California Forum

Board a train, become a second-class citizen

Once you board a train and it leaves the station, a shipment of goods usually has priority over passengers on Amtrak. There are frequent delays as trains pull aside to wait for passing freight trains.
Once you board a train and it leaves the station, a shipment of goods usually has priority over passengers on Amtrak. There are frequent delays as trains pull aside to wait for passing freight trains. akuhn@mercedsunstar.com

I have a love-hate relationship with trains. I’ve been riding them since I was 13, when I rode back and forth across the country with my grandfather. I like the experience of being on a train, watching the landscape roll by the window and the variety of passengers you see onboard.

Nowadays, I frequently ride Coast Starlight trains between the Bay Area and Portland. Whenever I do, I become a kind of second-class citizen. On the rails, a load of pig iron counts for more than a car of passengers. There are frequent delays as the train pulls aside to wait for passing freight trains. Whether a train runs on schedule or not sometimes depends on “whether the dispatcher on duty favors freight or passenger trains,” one conductor told me.

Union Pacific owns the tracks and is in the business of moving freight, not passengers, so passenger trains sometimes run late despite the fact that Amtrak offers the railroad company an “incentive fee” when passenger trains run on time. According to Amtrak figures, during the past year, Coast Starlight trains arrived at their final destination on time 85 percent of the time, but only 66 percent in the most recent month, July, for which figures are available.

In Europe, many trains run on tracks specifically dedicated for passenger trains.

It will take a huge shift in our transportation priorities before anything like that happens in this country. But there are one or two things Amtrak can do right now to attract more passengers. In particular, Amtrak has great potential for attracting younger people, the Gen Xers and Millennials who are eschewing cars in favor of bikes and public transportation.

Amtrak has great potential for attracting younger people, the Gen Xers and Millennials who are eschewing cars in favor of bikes and public transportation.

To go from the controlled environment of a private automobile to a railway coach car is a bit of a shock, what with the cacophony of loud cellphone talk and crying babies. All of this chaos may be mildly entertaining at 2 in the afternoon, but at 2 a.m. it is much less so.

On a recent trip, in the middle of the night, I walked through five cars to find an Amtrak employee to help me deal with a disruptive passenger, and there was nary a one in sight. I don’t know where Amtrak employees hide in the wee hours of the night, but they need to be much more visible and make regular strolls through the cars.

Amtrak is taking one step that should help attract younger riders. On some East Coast trains, Amtrak has begun to allow passengers to hang their bicycles on racks in the baggage cars, something you can’t do on the Coast Starlight. If the bikes-on-board program works out on the East Coast, it will be implemented out here later this year.

Meanwhile, there are pleasures to be found in riding the rails, as my wife and I found on our round-trip back and forth across the country a few years ago: Relaxing days spent reading or just staring out the window, seeing the Rocky Mountains up close, meeting an interesting mix of people that included the young woman heading to a ranch in Montana to train horses, the charming old fellow escaping from a rooming house in San Francisco to visit a friend in the Midwest.

Trains are cities on wheels. They’re melting pots featuring people of all ages, races and incomes.

You never need to be lonely on a train. The mushy boundaries of personal space melt away as soon as you strike up a conversation with the person next to you – not a bad way to pass the time while you’re waiting for that freight train to go by.

Tim Holt is the editor of the quarterly North State Review.

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