Riding in a Coffin to a Funeral

I finally got to ride on the 'Cabin' Overnight Bus from SF to LA

The Cabin Bus, 6 a.m., Santa Monica. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
The Cabin Bus, 6 a.m., Santa Monica. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

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The week before last, a dear family friend and neighbor of my mother’s died of a heart attack in San Diego. One can’t plan ahead for a trip to a funeral; without an advanced purchase, air fares from Oakland to San Diego are around $200 each way. I don’t own a car. And Amtrak is just too slow, thanks to California’s circa 1860s rail infrastructure.

Then there’s the bus. I poked around and found that the ‘Cabin’ overnight bus had a berth available (Cabin’s launch was reported on by every tech publication out there, but basically it’s a bus with beds instead of seats). I’d been curious about it for some time and the price was only $85 for a Tuesday night trip. I figured I’d give it a whirl. It would get me to Santa Monica at seven the next morning. I could bike over to the Exposition Light Rail line, go to Union Station in downtown Los Angeles, and take Amtrak the rest of the way.

Not ideal, as I would arrive after the ceremony, but it would get me there in time to give my mother some much needed hugs and support. And I had an old bike I wanted to leave at my mom’s place anyway.

First complication: no information on the Cabin web page about taking a bike. I emailed the company and they told me I could bring it, but they don’t advertise that fact because the bus doesn’t have any bike racks; bikes are just shoved in with the suitcases (see photo below). Since there’s limited space, they don’t want to encourage too many people to bring bikes by advertising that they’ll accept them, and they haven’t yet figured out a bike reservation policy. They should really have something on the web page that says “please email us to make sure there is space if you want to bring a bike.”

Bike storage on the Cabin bus needs a little work, but my 21-year-old Cannondale, seen above, fit okay–albeit with no way to strap it down.

A few hours later, I arrived at the departure spot, a parking lot across from Pier 30 in San Francisco. I loaded my bike and got on the bus just before the 11 p.m. departure. At six the next morning (we got in an hour early), I stumbled, blearily, out of the bus and looked out at Santa Monica beach, disoriented, exhausted, and probably a bit smelly. I rode my bike to the nearest 24-hour Fitness, took a shower, and then stopped at a coffee shop with my laptop to check in with my mom and the other California editors of Streetsblog, before getting on an LA Metro train for the ride to Union Station and my connection to San Diego.

Here are my first impressions of the bus, from an email to the Streetsblog crew–and it still seems like the best way to describe the experience:

So taking the Cabin/Sleep Bus is kind of like trying to sleep in a dryer on spin cycle. Or maybe an eight hour low-intensity earthquake is a better metaphor? But here I am. I guess I slept for a little bit, but it was hardly productive sleep. I can’t imagine ever doing it again.

The bus was only half full, so I think the “novelty” has worn off and people are realizing a bus does not good sleep make. I’ve done overnights on trains and boats, and I wouldn’t say I slept well, but I slept. This was just a night of lying on my back in a coffin staring at the lid while we flew through high-altitude turbulence for eight hours. But the tea was good.

I was a little shocked at how awful it was, because most reviews are so darned cheery. And I really wanted to like it, as I travel between Northern and Southern California about ten times a year. The current options suck and I’d long dreamed of a better choice than airport security lines, a long drive or bus ride that takes up most of the day, or an even longer Amtrak trip.

I think there is a market for overnight travel between LA and SF. I’m sure if Amtrak ran a sleeper train, as they did until 1983, it would sell out fast, given the inherently smoother and more stable ride of steel-wheels-on-rails. Cabin’s bus suffered from vibrations, swaying, and a loud incessant throbbing from the diesel engine. Trains have their engines in the locomotive which, of course, is a completely separate structure from the passenger cars–that isolates passengers from engine rumble. I’ve taken overnight trains in the U.S. and Europe, and it’s a nice experience, with a place to change and wash up and sometimes there’s even a shower. Wouldn’t it be nice if Amtrak, or even a freight operator, contracted with Cabin to run well-designed rail sleeper cars? Trains are bigger and more expensive to operate, but they also carry far more people than a bus. One can only dream that some day there will be a night train again.

The interior of the sleep rack/coffin. The bedding is great. But no window. And you feel every vibration, bump and sway of the bus.

And now, a note about safety. As Cabin’s founders point out, buses are safer than cars by several multiples–so if safety is a concern, take this before driving.

But there are two levels to safety–avoidance and survival. And when it comes to crash survival, I found a few things about the Cabin bus deeply disturbing. Get onto any train or bus, sit down, and look at the window and ceiling. There are always clearly marked–usually in bright red–emergency escape hatches and handles. On the Cabin bus, I was shocked that my sleeping pod didn’t even have a window, let alone an emergency escape exit. There were also no lighted escape routes. Apparently, there are emergency exits (you can see the markings in photos taken in other reviews), but I couldn’t find them when I was actually on the bus. I don’t care if it’s a train, plane or a bus, if you run a vehicle long enough at some point there will be a crash–and I shudder to think what’s going to happen to people, disoriented, injured, and terrified, all tripping and bumping into each other in the dark, scrambling down the narrow stair case from the buses’s upper level that contains the majority of the berths.

The emergency exit on an Amtrak train, big, red, obvious, usually glow-in-the-dark–and right next to your face when you sit down. If the Cabin bus has an emergency exit, I couldn’t find it.

