« Return to this article

Know the West

All Aboard

A classic American transit system seems poised for a comeback

 

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.

The Zephyr lives up to its name, breezing through the night across the Great Basin. The next morning, after stops in Salt Lake City and Provo, we enter the red-rock terrain of the Colorado River Basin and ease into dowdy Green River, Utah, where I step off the train for a two-day respite at nearby Arches and Canyonlands national parks. Trains provide unique proximity to remote splendor like this. Amtrak's most popular overnighter, the Chicago-Seattle-Portland Empire Builder, makes three stops inside Glacier National Park.

I re-board another Zephyr as it begins its 238-mile journey along the Colorado River up into the Colorado Rockies. We pass through Glenwood, Red and Gore canyons with their aspen-dotted cliffs that soar as high as 1,500 feet above the churning river. From the glass-enclosed lounge car, some of the views are so stunning that most conversations come to a halt.

I'm struck by the fact we're not seeing as many freight trains as in more robust times. The housing collapse substantially lessened lumber traffic last year, and Detroit's implosion reduced the number of new automobiles hauled by 28 percent. But even though Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe, the West's two biggest railroads, are now laying off some employees, rail hasn't been hurt as much as other transportation industries. Traffic in grain and coal increased in 2008, despite the recent economic calamities. In Wyoming's Powder River Basin, which produces 37 percent of the nation's coal, UP and BNSF have added one and in some places two more tracks to their joint double-track line there.

As we approach Granby, Colo., we roll past a parked coal train. It's taken a sidetrack for us, an event all too rare on previous trips. Most Amtrak trains share track with freight lines, and carriers' reluctance to give priority to passenger trains has long been the main reason for Amtrak's dismal on-time performance. (Its trains arrived on schedule an average of 71 percent of the time in 2008.) A federal law passed last year now allows authorities to fine freight lines if they delay passenger trains.

Twilight and the Zephyr descend on Denver. From there, it's an overnight run across the Great Plains to Chicago, where I change trains for Washington, D.C., a place that has always played an outsize role in determining the fate of railroads. The federal government is by far the biggest landowner in the West. The Pacific Railway Act of 1862 created and funded the first transcontinental railroad, Abraham Lincoln's longtime dream. That was, of course, during another national emergency -- the Civil War -- and Lincoln was determined to keep California and its riches in the Union by getting tracks there before the South could. 

But after World War II, national leaders turned their backs on trains. In 1947, a year after companies started receiving deliveries of passenger locomotives that could go 118 mph, Congress, goaded by the highway, automobile and airline lobbies, voted to restrict speed limits to 79 mph on most passenger runs. "The United States became the only nation in the world to deliberately limit the speed of its passenger trains," writes John Stilgoe in his 2007 book, Train Time. The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, which created the 48,000-mile interstate highway system, was a $130 billion giveaway to Detroit. (Sound familiar?) The Transportation Act of 1958 drastically reduced the amount of mail delivered by railroads -- a huge financial blow -- and forced the post office to send more letters by air. (Railroads no longer deliver any mail.) None of this, of course, made much sense in terms of energy efficiency and real costs.

With the federal fix in their competitors' favor and saddled with costly, outmoded regulations imposed by the Interstate Commerce Commission, railroads struggled in the 1960s and '70s. The Staggers Rail Act of 1980 substantially deregulated them, making it easier for companies to drop unprofitable stretches of track. In 1980, there were about 164,000 miles of rail across the nation. Since then, the industry has removed or abandoned 24,000 of those miles, according to Tom White, spokesman for the Association of American Railroads, largely as a result of the recession of the early 1980s. Richard Tolmach, president of the California Rail Foundation, a passenger advocacy group, puts it bluntly: "They got more money out of scrap than they did running railroads."

The companies' timing, as it turned out, was awful: The economy rebounded dramatically in the '90s, and suddenly there was huge demand for greater capacity. Speedy auto-rack and container cargo trains -- many of them bearing goods shipped across the Pacific through bustling West Coast ports -- replaced most of the slower box-car freight runs. "These days," says White, "even the trucking companies have become some of our best customers. They find if you're going 750 or 1,000 miles or longer, it makes more sense to put the cargo on trains."

