Is America ready for the rails?

by 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.

© High Country News