Other reviewers have talked about the nice mattress and linens, and I agree they are top-notch. In conclusion, the Cabin bus should be useful to that small subset of people who sleep so hard that they literally won’t wake up for anything up to and including a powerful earthquake. Apparently, some of my colleagues doing reviews of Cabin fit into that category (or are they popping some kind of illicit sleep aid and just not mentioning it in the story? If so, please have your dealer contact me directly).

Bottom line, coming back to the Bay Area, I paid $200 and took a plane.

I was disoriented, smelly, and exhausted, but it was nice to see this view of Santa Monica as I stumbled out of the bus.
  • thielges

    The ability to sleep in motion varies in each person. I must be in the lucky category who handles it well. So well that the border police have to prod me awake for the 3am passport check. I’ve also taken the Green Tortoise bus from SF to Oregon, which is basically a hippie crash pad on vintage wheels, and had no problems getting some quality Zs.

    With HSR coming the chances of Amtrak restoring night train SF-LA service will be even lower. But, hey, downtown SF-LA in under 3 hours! You’ve gotta like that as a better alternative.

  • Bruce

    For future reference, airlines often have bereavement fares for last-minute bookings to funerals.

  • Mario Tanev

    Amtrak does have a sleeper going to Seattle, the Coast Starlight, but between LA and Oakland it runs in daylight. There have been discussions about resurrecting the Coast Daylight between SF and LA, and potentially making the Coast Starlight a night train between LA and Oakland. That would be ideal. How much would this cost and can a private contractor, like Cabin operate such a train?

  • keenplanner

    Why do they go to Santa Monica? Better to take the 11:30 PM Megabus that drops you tidily at Union Station. Hop to Amtrak and you’re in SD.

  • lunartree

    They’ll give you like 10% off an overpriced ticket…

  • ZA_SF

    For comparison, one could have rented a car one-way for between $41-$100. With fuel, the trip price may have been comparable, and perhaps more comfortable with the freedom to stop and eat where you like.

  • p_chazz

    That’s why you should store up reward points that you can cash in if you need to travel on short notice.

  • Sean

    I just did the Starlight from Emeryville to Chemult/Bend, OR. The sleepers sell out quick and they are very expensive. What they need here is what they call in China a ‘hard sleeper’. These have less comfy beds stacked three high. That would lower costs and carry more people. Also, each sleeper has a kettle of hot water in China, which is pretty sweet for tea/noodles/etc.

  • Sean

    There are still plenty of slower sleepers in Europe along HSR routes. Since you are asleep the travel time doesn’t matter as much and you can stop more than a HSR train, therefore collect more passengers lowering overall costs.

  • thielges

    Yes, rail operators do not immediately shut down the parallel Euronight service when HSR begins. But keep an eye on them as ridership eventually falls off and the service is cancelled. There are a number of overnight trains I’ve used as recently as ten years ago that are no longer available.

    I would not count on extra ridership from stops in the middle of the overnight run. Getting on or off of a train at 2am interferes with a good night’s rest. The average rider travels most or all of the length of an overnight train. Many European night trains just blow past stations without stopping in the wee hours because no-one wants to use them.

    There’s still possibility to add HSR sleeper trains on really long runs like Paris-Madrid. As the speed goes up so does the minimum distance required to justify an overnight sleeper.

  • Sean

    Many of the capitals have very expensive lodging as well. If you get a sleeper and you have one business meeting in the morning you can arrive rested and take the day service back. When I was backpacking a few years ago I saved money this way.

  • Andy Chow

    Hot water is common due to the tea drinking culture, which has a side benefit that hot water is cleaner than cold water due to the heating process.

    Amtrak being not much cheaper than airlines have to provide comfort to compete and compensate for longer travel time. Chinese slow trains don’t compete with airlines at that level (mostly serve laborers who are too poor to afford air fares) so their cheapest seats are more comparable to airline seats than Amtrak’s.

  • Andy Chow

    An issue with overnight train is that it won’t be able to effectively serve the cities in between the major stops. People wouldn’t want to board or exit the train in the middle of the night where connection is unavailable. Buy-ins from these cities are generally necessary in order to get support for public subsidy.

  • Andy Chow

    Some people can sleep in coach seats on airplanes. Yes the flight is smooth but the seats are tight and position is generally uncomfortable.

  • Andy Chow

    But would be impossible to do overnight trip. I drove once on an overnight, and have to pull of the freeway just so I can take a nap. No amount of coffee is going to make you stay awake.

  • Sean

    We made several stops that I was completely unaware of while sleeping in a seat on the Starlight. Chico, Redding, and Dunsmuir do not have night bus service but there seems to be takers. I think in the age of Uber/Lyft its easier to get on demand taxis till late, especially in college towns and more urbanized locations in Southern California.

  • thielges

    Hey I’m totally with you on the appreciation of night trains. Many times I’ve justified the extra cost of a berth with exactly the rationale you describe.

    Yet railway networks are not in the business of competing with big city hotels. They’re in the business of providing safe, convenient transportation. HSR chips away at the market space occupied by night trains.

  • Sean

    Sleeping on a train is safe and convenient. Plus, since they are in the middle of the night they don’t compete for platform space, which is a major problem in some terminals. I have never taken the ACELA due to prices, but I certainly took the NE corridor trains. See this article for a good look at using the sleeper cars vs. Acela. http://theforwardcabin.com/2015/10/13/amtrak-sleeper-trains-commute-ne/

  • Stop whining retard