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coasting into Amtrak’s twilight

By enelson
Thursday, July 27th, 2006 at 10:05 pm in high-speed rail, rail.

MAP-LG_coaststarlight.gifIt’s official. High-speed rail is not the same thing as Amtrak’s Coast Starlight line.

Here’s a train service that is scheduled, I mean scheduled, to take twice as long to get to LA from the Bay Area as you can drive.

But now we have a grim pronouncement from the Train Riders Association of California that passengers can expect not only an average speed of 40 mph along the line, but they are also routinely experiencing 5- to 11 1/2-hour delays.

I’ve read that the ride is quite a scenic treat, running (or rather, plodding) through the  wilds of Oregon, along the shores of our very own Bay and featuring spectacular views of Mt. Shasta up north. People pay big money to ride, and it actually makes money for Amtrak, although I’m not sure I can swallow that until I’ve seen the ledger sheets.

But the delays are frustrating on this tiny stretch of track that is also shared by the Coast Starlight, a once-a-day service from Seattle to Los Angeles. I can’t imagine trying to travel, say, to Los Angeles or Portland and put up with the same type of delays the corridor trains experience, only magnified by the distance.
I read further that between the Sacramento region and Portland, the line is fraught with physical handicaps, such as track that is actually broken, forcing the Coast Starlight to go so slowly it can spot these hazards and avert a disaster.

The Rail Passenger Association of California reports in its August newsletter that the line’s on-time rate is down to 2 percent.
I obviously can’t speak for anyone but myself, but I would really like to have an alternative to driving up and down California, and it’s difficult to envision high-speed rail coming to fruition before I retire. I’m going to Crater Lake in a couple weeks, and even before all this hubbub about delays, I noticed that I could take an overnight trip to that vicinity, enjoying the scenery you’d miss on Southwest Airlines.
But who’s going to ride something that they know might get them there a half a day late? Most people must not be aware of this, because the Coast Starlight reportedly does quite well for part of the year.
We, as a society, need to decide whether we’ve had enough of intercity rail travel or resolve that we’re going to breathe new life into what we have left. Obviously people still like to travel this way, and fixing up the tracks, making room to pass freight trains and improving on-time service will cost a small fraction of the $30 billion estimated cost of high-speed rail.
Here’s an idea: When we finally get around to approving high-speed rail, let’s set aside a fraction of that cost toward getting Amtrak back up to highway speeds.

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One Response to “coasting into Amtrak’s twilight”

  1. Aaron Priven Says:

    The people who ride the Starlight, and other long-distance Amtrak trains, are people on vacation who are not in a hurry. It is a fun way to travel if you are not a type A personality who needs to be DOING SOMETHING RIGHT NOW. But at this point, most of the trains are not reliable enough for non-leisure travel. The fault for this is distributed widely, between Amtrak’s equipment suffering from deferred maintenance to the host railroads prioritizing freight loads over passengers.

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