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
  • GRAND CANYON DIRECTOR
    The Grand Canyon director, with the Grand Canyon manager, conservation director, and other staff, envisions, prioritizes, and implements strategies for the Grand Canyon Trust's work...
  • ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a part-time Administrative Assistant to support the organization's general operations. This includes phone and email communications, office correspondence and...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • ONE WILL: THREE WIVES
    by Edith Tarbescu. "One Will: Three Wives" is packed with a large array of interesting suspects, all of whom could be a murderer ... a...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR, SALAZAR CENTER FOR NORTH AMERICAN CONSERVATION
    The Program Director will oversee the programmatic initiatives of The Salazar Center, working closely with the Center's Director and staff to engage the world's leading...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS - WILD PLACES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Salary Range: $70,000-$80,000. Location: Denver, CO, Portland, OR, Seattle, WA, Missoula, MT or potentially elsewhere for the right person. Application Review: on a rolling basis....
  • RIVER EDUCATOR/GUIDE + TRIP LEADER
    Position Description: Full-time seasonal positions (mid-March through October) Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10 year old nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of...
  • BOOKKEEPER/ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Position Description: Part-time, year-round bookkeeping and administration position (12 - 16 hours/week) $16 - $18/hour DOE Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10...
  • LAND STEWARD
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks a full-time Land Steward to manage and oversee its conservation easement monitoring and stewardship program for 42,437 acres in...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ventana Wilderness Alliance is seeking an experienced forward-facing public land conservation leader to serve as its Executive Director. The mission of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "We all love this place we call Montana. We believe that land and water and air are not ours to despoil, but ours to steward...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Development Director is responsible for organizing and launching a coherent set of development activities to build support for the Natural History Institute's programs and...
  • WILDLIFE PROJECT COORDINATOR
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation helps protect and conserve water, wildlife and wild lands in Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem by supporting organizations and people who...
  • TRUSTEE AND PHILANTHROPY RELATIONS MANGER,
    Come experience Work You Can Believe In! The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is seeking a Trustee and Philanthropy Relations Manager. This position is critical to...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AT FRIENDS OF CEDAR MESA
    -The Land, History, and People of the Bears Ears Region- The Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa region is one of the most beautiful, complex, diverse,...
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
    Position will remain open until January 31, 2021 Join Our Team! The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit land trust organization dedicated to...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...