Timmy Curran explores the rail roads of California

Timmy Curran explores the rail roads that snake across his state for an alternative slice of celluloid, The Union Express.

Josh Landan loves trains. “You can just cruise,” he says. “You don’t sit in traffic. You can read a book or do work or take a nap. And it’s cheap.” Landan also loves surfing and cinematography, so it was only natural he’d eventually combine all three.

“I wanted to film something that anyone can do — anyone can hop on the train and surf the spots along the way. That was appealing to me because most surf movies are filmed in locations that are exotic and expensive to get to, but a train is an economical way to take a surf trip.”

The Union Express was Timmy Curran’s idea. “I thought the Pacific Surfliner would be a really cool and easy way to check out the Southern California coast,” says the retired pro surfer-turned-musician. “Just taking a trip from Ventura to Lompoc and seeing that coastline sounded really interesting, and I thought, ‘Well, why don’t we just take it all the way?’ I knew we could get some beautiful shots, so I talked to Josh and told him about the idea and he immediately said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it’.”

With a newborn daughter and plenty of time to be spent in his home state, Curran thought about visiting his pro surfer friends along the coast. He learned that Amtrak, America’s national rail line, had a 350 mile-long passenger route called Pacific Surfliner that stretched from San Diego to San Luis Obispo, stopping in surfy cities like Oceanside, San Clemente, and Santa Barbara. But for Curran, the ten-year-old route was new — he’d only ridden trains in Europe and Japan.

In late 2008 at Los Angeles’ Union Station, along with Ben Bourgeois, Curran and Landan boarded Amtrak’s Coast Starlight; ten hours later they arrived in San Jose, where Keith Malloy awaited with a car. For the next week they ripped frigid windswell wedges at a San Mateo County nude-beach nook and lucked into some shapely sandbars at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

For the next two years Curran and Landan worked southward with calculated, individual trips, spending considerable time aboard the roomy Pacific Surfliner cars. “Before we started this film, I was thinking business class would be good for more room,” says Curran. “But compared to an aeroplane, I discovered that a coach seat on Amtrak is huge.”

And while they may have clocked up many hours travelling as a pair, they were also joined by a string of familiar faces along the way. Landan explains: “The movie took a lot of time because Tim and I couldn’t be in eight places at once. When a swell hit, we had to pick where to go, and we had to figure out what surfers would be home at the time.”

Surfboard tucked underarm, they exited the Pacific Surfliner in San Luis Obispo to see Nate Tyler’s yurt and to surf in Big Sur; in Santa Barbara to talk point breaks with young upriser Connor Coffin; in Oxnard to surf perfect Silver Strand with Dane Reynolds and Curran’s little brother Nathanial; in San Clemente to schmooze with Cory Lopez and the artsy Mike Losness; in Oceanside and Solana Beach to sample San Diego gems with Damien Hobgood, Rob Machado, and Taylor Knox.

“Josh and I were doing something that we’d never done before, but it was so easy,” Curran says, “and getting to hang out with my friends in each town and getting to know them better was like the perfect movie for me. Because, really, all of California feels like home when you’re used to travelling the world.”

For filmmaker Landan, it was also an ideal, if time-consuming, project. “There’s a little bit of a storyline, people can get fired up to surf, and that’s it. It’s not sexy. But it’s Timmy’s best surfing of his career in a movie, and that was huge for me. I felt like it needed to be that. I’ve been filming Tim for twelve years now, and he did it.”

Shot on Super 16 film and HD video, with Curran as narrator, The Union Express is a thirty-six minute ode to alternative surf travel anywhere steel rail tracks exist. Could be Europe or Japan, Africa or India — the option is there, and it’s easy on the wallet. In the US, Amtrak’s lines typically run far from the coast, but the Pacific Surfliner and a few East Coast routes offer ample opportunity for something new. And boards ride for free.