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
 

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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."

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