairly obvious by the fact that there was only one boarding door, and it was baggage only.


Of course, once inside the train, I went to take a look. I was extremely excited to see that this (clearly older) car had something the newer ones lack….



I’ve taken a 4:30am departure before, and the lack of reclining seats was killer. It also appeared that there was more leg-room, but I had no way to measure.


That picture is misleading because it makes the train look empty. In fact, the train was quite full, but because you couldn’t enter the car from the platform, I guess most riders didn’t realize they could walk to it. A big loss to them. On both trips, the other cars were maybe 75% full.

I ventured downstairs to see how the bottom level was different. In the regular cars, the bottom level has one or two handicap bathrooms, seating for the elderly and disabled, and baggage areas.

Sometimes, the bottom has bike racks (as seen on a regular California Car)

In this case, the bottom was lacking in seats…



As I saw in my return trip, this area was filled with bags.

There were also multiple bathrooms. A unisex handicap accessible room (not that a wheelchair could make it down the stairs), 3-4 regular restrooms, and a “ladies lounge” with couch, large mirror and table area.

One of the men’s room offered a changing area.


The configuration was not necessary for the San Joaquin, but it was still nice. I got the same train on the return trip, so I also enjoyed the reclining seats.


On both trips, I enjoyed the complimentary copy of the Fresno Bee available in the cafe car. Maybe it’s just me, but I feel that this is quite the dignified way to travel. Sadly, the bagel with cream cheese saw a price hike, and now costs $2.


In Bakersfield, you transfer across the platform to a bus. One of the downsides of this arrangement is that any time gained is lost.

Going south, my train was 20 minutes early (!). Going north, my bus was 15 minutes early. But you lose that time in Bakersfield because the next departure can’t leave until the scheduled time.

2-3 buses go to LA, there are 4 other buses going to other places. Most passengers continue their trip on a bus.

Bakersfield has three platform, but only one is ever used.


In LA, I took the metro red line to get to, and then depart Universal City.

It’s an interesting Subway line. The stations themselves look very nice an are quite grand. At least the lobby, the platforms are oddly narrow, and the trains are dumpy. They’re short, not well kept, and quite frankly, ugly.


Vermont and Wilshire station




So far so good. Amtrak was comfortable, ahead of scheule, and generally pleasant. The red line was quick (I got lucky and waited less than 1 minute combined in both directions), felt safe an comfortable.

So how does the good old private sector do when it comes to transportation?

Badly. very badly. Apparently, Universal would prefer you arrive by car. And at something like $20 to park your car, I can see why. Many people do arrive on foot, and we got to the shuttle stop to see it leave, as it was full.

The metro stop is only .4 miles away from CityWalk, but because of a giant hill, a shuttle bus is provided.

You can’t tell here, but the hill is quite steep.


Online, the walk looked simple. Exit on the north side of the Subway station, and either see if a shuttle bus is waiting, or walk.

But LA doesnt want you to walk.

The metro stop has two exits, but there is no sign indicating the best one to leave.

And there are two major pedestrian-killing design choices:

1) No crosswalk on the south side, so anyone exiting here must cross the road THREE times to get to the shuttle stop
2) Closed sidewalk on north side, even though crosswalk and universal are on north.

Again, no crosswalk on south side, no sidewalk on northside…wtf?

It’s like they’ve designed a maze whose explicit purpose is to say “didn’t you wish you had driven? Only $20 to park!”

A route from the metro to the shuttle stop.

Blocked sidewalk on north side

Seriously, WTH is this?

Anyway, so the shuttle bus is a big diesel truck pulling 4-5 cars behind. Your typical theme park transportation. No doors, open winds, and maybe 6-8 seats across.

Sorry, only took a picture of the front car (the handicap accessible one)

The stop itself is decent enough, although the sidewalk is quite narrow

But the hours and frequency sucks. 15 minutes? It’s a .4 mile trip, they can do it much faster. Of note is that the red line operates every 10 minutes, so there are more passengers arriving than there is space on the shuttle.

