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Train Lovers’ Southern California: What to See If You Revere the Rails

Updated on November 2, 2012
L.A. Union Station interior.
L.A. Union Station interior. | Source

© 2011 by Aurelio Locsin

If you decide to vacation in Southern California, you’re going to need a car. Because only the freeway can transport you to most of its far-flung tourist attractions. But you can use your vehicle to visit many sights enjoyed by train lovers. From expansive model railroad layouts to full-sized locos that you can operate, the region is a haven for those who revere the rails.

Orange Empire Railway Museum

In the first 20 or so years of the 20th century, Los Angeles boasted the best public transportation system in the world. The Pacific Electric interurbans and streetcars, affectionally dubbed the Red Line, sped Angelenos from the beaches to the desert on routes now crowded by freeway traffic. The cherry-colored carriages disappeared by the 1950s.

However, many live again at the Orange Empire Railway Museum, located in Perris. You’ll not only find P.E. blimps and Hollywood cars, but also examples of Yellow Cars from the Los Angeles Railway, diesels from Southern Pacific and Santa Fe, a three-foot narrow gauge steamer called Grizzly Flats, and Prairie Type steam locos from the short-line Ventura County Railway. You can even run a full-sized diesel or steamer with advance reservation. The museum is open for free nearly every day, though unlimited weekend rides cost a small fee. Come during major holiday weekends such as Memorial Day or Labor Day, when the most equipment runs.

Pacific Surfliner

If your ideal daytrip involves riding an air-conditioned passenger car to a vacation destination, then catch Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner. This regularly-scheduled train travels among the hubbub of Los Angeles, the attractions of San Diego, the race track at Del Mar, the beaches of San Louis Obispo and the art galleries of Santa Barbara. Your vistas vary between acres of industrial yards vandalized with graffiti and miles of beaches fronting the serene Pacific. As a bonus, if you start or end your journey in L.A., you can delight in the Art Deco styling of Union Station, which is still used as passenger station, and is often the scene of movie filming.

The train actually takes just as long as driving to these destinations, but you avoid freeway traffic. Upgrade yourself to Pacific Business Class if you want more legroom, complimentary light snacks and beverages, and an outlet for your personal electronics. Space is also available for bicycles.

San Diego Railroad Museum

Diesel consist at the San Diego Model Railroad Museum.
Diesel consist at the San Diego Model Railroad Museum. | Source

If you prefer your railroads on the miniature side, then spend the day at the San Diego Model Railroad Museum in Balboa Park. The exhibits feature not just one but five working layouts.

  • The HO-scale Tehachapi Pass has locos passing the end of their consists on the famous Loop.
  • Another HO effort, the San Diego and Eastern highlight a 10-foot-high model of the Carrisso Gorge, complete with the Goat Canyon Trestle, which represents the largest timber railroad trestle when it was constructed in 1932.
  • The Pacific Desert Lines may be the largest N-scale layout in the world, with 10 scale miles of code 40 mailine track. Many of the scratchbuilt structures have detailed interiors.
  • O-scale enthusiasts will enjoy the Cabrillo and Southwestern, which includes an electric trolley line powered by overhead wires. After a 1986 redesign, the pike is still being built, so visitors can get a first-hand view of how model railroad layouts are constructed.
  • Kids always enjoy the interactive three-rail Lionel and Brio layout, plied by Thomas the Tank Engine, among others. The little ones can push buttons to control a coal train.

Los Angeles Live Steamers

Both adults and kids enjoy mounting the 1/8th scale cars of the Los Angeles Live Steamers, which opens its facilities to the public on most Sundays at Griffith Park in Los Angeles. You must be at least 34 inches in height and under 350 lbs. to ride. Admission is free, though suggested donations of $3 are appreciated. You can be be chugging behind steam locomotives that burn coal, fuel oil or propane; or diesels running on gasoline. Most everything is built by club members, including the working electric locomotives and Pacific Electric trolleys. You can also enjoy a full-sized Stationary Steam Plant, with seven operating steam engines, and three actual cabooses.


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    • alocsin profile image

      alocsin 5 years ago from Orange County, CA

      Thanks Peggy, I found it and left a comment.

    • Deborah-Diane profile image

      Deborah-Diane 5 years ago from Orange County, California

      We have ridden the train from Los Angeles's Union Station up to Oakland. It was a fun ride. We have also been to the train museum in Galveston. Now I have more ways to add to my railroading experiences. Thanks!

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 5 years ago from Houston, Texas

      This is a wonderful compilation of all things train related if visiting southern California. The fact of actually being able to ride in some of these museum trains is amazing! Galveston, Texas also has a train museum but quite different, if you wish to see my hub on that subject. Few people ride trains in America compared to the past, but there is something very romantic and/or nostalgic about traveling by railcar. Thanks for this useful and interesting hub. Plan to share with others.