Jon Christensen’s Series on “Riding the Rails in the West – the State of Amtrak”

by on September 4, 2013 · 4 comments

in California, Culture, Economy, Environment, History

Amtrak SD morn jecEditor: It has been a week since the passing of our good friend, Jon Christensen, who wrote on occasion for both the OB Rag and the San Diego Free Press, writing under his initials, JEC. Here, below, we repost his two-part series on “Riding the Rails in the West – The State of Amtrak”:

Part I: Are We There Yet?

by JEC

Its 6am – still dark with a morning fog when we board the Pacific Surfliner in San Diego. While there is a train leaving at 6:35 am, Amtrak urges passengers booked on the Coast Starlight to take the first train out at 6 am, likely based on experience with frequent delays. But today’s train leaves on time with a few dozen blurry eyed passengers.  We were bound for Chicago via Oakland.

Days before we departed, I had mentioned to my doctor I was about to leave on a train trip, from San Diego to Chicago via Oakland. He looked up, surprised, “what, you can do that, take a train from here to Chicago?”

A more common response – why would you want to? Ask yourself, to get from one city to the next; to go from LA to the Bay Area or Sacramento, or San Diego to Phoenix – does Amtrak come to mind? If you’re like 96% of the population the answer is a simple no. In California only 5% rely on public transportation to get to and from and Amtrak accounts for only a small portion.

In you’re like most, what you know of Amtrak is limited to a few commuter or specialty trains like the ‘Acela’ and the ‘Autotrain’ on the east coast or in California it could be the Pacific Surfliner, the Capital Corridor or the San Joaquin – Amtrak’s three busiest routes outside the northeast. But using a train to travel hundreds of miles as they do in Japan and Europe is a rare thought to an American. The airline passenger load traveling through LAX on a typical day exceeds the entire passenger load for all of Amtrak’s long distance trains for the year. How come?

The intercity or long distance trains are to slow and are simply not reliable. Amtrak trains travel at speeds of 40 or 50 mph. The fastest scheduled segment of the Coast Starlight is 56 mph, slower than a crowded freeway. And like a NBC News headline from 2007 “Amtrak can’t Run its Trains on Time” (2/27/2007). No hesitation, no ‘allegedly’ late trains.

NBC and the Federal Railroad Authority (FRA) and the Department of Transportation have known for years – they have and will stipulate to the fact, intercity Amtrak trains run late. That NBC report stated the Coast Starlight, the West Coast’s Premier Amtrak train, was on-time (within 30 minutes of scheduled arrival) only 4% of the time. The California Zephyr from Oakland to Chicago was on-time only 7% of the time. By 2011 the FRA report to Congress gave the Starlight a 71% on-time performance rating. It’s all about the definitions.

Reliability may have a lot to do with that. It’s been said the Italian dictator Mussolini came to power by getting the trains to run on time. If California was Italy circa 1920’s, Amtrak would offer terrific opportunities for another Mussolini.

A Swedish tourist, a gentleman in his 60’s I met on the Coast Starlight, summed it up pretty good when I asked him what he thought of America’s train system. He broke eye contact and stared at the floor for a good half minute before looking back and with the best manners he could muster said in halting English:
<p style=”padding-left: 30px;”><em> “System? No system, not for getting any place; just for tourists.”</em></p>
Author David Baldacci wrote about his trip to Los Angeles on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief. His popular book “The Christmas Train” was filled with personalities and drama. The book was entertaining because he focused on people and personalities and not the dry (and boring) topic of the state of Amtrak and the rails it runs. But every other first world nation; all of Europe, Japan, and now China, exploit rail to great advantage. Certainly America, and for that matter California, does not. Yet.

