The Coast Starlight was a true Amtrak success story. Prior to Amtrak, the Southern Pacific had reduced Portland-Oakland train service to three times a week. Travelers from north of Portland to south of Oakland would have to change trains twice. Amtrak initially continued the three-times-a-week service but extended the train to Seattle and Los Angeles.
This extension proved so successful that Amtrak quickly increased service to seven times a week each way. For much of the 1970s through the 1990s, the Coast Starlight was Amtrak’s most popular overnight train. Initially, the train went through to San Diego, but on this segment through passengers turned out to be less important than local ones, so the Starlight terminates in LA with a separate San Diegan (now known as the Pacific Surfliner) connecting LA with San Diego.
In 1998, Union Pacific bought Southern Pacific, which had deferred maintenance on its Portland-Sacramento tracks. UP spent years restoring and upgrading the route, and this track work often delayed the Coast Starlight, reducing its on-time record to 2 percent. This led to a 26 percent decline in passengers. Ridership has since recovered, but in most recent years the Empire Builder has been Amtrak’s most popular overnight train, with the Coast Starlight a close second.