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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING www.westernlaw.org/about-us/clinic-interns-careers The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a 25-year legacy of success...
  • PLANNING & BUILDING DIRECTOR
    Searching for candidates with a Bachelor's Degree in Planning, Community Development, or a related field with 7 years' experience in land use planning forums, including...
  • LAND CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Manage, develop and implement all stewardship and land management plans and activities on both private and public lands. Guide and direct comprehensive planning efforts, provide...
  • NEWS DIRECTOR
    Based in the state capitol, Boise State Public Radio is the premier NPR affiliate in Idaho. With 18 transmitters and translators, it reaches 2/3rds of...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FOR MOJAVE DESERT LAND TRUST
    Organization Background: The Mojave Desert Land Trust (MDLT) is a non-profit 501(3)(c) organization, founded in 2006. Our mission is to protect the ecosystems of the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • FORGE & FAB SHOP
    with home on one beautiful acre in Pocatello, ID. Blackrock Forge - retiring after 43 years! Fully equipped 5,500 sf shop including office, gallery and...
  • SMALL FARM AT THE BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Home, barns, garage, separate apt, more. Just under 2 ac, edge of town. Famously pure air and water. Skiing, mountaineering, bike,...
  • FOREST STEWARDSHIP PROJECT DIRECTOR
    Become a force for nature and a healthy planet by joining the Arizona Chapter as Forest Stewardship Project Director. You will play a key role...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ranchers Stewardship Alliance is accepting applications for an Executive Director. This position will provide leadership to RSA, develop a fund raising plan, and effectively communicate...
  • EQUITY IN THE OUTDOORS COORDINATOR
    The Equity in the Outdoors Coordinator will lead community engagement, program implementation and development, and data collection for the Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement (EVOM). EVOM...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League is seeking a personable individual who is passionate about conservation to join our Sandpoint Field Office. The Community Engagement Assistant will...
  • LIGHTWEIGHT FLY ROD CASES
    4 standard or custom lengths. Rugged protection for backpacking. Affordable pricing.
  • EXPERIENTIAL EDUCATION INTERN/ASSISTANT
    Actively introduce students to Experiential Education, Outdoor Recreation, and Sustainability while engaging and challenging them to learn and participate in these diverse opportunities. Room, board,...
  • ENVIRONMENTAL INVESTIGATIVE MEDIA SERVICES
    In-depth investigations of polluters, lobbyists, regulators, elected officials and others focused on environmentally damaging projects in the U.S. and internationally. We specialize in mining projects,...
  • UNDEVELOPED 40 ACRES - SOUTHWEST COLORADO
    in beautiful Montezuma County.
  • TRUCK DRIVER
    Class A & B drivers, pass all DOT requirements and clean driving record
  • MARIA'S BOOKSHOP FOR SALE
    - Thriving Indie bookstore in the heart of Durango, Colorado. General bookstore with 34-year history as a community hub for Southwest region of CO. 1800...