California Warming to High Speed

Things are starting to heat up. California again is out front with the passage of Proposition 1A in 2008 creating the California High Speed Rail Administration (CHSRA) and authorizing the issuance of nearly $10 billion in bonds to get things started. The first phase of what is described as “the backbone” of California’s future high speed rail system was finally approved, by a court of course, on November 16th. The

This first phase, expected to cost a somewhere between $4 -$6 billion will lay new track on new right of way from Fresno to Merced, a distance of 65 miles. According to the Fresno Bee (11/7/2012) just the 30 miles segment from Fresno to Madera will require the acquisition of between 400 and 500 parcels, mostly through eminent domain. The CHSR project is thick with controversy. One train supporter called it a swindle. Many court challenges are expected. The overall project is planned to take 20 years, or more. That’s a long time to wait to regain the train. And one criticism in particular stuck with me. The CHSRA is building islands – segments of a system that will not and cannot connect to the current system. Perhaps that’s not so bad. But then consider the existing track right of ways (ROW in the future) are interwoven with the roads and rivers; bridges and culverts, cities and stations. California and the trains grew up at the same time.

I’m a supporter of trains. The challenges being tossed at the CHSR idea concerned me. It seemed some direct education was called for. So that’s why my wife Sally and I decided to take a train from San Diego to Chicago and to see what we see along the way.

Amtrak’s long distance trains only run once a day – except for the Los Angeles to New Orleans Sunset Limited which runs only three times a week. With only one a day station stops occur any time day or night; getting on or off a train at 3 am makes using Amtrak a challenge.

For the remainder of Part 1, go here.

Part 2:Amtrak-2-JEC-OAKLANDNITE-1024x725 One Zephyr too soon –

News item, December 26th, China debuts the longest bullet train in the world. From Beijing to Guangzhou a distance of 1,428 miles, the ‘new’ train will serve 35 cities and cover the distance in under 10 hours, averaging speeds of 186 mph. The old train, the shame of Wuhan took almost 24 hours to cover the 1,428 miles. Hold the phone – the bad old train served the same 35 cities covering the 1,428 miles in less than 24 hours at an average speed of 60 mph. If we only had it so good.

Amtrak’s Premier West Coast train, the Coast Starlight is very similar; 1,377 miles from LA to Seattle with 30 stops in between. But it takes the Starlight over 34 hours, making an average speed of only 40.1 mph. If the Coast Starlight could match the old average speed of China’s Beijing to Guangzhou train of 60 mph, the trip would take less than 23 hours.

Amtrak-jec-helpon-016-300x225In Part I of Riding the Rails in the West, I mentioned the reason for taking Amtrak to Chicago was to learn about the condition of inter-city travel across California and across the west. Starting in San Diego a few minutes after 6 in the morning we enjoyed a few Amtrak mishaps along with wonderful (and not so wonderful) views on our way through Los Angeles and up the coast. Part I left with our train sitting a mile short of our destination in Emeryville a few minutes shy of 1 am. Our train again delayed as another reconditioned classic private car is attached for transport north. With only about one-third of the trip to Seattle completed, this train is already three hours behind schedule. Staring out into the misty darkness I began to wonder about the wisdom of pre-paying for our hotel room that now sits empty and cold.

The trip to the Bay Area on the Coast Starlight was more than a comedy of errors. It is an opera of inefficiency. Self-inflicted wounds started when Amtrak took the time to transport a private rail car, no doubt for the money. This leads to conflicts with the freight trains who own the tracks and take priority, and because of single track, like a single lane bridge allows only one direction at a time forcing Amtrak to slow down or get off onto sidings adding to the delays. Also playing in this opera, the condition of the track that limits speeds to 75 mph along with poor maintenance that forces many unscheduled stops. Together this opera of inefficiency prevents Amtrak from keeping a schedule or obtaining a decent average speed, making inter-city train travel impractical if not impossible. Imagine taking a three hour train trip and arriving seven hours late. Helpless comes to mind.

The Coast Starlight finally leaves the rail yard, rolls along at 20 mph for a few minutes until we arrive at Emeryville, our destination. Its 1:05 am; 3 hours and 8 minutes late. By the time we find a taxi, wake up the hotel clerk and fall into bed it’s almost 2 am. The California Zephyr leaves in just over seven hours. Using Amtrak is tough. You’ve got to want it. It’s good to be flexible as well. In the end, the 597 mile train ride from San Diego to Oakland, with a 2 ½ hour layover took 19 hours. Excusing the layover in Los Angeles, Amtrak enjoyed an average speed of 36 mph.

