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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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.

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