All Aboard

A classic American transit system seems poised for a comeback

  • The Amtrak Coast Starlight between Sudden and Conception on the Pacific Coast

    John West
  • The bistro car on the Amtrak Cascades.

    Courtesy photo
  • Amtrak's westbound California Zephyr climbs past Clay siding on Colorado's Front Range, as a Union Pacific coal train passes below.

    Scott McClarrinon
  • Travelers in the Sightseer Lounge on Amtrak's Superliner near Eugene, Oregon.

    Mike Bjork

Amtrak's Chicago-bound California Zephyr -- horn blaring, bells ringing, air hoses hissing -- rolls into Sacramento on time from the San Francisco Bay Area. "Booaarrd!" yells the conductor, and the silvery double-decker glides off. The train is carrying almost a full load of passengers, and after claiming one of the few unoccupied coach seats, I head for the dining car and a leisurely lunch as we snake our way up into the Sierra.

While the Zephyr winds along the edge of a steep canyon, my table companion, Channing Mercer, a retired homicide detective, munches on a chicken sandwich and peers down at the glistening American River. More than an hour earlier, we crossed it in Sacramento at an elevation of 14 feet above sea level. Now, the river resembles a thin green ribbon, nearly 2,000 feet below us. "Views like this are why I ride the train," says the bald ex-cop, who's returning home to Pittsburgh, Pa., after visiting his son in Martinez, Calif. It's only his third rail trip, but he says it won't be his last. "I got tired of taking off my shoes and belt buckle for the metal detectors at the airport," he says.

I'm here to get a firsthand look at how the trains are doing -- and what better place to start than Sacramento, terminus of the first transcontinental railroad? Think Golden Spike and 1869: the opening of the West. Since then, railroads, like much of the region, have gone through boom and bust. Now, though, they're making a heady comeback during these volatile energy-conscious times. Amtrak ridership, particularly in the West, is the highest since the government-run corporation was founded in 1971. Freight traffic on private railroads is up 90 percent since 1980. And Barack Obama, the first president of either party to voice strong support for Amtrak, says America's teetering infrastructure is a top priority in his economic stimulus plan. On the campaign trail, he advocated building high-speed passenger train corridors, and he and Vice President Joseph Biden, a longtime Amtrak commuter and advocate, took the train to D.C. for the inauguration.

The reasons for rail's resurgence aren't mysterious. According to a U.S. Department of Energy report last year, Amtrak consumes 17 percent less energy than airlines and 21 percent less than automobiles (based on the power needed to move a passenger one mile, in British Thermal Units). Rail travel emits 0.2 pounds of carbon dioxide per passenger per mile, compared to 0.9 pounds for an airplane and 1.6 for an SUV with a single occupant. A train can carry a ton of freight 431 miles on one gallon of diesel, about three times as far as a truck can. Then there's the backlash against growing congestion and aggravation at airports and on highways. "The public and political constituencies are finally realizing the need to do more with rail," says William Vantuono, editor of Railway Age magazine. "We are definitely in a railroad renaissance."

The Zephyr climbs over the craggy Sierra on the original transcontinental route. With all the tunnels and rights of way blasted out of granite -- at a rate of sometimes no more than two and a half inches a day -- it's easy to see why this is considered America's greatest engineering feat of the 19th century.

As the train descends along the shimmering Truckee River into the Great Basin, we watch the full moon rise while the sunset casts a pink glow and long shadows over Nevada's parched mountainscapes. "It's my first train trip, and it's awesome," says Cody Gazzaway, 19, of Lodi, Calif., who's on her way to visit her grandmother. "I was worried that if I took the Greyhound I would be stalked." She paid $74.96 for her one-way ticket to Salt Lake City: "It was much cheaper than Greyhound." Generally, though, Amtrak costs more than the bus, just as air travel tends to be pricier than the train.

Anonymous says:
Jan 27, 2009 01:18 PM
America will benefit by re-calibrating its transportation system according to rational principles that take into account not only the market, but environmental and social costs. It will probably not be practical anytime soon to abandon the highways or air travel, but the benefits to improving and augmenting the national train service are irrefutable.

Train time does not have to be "unproductive time." I imagine having a "quiet car" where business people could work, students could study, others could read--all silently moving to their destinations.

The "culture car" could have presenters giving talks on history, geology and the arts.

Every train could be fitted with wireless communication that offered passengers the ability to call home, the office, etc. Moreover, each passenger could have a headset that allowed access to music, and select seats could have digital video screens allowing access to movies, TV, teleconferencing, etc.

None of this requires new technology. Just mindful application of it. Jobs will be created building the railroad lines and rolling stock, operating it, improving terminal facilities and serving passengers. Those jobs will be American jobs that can't be off-shored.