That last half hour on the Starlight, staring out into the darkness of the east bay rail yard I had to wonder why; why is California charging ahead to create high speed rail before we have mid-speed rail. Like a child who successfully rode a bike with training wheels wanting to jump behind the wheel of a Corvette, getting inter-city trains to travel faster than a car would be an accomplishment. California has yet to earn a 200 mph train. I went to bed apprehensive of what two days on the California Zephyr would be like.

Amtrak-2-Jec-Sacto-300x200The morning was crisp and clear although I needed to sleep another hour, or two. Just before 9 am we join 40 other passengers on the platform at the Emeryville Amtrak Station to prepare to board the California Zephyr. The Zephyr is assembled in the Oakland rail yard a half mile south of Emeryville; eight passenger cars – three sleeper cars, three coach cars, with a lounge car and a dining car in between. The 40 of us are divided between coach and sleeper car passengers. Coach passengers are not allowed in the sleeping cars. My wife and I have two roomettes in the Number 2 sleeper car; it’s the next to the last car on the train. Unlike the Coast Starlight, this morning the California Zephyr leaves on time – to the minute.

Amtrak riders might be familiar with this route between Oakland and Sacramento. It’s the same track used by the Capitol Corridor one of Amtrak’s busiest routes. Fifteen daily commuter trains make the Sacramento to Oakland run in each direction during the weekdays. Traveling along the east bay, through Richmond and Martinez, crossing the Carquinez Strait over the George Miller Memorial Bridge, along Suisun Bay and across the checker board fields of the delta until the city of Davis and finally crossing the Sacramento River to arrive at the Amtrak station in downtown Sacramento. Again, unlike the Starlight, the Zephyr is on time to the minute at every station.

The station in Sacramento is under construction. A hub of new track is converging in the downtown area. A much larger station is needed. From the looks of things, Sacramento sees more trains in California’s future.

Amtrak-jec-fillrup-015-300x210Dozens of coach passengers board in Sacramento. The run to Reno is popular. The 150 mile trip takes you over the Sierras at Donner Pass and some of the most historic track in America. The slow climb through the mountains is a nice way to spend five hours. Heading east the best views are from the port side of the train. Overall the lounge car provides the best views, but at times the lounge can be crowded.

We’ll be sleeping two nights on the Zephyr to Chicago. There’s a few things the movies leave out about sleeping on trains. First it’s about the noise. On-coming freight s hit hard; a loud boom rattles the entire train. You hear it, you feel it, like getting slapped upside the head. If you can, get a roomette on the side away from the freight trains. But in fact, that’s not really possible because you’re never sure. Second it’s about the rough track. Every intersection, culvert, bridge, and sometimes out in the middle of nowhere the sound of steel on steel echoes through the sleeper cars along with the motion that sometimes resembles a fast drive down a dirt road, a product of tracks built to haul freight not people.

Amtrak-2-jec-DonnerL-300x207And, for a thrill, there are a few bumps you remember. It was about 2 am in the middle of Nebraska, the train hit one memorable bump in the track; like a bomb going off, there was a loud bang as the train lurched to one side. Waking with a start your first thought is derailment. Will the train stop leaning? Will it straighten up? It takes a minute to get the adrenaline under control. In March, 2001 the California Zephyr derailed in Iowa. The entire train with 196 passengers left the BNSF tracks and rolled down an embankment. One died, dozens were hurt. Comforting thoughts as you try to go back to sleep.

The California Zephyr to Chicago takes 51 hours; two full days and nights. Sleep deprivation can be expected. But at least you can stay clean. Showers for sleeper car passengers are provided. Showering on a train is not unlike taking a shower in a 30 foot RV traveling down the interstate. To keep from being bounced off the walls like a racket ball, wedge yourself in the corner of two walls. Avoid leaning on the door because it will fly open and you might end up on the floor. Not that I did mind you. I actually found showering on a train fun, in an existential sort of way.

he Zephyr is rather slow, averaging only 47.5 mph over the 2,438 mile trip to Chicago. The slow speed makes sleeper cars and showers necessary. (Imagine riding in nothing but a coach seat for 51 hours. No bed, no shower.) The Zephyr climbs up and over the Sierras and the Rockies. The scenery is beautiful but the mountains offer a challenge for a train which could excuse the Zephyr’s slow speed although the route includes crossing a thousand miles of open prairie.

