September 25, 2022

THE DESIRE NAMED STREETCAR: Amtrak’s Oakland to Los Angeles train is slower than the 1930s, but just as beautiful.

But why does California’s premier train connection take twice as long as driving?

Steve Roberts, president of RailPAC, a train advocacy organization, said the train’s slow speeds are tied to the nation’s 20th-century love affair with cars. In the heyday of 1900s train travel, before automobiles and highways supplanted mass transit, private railway companies operated a vast network of luxurious passenger trains. That was when rail travel came with elaborate art-deco drinking taverns and wood-paneled coffee carts.

Last century on the Daylight, dubbed “The Most Beautiful Train in the World,” the tracks and technology were upgraded so trains could zoom around corners at higher speeds. “The train at some places along the coast could go 90 miles an hour,” said Roberts.

But once passengers started skipping rail for their steering wheels, the private railway companies downgraded their faster infrastructure because it was too expensive to maintain, Roberts said. In 2022, Coast Starlight’s top speed is 79 miles per hour, but that velocity is rarely reached.

“Basically, society’s decision was to build the interstates,” said Roberts. “And the railroads stayed static.”

While lackluster infrastructure means slower trains, Amtrak’s biggest affliction is rampant delays caused by the nation’s economic workhorse: freight trains.

For the Coast Starlight, only 54% of passengers arrived within 15 minutes of their scheduled time in 2021. The dismal performance stems from a long-standing and bitter competition between Amtrak and freight train operators, both of whom are forced to cohabitate on the nation’s rail network. While Amtrak is supposed to be entitled to priority on railways, riders are often forced to wait hours for passing freight trains. Last week, in one of the latest dustups, Amtrak announced mass cancellations of its long-distance trains, including the Coast Starlight, due to freight workers threatening a strike.

I know California leftists hate the car and highways hate the car and highways, but why doesn’t the article mention the other development that made passenger railroading much less desirable? The jet passenger aircraft:

By the time Congress created Amtrak, intercity rail passenger service in the United States had been in a 20-year decline. Until the 1950s, railroads were the only way to travel long distances. But during that decade, the federal government began financing the interstate highway system, a $41 billion, 16-year project, and, as jet airplanes were introduced, significantly increased its support for the construction and improvement of airports.

Airplanes, personal automobiles, and buses began competing with the country’s railroads for long-distance travel. The railroads responded to the competition with new equipment on their prestige long-distance routes, replacing steam locomotives with diesel engines, and introducing lightweight stainless steel passenger cars with air-conditioning and double glazed windows. But as the number of passengers continued to drop, the rail companies had little incentive to make major capital investments to upgrade their tracks, signaling, stations, and maintenance facilities. Why, they thought, should their profitable freight business subsidize a means of intercity transportation that was competing with systems receiving federal and state tax dollars? By 1958, rail service accounted for just 4 percent of intercity travel.

The decline in rail passenger service and the deterioration of passenger facilities continued during the 1960s. By the end of the decade, the number of passenger trains had dropped to 500, down from more than 20,000 some 40 years earlier, and only 12,000 passenger cars remained in service. Losses from passenger service operations in 1970 came to more than $1.8 billion dollars in 1997 dollars. Most of the loss was on long-distance, intercity travel. Commuter and suburban lines obviously were less affected by airlines and, at least during the 1960s, lost little ridership to buses and private cars. Many of the railroad companies filed applications to get out of the intercity service on most or all of their routes. Among the most critical was the proposal by Penn Central (the merged Pennsylvania Railroad and New York Central Railroad) to eliminate all its passenger service in the Northeast and Midwest.

Federal Action

The Railroad Passenger Service Act allowed the railroad companies to transfer their money-losing passenger operations to Amtrak in exchange for either a tax write-off or Amtrak stock. Only three lines, the Denver & Rio Grande Western, the Rock Island, and the Southern, did not join Amtrak, opting to continue their own passenger service.

The San Jose Mercury story at the top of the article notes that “the Bay Area portion – connecting Oakland and San Jose to Los Angeles – takes over 12 hours. In 1938, the now-defunct Daylight train cruised down to Los Angeles in less than 10.”

A flight from Oakland’s airport to LAX takes one hour and 25 minutes — and costs about the same for a ticket.

(Classical reference in headline.)

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