What are we waiting for?
Anonymous says:
Jan 28, 2009 04:26 PM
The money. Show me the money. No for-profit entity seems to want to invest their own money in this so manifestly marvelous concept, and the guvmint right now is too busy saving the powerful plunderers to have money left over for the people and the planet. But the money is there. The rich have plenty of it. Just take it. Say, a 100% tax on income over $1 million, a 2% tax on accumulated wealth over $5 million, and a 100% inheritance tax, plus both eliminate tax deductions for charities and max out allowable charity donations per person to, say, $1,000 a year. We can spend the people's money better than they can. Can't we? We have just tons of neat ideas like the one above. Take all the money and do them all.
Anonymous says:
Jan 30, 2009 12:32 PM
A car with the fuel efficiency of a Toyota Prius at average occupancy (1-point-something people) emits less carbon dioxide per passenger mile than most buses or trains at their average occupancy. The figures selected here (e.g. energy efficiency of a SUV at single-occupancy)downplays this fact. On a positive note, I'm glad the article addresses the trade-off in travel times by train as opposed to plane or car, another important consideration.
Anonymous says:
Feb 05, 2009 11:01 AM
One factor to consider when talking about hybrid vehicles is the fact that their batteries have a limited life and a heavy (no pun intended) environmental footprint.

I'd like to see the numbers, but I've heard it said that when a Prius' batteries are taken in to account, that their footprint is bigger than a Hummer's.
Anonymous says:
Jan 30, 2009 02:54 PM
Be prepared for your nostalgic experience to include lengthy delays. Our family recently completed a Glacier - Illinois round trip on the Empire Builder, with the first leg delayed 18 hours. The return trip was a breeze, only 8 hours late. Still better than traveling by ship through the Panama Canal, as long as we're getting historical about it..
Anonymous says:
Feb 01, 2009 11:52 PM
How late would flights be without the huge subsidies given that infrastructure over the years? Or cars without Interstates? Clearly there is catching up to do, but tripling the speed of passenger trains on dedicated rights-of way would make rail travel more appealing. Just a thought.
Anonymous says:
Feb 03, 2009 03:57 PM
I loved your piece about your rail travels, and the last paragraph said it all. Where but on a train could you celebrate with a family you did not know, over $5 wine tastings, over 14 hours? It's a metaphor for life as a journey! You certainly could not do this in your little metal world of a car, insulated against strangers, obviously cut off from delicious wine, having to pay attention, read the maps and stick to the concrete. Why do this when you can take a train, loll around reading, dining, talking, relaxing, snoozing? Anybody who flies knows that airplanes are dreadful places these days. People are not joyful. They are not having fun. They're just hoping no one will talk to them as they are scrunched into their seats. Visit the web site of Rick Harnish, director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association, who just finished leading a tour to Spain to test out the incredible high-speed rail choices there, buttressed by grand network of transit. ( He'll give you an earful about what rail can do for our country's economy and mobility. And I hope nobody out there really thinks that cars or airplanes are self-supporting. They just are not. Please visit Rick's site, again, or visit the National Association of Railroad Passengers.( Better still, join both organizations. Give them donations. They need our support. And America needs our trains--whether you think so or not.
Eleanor Flagler Hardy
Society of International Railway Travelers
Anonymous says:
Feb 04, 2009 09:36 AM
I was so excited commenting about your piece, I wrote our web site incorrectly. I am usually a much better editor than that!
Thank you!
Eleanor Flagler Hardy
Society of International Railway Travelers
Anonymous says:
Feb 16, 2009 08:46 AM
Nowhere do I find concern about what increased rail will do to small rural communities like mine who are facing a proposed RR yard, ninth largest in the nation, smack across from a State park and a new affordable housing development and schools, which will destroy the upper Santa Cruz Valley, the last undeveloped part of the Sonoran Desert. For those few of us who built here years ago hoping to enjoy peace, quiet and an undisturbed environment, this is appalling. Not all of us live in cities and want to experience nature through glass windows as we speed by. We are having commuter rail dangled as a benefit, but this will never materialize. We are told a second rail will mean less truck transport along our very busy corridor - this, too, will not happen - the proposed switching station will enable the Mex-Canada "highway" to happen. EPA studies of the underlying primary aquifer in a state that is going dry, will be a joke. UP officials have not publicized required public meetings in our local community, and are fighting new State required public hearings, saying they are not required by Fed. law. Purported new jobs for locals is also a non-starter, 80 locally which will be filled by current Tucson employees, who will commute by car to work.

Please consider the impact on local communities when you tout the benefits of increased commuter rail - some of us want to rebuild communities rather than speed out of them.