Even the flat farm land of Iowa and Illinois Amtrak schedules an average speed of only 52 mph. According to the GPS, at no time did the Zephyr travel faster than 76 mph; mostly traveling between 60 and 65 mph. A 25% improvement in speed, from 47.5 mph to 60 mph would cut 11 hours off the trip. But, as the Swedish tourist observed back on the Starlight, inter-city Amtrak is not for really getting any place; it’s for the tourists and the Zephyr offers views of a huge chunk of America, for the tourists.

Amtrak-jec-GrandJ-09-300x225The Zephyr has one of the worst on-time records of any of Amtrak’s long distance trains, making the schedule only 52% of the time. But on this trip the Zephyr made every station within 15 minutes of the schedule and arrived in Chicago 15 minutes early. A perfect trip, as it were. Interesting, but exhausting. We looked forward to a decent meal, say at McDonald’s and a bed that didn’t move.

Life on a long distance train is a chance to meet a diverse group of people. Students, families, TSA refugees, tourists and retirees frequent Amtrak. Europeans often take Amtrak, in part because they are familiar with trains and in part to see the desert. No desert in Europe. You’ll also likely to meet people who love trains. As group they know a great deal about the status of Amtrak. And, as a group, they love to talk trains. Jeff was one among a number of people I got to know on the trip to Chicago. Jeff is a recently retired airlines executive who prefers traveling by train and was a helpful source of information about Amtrak. Jeff loves trains; believes in trains, and believes the California High Speed Rail project is a ‘swindle’ (his word). The expense is consuming all the resources (funding) and the limited scope (LA to SF) and great expense ($65 Billion) will turn people against trains.

The California High Speed Rail (CHSR) project is controversial. The CHSR Authority, unable to secure funds beyond this first phase is stubbornly pushing forward on the Fresno to Merced segment because of rules regarding $3.3 Billion in Federal funding. According to the rules, construction on the project must begin by September, 2013 or the CHSR project risks losing the funding. Critics insist this Fresno to Merced segment will become an island; a high speed rail to nowhere as a Washington Post opinion piece put it.

Amtrak-2-JEC-GeoMillerBridge-300x212The money to finish the CHSR project from Anaheim to San Francisco, another $50 + Billion, has not been identified. In December, the GAO testified to Congress that U.S. taxpayers could be called on to provide $42 Billion in additional yet to be secured funding. Given the Federal budget issues, the CHSR Authority has reportedly explored the idea of using revenues from California’s cap and trade emissions program as another funding source even though cap and trade revenues remain undetermined.

On the other hand, why would we in San Diego care. It appears San Diego has no horse in this race. Then again how should we feel about being left out of the largest public works project in the history of the State of California? We need to care because, as Jeff pointed out, the CHSR project is sucking up all the transportation funding in California. The Fresno to Merced segment uses $8.2 Billion of Proposition 1A bond monies.

San Diego, though helping to pay for state bonds, will not be served by the project even if completed. The CHSR exclusion of San Diego could explain why SANDAG’s 2050 Plan did not include rail. The SANDAG 2050 Plan expects more and larger freeways; modest expansion of the trolley, but no other rail development. SANDAG’s plan is now being challenged.

So now what? I am a supporter of trains. Like Jeff, I believe trains can be an important part of our future. I voted for Proposition 1A and endorsed efforts to build a high speed rail system. But it’s clear; the vision is, in a way, one Zephyr to soon. The CHSR Authority website displays images of bullet trains in Europe and Japan as models for the Authority. Those bullet trains were built on an established network of regional trains that people grew to trust and rely on. California has no such system.

