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 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.

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