That's the conclusion the Ingomar Tomato Packing Co. of Los Banos, Calif., came to in the 1990s. "It's cheaper than trucking," says Marketing Director Mary Beth Wilson. The resurgence in freight hauling means that many lines that were stripped to single-track are now being returned to double-track, so that trains can travel in opposite directions safely and efficiently. Burlington Northern Santa Fe is on the verge of completely double-tracking a Chicago-Los Angeles route. But it isn't cheap: Laying just one foot of track takes about $100 worth of materials, let alone the cost of labor.

"Federal policy still encourages investing most resources in the least efficient forms of transportation," says Ross Capon, executive director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers. "That is not the road to energy independence." He's referring to annual subsidies like the $40 billion in federal money that highways receive and the $1.9 billion that goes to airlines. "We have a transportation system that is in danger of breaking down," says James RePass, CEO of the National Corridors Initiative, which advocates for more investment in ground transportation. "I just returned from Europe, with high-speed trains all over. It's so far advanced from us. We have wonderful weapons systems, but we've given ourselves a Third World transportation system." Even China, which already has high-speed rail service, is spending $300 billion to further develop its railroads over the next two years.

In the U.S., good news is chugging in. Amtrak's total ridership in 2008 increased to nearly 29 million, the sixth straight year of gains and almost 3 million more than the previous year. The six transcontinental trains that serve the West posted the biggest increases, and Amtrak's four West Coast corridors -- funded by California, Washington and Oregon -- attracted more than 6 million riders, a gain as high as 18 percent over the prior year. Even the recent decline in gas prices may not entice people back into their cars: A new Brookings Institute report says that Americans' per capita driving leveled off in 2004, began dropping in 2007, and hasn't resurged. Light-rail lines are popping up all over -- the latest was Phoenix in December -- and there are busy commuter rail routes in cities like Albuquerque and Salt Lake City.

Perhaps in response, Washington has finally begun to show substantial support for rail. On Oct. 16, outgoing President Bush, a longtime Amtrak foe, signed overwhelmingly approved legislation that authorizes doubling Amtrak's funding to $13 billion for the next five years. That's welcome news for an organization with chronic maintenance backlogs and equipment shortages. The bill also requires that Amtrak consider adding two new routes in the West, one connecting Denver with Portland, the other running through southern Montana between Fargo, N.D., and Spokane, Wash. The legislation provides $2.2 billion for construction projects to lessen delays and expand passenger capacity. And it grants $1.7 billion for developing high-speed rail corridors, like the one California voters approved last fall: a $9.95 billion bond to help fund 220 mph service, the first in the nation, between Los Angeles and San Francisco. But it's chump change compared to the likely cost of getting high-speed trains up and running. California's project alone will require another $30 billion, and given that state's $40 billion deficit, the money will have to come from the feds. And high-speed rail may not be the solution for long-distance travel. "High-speed rail can compete (over distances) up to 500 miles -- it's faster than air up to that," says Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis. Beyond that, he scoffs, passenger rail is "recreational and social."

Nonetheless, substantial investments in both passenger and freight rail could create jobs, reduce greenhouse emissions and boost economic growth. Officials from several rail and environmental organizations, including Amtrak and the Natural Resources Defense Council, sent a letter to Obama in December urging him to specifically include railroads in economic recovery legislation. So far, however, the new administration is reported to be asking for just $10 billion for transit and rail in its $825 billion stimulus plan, and state subsidies for existing rail corridors could be slashed. It's unclear whether politicians are really listening to their constituents, who as usual are way ahead of them.

I get back on the train for an overnight run to Chicago. There I board the Southwest Chief for a two-day journey to Los Angeles, then transfer to the Coast Starlight for the final leg of my trip. For 113 miles, many of them alongside rolling hills where no highway goes, the Starlight hugs the Pacific. Wetsuit-clad surfers wave energetically at the train as they await their own slow rollers. In the afternoon, I visit the Pacific Parlour Car, which features comfy swivel chairs, a bar and a movie theater. Regrettably, it also offers a wine tasting for $5, and I end up celebrating with Barbara Santasiero and her husband, Mark, who has just returned from Air Force duty in Iraq. The whole car joins in the merriment, and the pinot noir flows long after the official tasting ends. We roll into Sacramento just past midnight, after a 14-hour ride. That's twice as long as it takes in an automobile, but for me this journey ends much too soon.