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for people who care about the West

Don’t give up on riding the rails

A writer muses on a recent loss of confidence in the West’s rail system.


Forrest Whitman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He rides the rails from western Colorado.

“I’m never taking another Amtrak train here in the West!” That’s what a longtime passenger-rail fan told me recently. True, it hasn’t been good news lately for our Western passenger-train network. But is his decision not to get on board typical?

Dining-car conversations on a recent trip from Grand Junction, Colorado, to Reno, Nevada, were a lot more positive. At our table during dinner and breakfast we talked with an artist, a retired teacher, an NPR news producer and several others. They all loved the train and were making plans to ride Amtrak again.

The community seating in dining cars has long been a great way to meet and greet our fellow Americans and foreign tourists, too. Western trains are especially good for that, since many passengers spend the night on board. Time seems to stretch out. No one bothers much if the train is late or forced to halt to let freight cars go by. It’s really a time out of time.

On that trip we also met travelers from small towns who depend on Western trains like the Chief, the Zephyr and the Empire Builder. Those towns have lost bus service, and they’re a long way from any airport. A number of people — especially seniors and parents with small kids — depend on the train.

Our Western trains even make money. Last year, the California Zephyr made $49.7 million along its route and the Southwest Chief made almost $40 million.

A passenger train that runs from Durango to Silverton in Colorado passes through the Uncompahgre National Forest.
Mickey Bo/Flickr

So what’s going wrong? Recent train wrecks dont inspire a lot of confidence. Last Dec. 18, the Seattle to Portland Cascades went into a curve too fast and derailed. Three people died. The crew admits to having missed a warning going into that curve. True, they were new to the run, the first run for Train Number 501. But this was the kind of mistake that old-time train crews didn’t make. The missed warning was old technology — a yellow sign by the tracks, called a slow board, that usually has a speed limit above it.

Then, on Feb. 3, the Silver Star barreling south from New York to Miami slammed into a side-tracked CSX freight. That was on a stretch of track controlled by the CSX. Amtrak blamed CSX for the tragedy, which killed the conductor and engineer on the Amtrak train. When I worked for railroads, mostly as a brakeman on four lines, the first rule was ironclad: You always “lined for the main (line) and locked her up,” meaning that trains coming full speed on the main line could never by mistake be physically diverted onto a side track. Locked, by the way, meant padlocked. An investigation into the accident is ongoing.

There are ways to solve these problems. The president of Amtrak, Richard Anderson, has vowed to create a culture of safety. Robert Sumwalt of the National Transportation Safety Board, who was scathing in his assessment, said that Positive Train Control would have stopped the Cascades train before it went off the tracks. The railroads have been agonizingly slow in paying the millions needed for PTC and Congress, and especially this administration, has been slow to authorize paying for it.

Positive Train Control is a lovely thing: An alarm sounds, and if the engineer does not throw on the air — open up the air brakes, so the brake shoes come down —within a few seconds, it does it automatically.

It can operate in those “dark” zones so many of our Western trains traverse. Its a long way between signals on much of the old Santa Fe where the Chief runs. Radio reception to the dispatcher is iffy in the canyons and river bottoms.

But what can be done about other problems, like the one that caused the wreck in South Carolina? One cynical friend thinks that the class I freight railroads, which have priority over passenger trains, suffer from constantly revolving management and just dont care about passenger trains. I cant bring myself to be that cynical. A bit of hope is that federal help may be on the way with PTC funding. Yet that is highly questionable in this administration.

My buddy who refuses to ride Western trains is, I hope, not typical. Now is the time to ride and to support those groups fighting to keep them running. Joining the National Association of Railroad Passengers is a place to start. If you live in Colorado consider our local group, ColoRail. I hope few will be too frightened by the bad news to forgo the pleasure of a train trip. I am convinced that no other way of travel ever reveals how much of our region is vast, undeveloped and beautiful.

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 [email protected].