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Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner makes the 128-mile journey from Los Angeles to San Diego in two hours and 45 minutes. Pulled by a mighty Electro-Motive diesel engine, the train heads south on tracks laid in 1888 by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. Fifty-one weeks a year, the train takes vacationers south to Sea World or north to Universal Studios. For one weekend in July, though, boarding the Pacific Surfliner is as close as you can come to climbing into the Hogwarts Express at Kings Cross Platform 9¾.
The trip starts at L.A.’s Union Station. This is the first moment you know you’re among your people. What’s bulging in that duffel bag over there? An elvish sword? A Klingon bat’leth? Look at the reading material: comics, manga, graphic novels, a stolen superhero movie screenplay. Listen to the conversation. That team those guys are talking about … it’s not the Dodgers. It’s the New Avengers.
Union Station is the perfect place to leave the modern world. It looks frozen in time. “We got there too early,” writer-executive producer Jane Espenson (Caprica, Torchwood) says of her first trip, “and we found this wonderful restaurant. All around us there were these benches and doors and signs — they looked like they’d been there since the station opened in 1939. This is what all the New York writers and actors would’ve seen when they showed up in L.A. to get into the talkies. And now it’s the gateway to Comic-Con.”
The train is a casual environment — come as you are. For IT specialist and Comic-Con fan Kimberly Thompson, “as you are” once meant flawlessly re-created Gryffindor robes complete with a hand-knit scarf. “I couldn’t afford a hotel,” she explains, “so I took the train back and forth from Downey [Calif.] every day.” Did looking like a classmate of Harry Potter draw any attention? “Just smiles,” says Thompson. One usually doesn’t get that kind of pass dressing in costume on public transportation. And this is coming from someone who has worn a Starfleet uniform on a New York City subway.
And it’s because that sweet politeness of Comic-Con extends to the train that celebrities feel perfectly comfortable riding with fans. Real estate manager Shannon Coffey delighted in chatting with Smallville‘s John Schneider (and she has the picture to prove it). Wil Wheaton (Star Trek: The Next Generation) has been spotted passing the time in a pickup game of Zombie Dice with a clutch of admirers. The Big Bang Theory cast rides the train. Seth Green rides the train. Michael Cera did. Felicia Day says the hell with the car packed with The Guild stuff — she’s riding this year. On our first trip, Chuck Lorre pointed out Yvonne Strahovski, the stunning female lead on Chuck. Actor Kunal Nayyar pointed her out, too. Three times.
I think, though, the best thing about the train is that it makes Comic-Con last longer. It stretches out the nerdish glee at both ends. The train is a red carpet for secret members of the Rebel Alliance and residents of the Shire and those who smile smugly at Muggles. On the way home, it’s a gentle, rolling halfway house that gives us nearly three hours to remember that in the real world, it’s odd to raise your voice when making the completely salient point, “Han shot first.”
The warm, fuzzy world of the train is not invulnerable. Dan Harmon (Community) discovered this when the train stopped in Del Mar to let on a half-dozen drunken frat boys who magically turned the rest of the car into the cowed nerd table in the high school cafeteria. But hey, even the Hogwarts Express is prone to the occasional encounter with soul-sucking Dementors.
The train deposits you at Union Station in San Diego, but you know the real name of the station is Santa Fe Depot. You know this because you spent the trip sitting next to a bespectacled fellow who knew a little too much about trains. And co-created The Big Bang Theory. You’re at Comic-Con now. Storm Troopers gather the courage to chat up plus-sized Wonder Women, and comic book artists with oversized portfolios full of treasures queue up for pedicabs.
You’re among your people. And you will be until the Pacific Surfliner brings you home.
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