California cannot afford $65 Billion for a train that travels between LA and San Francisco in 2 and ½ hours. If California proceeds as planned, the $10 Billion in Proposition 1A bond money will produce little value leaving a 40 year debt service to be paid while our transportation situation worsens. We can do better.

Why new right-of-ways? The CHSR Project includes new right-of-ways. About $4 Billion of the $11.5 Billion budgeted for the Fresno to Merced segment is slated for right-of-way acquisition. The Fresno Bee estimates as many as 500 pieces of property will be subject to eminent domain just for this first segment. If applied to the total project, these new right-of-ways would cost approximately $23 Billion. Responding to right-of-way issues, last month the Authority announced a change in plans and now intends to use existing right-of-ways in the final approaches into Los Angeles and San Francisco. Still, this is little more than re-arranging the deck chairs. And will those final approaches continued to be owned by the freight companies?

California is crisscrossed with rail right-of –ways. California’s cities and towns grew up as the railroad grew. Those existing tracks tie together cities and businesses, there are stations and infrastructure. Roads, bridges, culverts and canals; water, power, freeways and parking lots, all already exist along the existing track. These associated assets are worth too much to just walk away. While a 200 mph train is impressive, what California could really use is a decent 100 mph train. Lay down new seamless track, straighten the track in spots, double track and fence the length of the network and eminent domain the freight companies such as Union Pacific and BNSF.

New straighter track will permit faster speeds. Double track will reduce delays and traffic conflicts. Fencing will keep people safe and the system a bit more secure. And taking control of the best right-of-ways will provide freight companies with better track, able to travel at faster speeds with fewer delays while taking advantage of existing infrastructure. We need California Rail before we can add high speed. Write Governor Brown. California and San Diego needs a better idea.

To view comments to the original post, go here.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

da john September 4, 2013 at 7:52 pm

Great story, nice to have a good perspective of the rail system, and it’s many drawbacks.


Kyle September 5, 2013 at 9:22 am

Nice piece but your facts on high-speed rail are way off. First of all, you don’t even have the name right. It’s the California High-Speed Rail Authority – not administration. And it was not created via Prop 1A – it was created in 1996 via SB 1420. You also write “The CHSRA is building islands – segments of a system that will not and cannot connect to the current system.” This is false. Their business plan from 2012 is all about how HSR will integrate with existing rail networks throughout the state. In fact, that’s why many are opposed to it since it is NOT dedicated track and DOES connect with regional systems. You also say property for HSR is being acquired “mostly through eminent domain.” This is also false. Not a single property has been acquired this way. You should read the Fresno Bee – they follow the project pretty well. You should also, obviously, read the business plan for HSR.


George Maxwell September 5, 2013 at 1:27 pm

Amtrak speeds and on-time performance are almost totally determined by the freight railroads it is forced to utilize. They create the delays and the speed restrictions, not Amtrak. The schedule of a train like the CZ is in many ways dictated by the desire of riders to transit the Rockies in daylight. The route through the Rockies was never a speedy trip (not during or before Amtrak’s existence). It was chosen over faster routes because of the potential number of riders that wanted to travel by train across some of the most spectacular scenery in the U.S.

A top speed of 100 mph, compared with the top speed today of 79 mph would make little difference. An average speed of 100 mph would require something like 150 mph top speeds to accomplish. This really can’t be done on existing roadbeds or tracks or with conventional equipment.

Utilizing existing rail infrastructure adds huge amounts of time due to a schedule regardless of the top speed. Amtrak’s Acela has top speeds of 135 mph for large sections of railway between NYC and DC. Yet, the average speed between the two cities is only about 90 mph. Why? Utilizing existing infrastructure around NYC, Philly, Wilmington & Baltimore restricts speeds to a crawl in order t0o navigate endless switches, tunnels, etc., laid out more than 100 years ago.

If there were a simple way of redoing that infrastructure it would have been done long ago. There isn’t and that’s why Amtrak has proposed a long term plan for northeast corridor high speed that uses a dedicated right-of-way (as do virtually all high speed systems around the world).


Frank Gormlie September 5, 2013 at 1:37 pm

Did you even read the entire series? You are reiterating the author’s points, my friend.


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