Is America ready for the rails?

  • Jonathan Thompson


I've always loved the idea of traveling by rail. I'm scared of flying, and trains are more efficient and greener than cars. I once enjoyed zipping through the French countryside at 200 miles per hour in a sleek train, and whenever I'm in a city, I make it a point to ride the commuter rails. I'm nostalgic for the days when you could hop on a train in almost any town in western Colorado, where I live, and ride the rails to Denver or even New York.

Yet I've only taken one long-distance train trip in the United States. Two summers ago, my family and I rode the California Zephyr from Grand Junction to San Francisco, a 27-hour trip. In many ways, it was an ideal way to travel. The kids could stroll from one car to another whenever they got restless, and I saw a side of the West that I had never really thought to look at: The glaring white salt flats in Utah; the vast Humboldt Sink, where shallow water sits like a mirage amid tall grasses; the gritty backsides of Winnemucca and Elko and Davis.

We all became Amtrak boosters during that trip and pledged to travel by rail more often. But we haven't, and I doubt we will anytime soon. Fact is, train travel across the vast Western landscape doesn't make much sense unless you've got a lot of time and some extra cash. Road travel, whether by car or bus, is cheaper, and flying typically costs about the same or less than a journey by sleeper railcar. And flying -- as anxiety-inducing as it is -- takes up hours, rather than days, of my precious vacation time.

William Moore's feature story in this issue gives reason to hope for a rail renaissance fueled by a renewed government commitment to Amtrak. We're already seeing inklings of this with the birth of new commuter lines, such as the one recently completed from Albuquerque to Santa Fe, N.M. But when it comes to long-distance train travel, hopes for a renaissance could be derailed by Americans' need for speed. New tracks, new rules and adequate funding might alleviate delays on Amtrak lines like the Zephyr, but only high-speed rail (which is currently not in the cards for most of the country) will significantly decrease the time it takes to get from Grand Junction to San Francisco. Travelers who want to get somewhere fast will continue to go by plane or automobile. 

Unless, that is, Amtrak could somehow turn its legendary slowness into an asset that even harried business travelers might embrace. What if, I thought on that long-ago train ride as we inched our way up the Sierras, my workaholic self could get things done while riding the rails? What if the Zephyr had a business car with computers and workspaces and high-speed Internet, and a gym car with yoga classes, and a decent coffee and dining car and a real lounge? Then travelers would see the long trip as an opportunity to get some work done. And perhaps now and then, despite themselves, they might look out the window and savor the light and the landscape. They might even learn, for a moment, to savor the slowness.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Slow train to freedom
Owen Hardy
Owen Hardy
Feb 03, 2009 03:22 PM
What you describe in your last paragraph now exists in many parts of the world. "A business car with computers and workspaces?" Amtrak's Acela Express, which runs at up to 150 mph between Boston-New York and Washington, DC, boasts at-seat electrical outlets for your laptop or DVD player. A gym car? India's Deccan Odyssey, which runs between Mumbai and Goa, has many public spaces, including a bar car with full-time bartender; conference car with plasma-screen TV, library and business center; and spa car with massage services, sauna, beauty parlor and a workout room. (See the train's complete description at A train where you can get decent coffee and dining car and a real lounge? Until last summer, you could have hopped a luxury train out of Denver, the GrandLuxe Express, which had a fabulous diner and lounge, with great coffee (and tea, capuccino and espresso, too). Unfortunately, it went belly-up, a victim of the recession. But the larger point is that, in the larger world, in places every bit as remote as the American West, trains are a big deal, and destined to become bigger. In the not-too-distant future, I suspect, America will embrace the passenger train in all its forms: high-speed, luxury/tourist, first-class, long-distance, commuter and light rail. I hope I live to see it.
Dream on!
al meggers
al meggers
Feb 04, 2009 05:29 PM
Great article!
 I have felt the same pang of nostalgia,first with the train trips my dad would take us on accros the US in bedrooms to the trips I saved up for my three kids in the summers working three jobs.
 I have seen and felt first hand the exhilaration of watching the moving panorama while eating a hot dinner in the diner to sitting in the observation car watching the mooners along the Colorado.
 I have forlorned the inevitable destruction of that slow, relaxing time when life was a quiet pleasure to live, reminiscent of the engrossing beauty only appreciated in that slow timeless metamorphosis of a bygone era where history meets the landscapes and memories drift into infinite beauty.