Travelers who journey between Los Angeles and San Francisco can get ready to kiss congested traffic and airport security lines goodbye.
Next year, Dreamstar Lines hopes to launch a new luxury train service that links these Californian cities on an overnight route. If all goes according to plan, it will be the first sleeper train to connect the destinations in half a century.
California’s coast is a highly trafficked travel corridor. According to OAG Aviation, the 90-minute flight path between Los Angeles and San Francisco is one of the nation’s busiest, with 260,000 airplane seats each month. And while flying is faster than driving, bussing or taking a day trip on Amtrak trains, it isn’t always convenient. Security lines, potential delays and traffic en route to the airport can turn a “quick flight” into what Dreamstar CEO Jake Vollebregt calls a “five- to six-hour odyssey.”
“The alternative [is] to travel the night before and get a hotel, but the added complications [make] the amount of time and expense comparable to driving,” he says.
Dreamstar hopes to give travelers a better option. Founder Tom Eastmond told SF Gate that this service would “annihilate distance through slumber” by transporting travelers in cozy private cabins. The yet-to-be-named train would leave around 9:30pm and arrive around 8:30am, sending passengers off at their destination after an on-board breakfast.
The concept is both a throwback to glamorous Orient Express–style service and an answer to contemporary flight shaming – which has everyone from Swedish activists to American pop princesses considering the impact of airplane emissions. If the service proves successful, it could transform travel between the Golden State’s two most iconic cities.
Here’s everything you need to know about the proposed red-eye rail.
A return to simpler times
Long before planes and cars became California’s major modes of transportation, trains were the go-to for well-heeled West Coasters traveling the 470-mile distance between Southern California’s beaches and the Bay Area’s hills. In 1941, the Lark – an overnight train with a dining hall, lounge and private rooms for sleeping – attracted passengers with elegant cars and bar-side nightcaps, enjoyed before nodding off to the locomotive’s lulling chug.
Yet in the decades that followed, travelers traded train cars for plane seats; in 1968, the Lark was put to rest. Amtrak attempted a sleeper-rail revival in 1981 with a route connecting LA to Sacramento, only to shutter it in 1983 after failing to attract enough interest.
Today, as airline passengers contend with rising prices, delays and cancellations, Dreamstar hopes the nostalgia of the Lark will tempt people back to the tracks. It was “an exceptional operation that we seek to revive,” says Vollebregt.
The proposition comes at a moment of renewed interest in US train travel. US transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg has pushed to expand high-speed rail options around the nation since taking office in 2021. Recently, a bipartisan group of politicians backed a private project to create a high-speed rail line from LA to Las Vegas. In California, where wildfires and floods have put residents at the epicenter of the climate crisis, the environmental benefits of choosing rail travel are particularly salient: trains almost always undercut other modes of transportation on carbon emissions.
What to expect on board
Like the Lark, Dreamstar’s service intends to be a transport-hotel hybrid with a lounge serving small plates, desserts and drinks. According to Vollebregt, the company plans to use restored cars from the “golden age of American passenger travel” outfitted with enough Streamline Moderne and art deco style to transport travelers back to the heyday of train travel.
A one-person roomette with a seat-to-bed conversion will start around $300 or so, with a double bedroom with upper and lower berths for around $600. “We are also especially excited about the designs for our first-class suites,” says Vollebregt, “which will be more spacious and luxurious than anything that’s been offered in scheduled overnight passenger service in the United States for years.” Rooms will start at or around $1000.
Dreamstar hopes to start chugging on the tracks sometime in the second half of 2024.
The romance of sleeper trains
Imagine lounging in first-class accommodations with wild landscapes whizzing past your window, falling asleep in one part of the world and waking up in another. These are among the greatest joys of overnight trains.
Consider some of the services that have inspired Dreamstar. There’s Belmond’s uber-swanky Venice-Simplon-Orient Express, which snakes from Italy’s coast to Switzerland’s peaks while riders sip wine in a restored 1920s dining car. In the UK, the Caledonian Sleeper is a first-rate option that zooms guests between London and Scotland. “We’ve also paid close attention to the Rocky Mountaineer cruise train in Canada and Colorado,” says Vollebregt. “We are seeing a renaissance of private and overnight passenger rail.”
Even if you miss some of the sights while sleeping on one of these overnight trains, one thing is sure: you’ll wake up wide-eyed and ready to hit the ground running by morning.
Which sure beats suffering through luggage checks at LAX.