California Forum

A proposal to ride the rails north for adventure, recreation

Amtrak's Coast Starlight train will resume full service from California to Oregon and Washington beginning Saturday, June 23, 2018.
Amtrak's Coast Starlight train will resume full service from California to Oregon and Washington beginning Saturday, June 23, 2018. Los Angeles Daily News

Finally, from the far northern reaches of this state, comes an idea that is sane, sensible and farsighted. So much so that it’s downright boring compared with some of the ideas that circulate around here, like calls for a separate “Republic of Jefferson.”

In the small town where I live, we have a long and proud history of railroading. The Southern Pacific essentially built Dunsmuir, was its major employer, gave young folks a reason to stay and start their families.

Though railroad employment is a small fraction of what it once was, we still celebrate our heritage with an annual Railroad Days event. The town’s railroad museum, right next to the Amtrak station, is full of photos and artifacts from the heyday of railroading.

There’s at least one person in town, though, who thinks railroading is more than historic nostalgia, that it has an important role in our future economic development.

For starters, we have the only Amtrak station between Redding and Klamath Falls, Ore. There’s been a 23 percent increase in ridership over the past 10 years in the one West Coast passenger train that runs through here, the Coast Starlight. And that’s with very little promotion by Amtrak. When was the last time you saw an ad promoting train travel?

Richard Dinges, the man who runs the Chamber of Commerce, is promoting the idea of a second passenger train running through Dunsmuir, one with more user-friendly hours. Our one train, leaving just after midnight, is an all-night ride to Sacramento and the Bay Area. The northbound train leaves at the crack of dawn.

Dinges is gray-haired and in his 60s, but his proposal links Dunsmuir’s future with a younger generation of millennials and Gen Xers in urban centers like San Francisco and Sacramento, where under-40-somethings are eschewing automobiles in favor of trains, public transit and bicycles.

A second train, Dinges says, would bring more of them up here to enjoy our natural scenery and recreational offerings: climbing up and around Mount Shasta, hiking and mountain biking on our myriad trails, sport fishing in our streams and lakes.

One of the main impediments to this idea is Amtrak itself, which seems to be in survival mode, struggling with a limited budget to maintain its existing service, mired in bureaucracy and having no ambition to expand its service on the West Coast. “There’s no funding for anything like that,” Amtrak spokeswoman Vernae Graham told me.

She did hold out one little glimmer of hope, though. Amtrak, with little in the way of a promotional budget, looks to the communities along the route to do the promotions and station improvements that can increase ridership. At some point, with enough of this grass-roots effort, a second train might be viable.

Anyone who runs a small-town chamber of commerce is used to bucking the odds. With the railroad and lumber mills up here cutting payrolls, and big-box outlets sucking the life out of Main Street, for every new business that opens, there’s another empty storefront.

Dinges seems to take all this, including Amtrak’s seeming indifference, in stride. He has visions of a small fleet of electric cars parked near the station for disembarking passengers, and a staff person on duty at the station to rent out the cars, sell tickets and provide tourist information. He’s already signed up one motel to pick up passengers from the station.

Klamath Falls, the station to the north of us, has another champion for a second passenger train. Jim Chadderdon of the Klamath Falls visitors bureau has taken up Amtrak’s challenge to boost ridership by going to train fairs from Portland to Los Angeles for the past five years, setting up booths and touting the attractions Klamath Falls offers to those who travel by rail. The big attraction is Crater Lake National Park. During the summer, a shuttle takes visitors right from the train station to the national park.

It makes sense that the push for a second West Coast train is coming from small towns along the route. The nearly 6,000 people who got on and off the train in Dunsmuir last year is equivalent to more than three times the town’s population. If Dinges can get more of them to come up and stay a while, it would provide a big economic boost for the town.

A beautiful marriage, perhaps: The recreational and scenic attractions of the upper north state, and active, rail-riding millennials and Gen Xers. Now, if we can just get Amtrak on board.

Tim Holt is the editor of the quarterly North State Review, which covers issues relating to Northern California.