And no shuttles after 7pm on weekdays and 9pm on weekends? Huh? Universal City is a popular night destination, full of restaurants, a club or two, and obviously the concert venue. The red line has a last departure at 12:54am, but Universal can’t be bothered to transport people past 9pm?


That means the return trip is a walk. At least it was downhill.

The good thing is that the metro was well signed, I had no trouble making sure I was going the right way.

But while the cars get as much room as they could possibly need…

Pedestrians get the bare minimum, maybe 5 feet….and a very wide landscaping area, so space isn’t a constraint, priorities are.


No crosswalks or curb ramps.

Good luck navigating a wheelchair or stroller on these babies

A badly aimed sprinkler makes sure to insult you on the way out

The station is straight ahead, but no crossing allowed

I’m sure it’s so much safer to make pedestrians cross this wide street not once but twice. And while I’m a fairly quick walker, the countdown reached zero just as I arrived at the other sidewalk. Someone like my grandmother would be halfway across when cars got green.

You’d think those as hungry for money as Universal would try and make their customer experience a little better by providing a safe, easy and pleasant walk to their facilities. But instead, it’s almost like they want to keep customers out. I don’t quite get the business logic behind it. I guess the customer is only right when they drive.

Bonus: Gibson Amphitheater

8 Replies to “A transit trip to LA – Amtrak, Metro, Universal”

  1. The rail car that you enjoyed on your San Joaquin trip is a rebuilt Amtrak Superliner I, salvaged from a wreck with state funds and re-used on the California routes. If you ever take a long-distance Amtrak trip along any of the western routes (the nearest to Fresno are the Starlight and California Zephyr in Sacramento), that's what you can expect in coach.

  2. JN, at first I thought the rail car was a long-distance car being sent on the San Joaquin to a maintenance facility or something, but then the next day it was still on the train. Interesting that theyre putting it on the San Joaquin. Ive met a lot of people who actually are on the train from Bakersfield to Stockton and beyond, and Im sure they appreciate the better car.

    calwatch, Ill give that a try next time.

  3. California has three classes of cars: the Morton-Knudsen-built California Cars of 1990, the Alstom-built Surfliners of 2000 and 2002, and the 7 wreck-repaired Superliners, which were reconstructed from 2007-2009. Oddly, some of each of the three classes of cars is used on each of the three Amtrak California services, even though the Pacific Surfliner has a separate maintenance base, pool of cars, and paint scheme. So consists could be a mix of any of them.

    California is ordering yet more cars, probably for delivery in 2017.


  4. Say James, how would you rate taking public trans all the way to LA? I mean, I would think that riding a smooth amtrak from Fresno to B field would be nice. But getting off of the train in B field then getting into a rough riding bus that lumbers it's way up the grapevine would be off putting. Often times when I go to the Bay I take the Amtrak to Richmond then transfer onto the BART and go into the City which I feel is pretty convenient. But I've always been interested in taking the train to LA. Maybe your rating is all I need to make my decision.

    1. The Amtrak buses are pretty comfortable. The biggest issue is that you can't make up time. If you arrive in Bakersfield 20 minutes early (pretty frequently happens), the buses wont leave until their slot, so a 10 minute layover is now 30.

      Its nice having the first 2 hours with access to the wider train seats, more space, the cafe, and good bathrooms.

      That being said, you might find that Greyhound Express is faster and cheaper than Amtrak. The Express buses only stop in Bakersfield, and have wifi and power outlets. Reserved seating too (unlike regular Greyhound).

      In either case, it's a pain being on the Grapevine and going 50mph when every car is doing 70mph around you.

  5. Yea exactly hear you on those points. Well…looks like since we are in Cali…once again the car wins out. Thanks bro. Love your blog btw. Im almost done reading most of the archives 🙂

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