What Happened to Rail Travel and Railroads in America?

My friend is leaving today for a business/pleasure trip to Juarez, Mexico.  (I know what you’re thinking - Juarez?  You mean the toughest city in the world?  Yes, but that’s the business part of the trip and NO it is not THAT kind of business!)  He is not the most comfortable flyer so he approached me about the possibility of taking the train - which, in America, means Amtrak.

Really?  I thought “really?” about someone taking a train ride?  I guess I was surprised.  Do people still do that?  I sat down with my friend and explained the “nuances” of travelling by train on Amtrak today.  (I think we all know that, unfortunately, travelling on Amtrak these days is very Greyhound-esque.)  I encouraged him to secure a roomette so that he might have an opportunity to stretch out in style and really enjoy the trip.  He agreed to do it and I hope the recent storms here in the southwest does not mar his trip.

All of this got me thinking about the decline of railroad acceptance as a first order of passenger transport in the United States.  Once America had hundreds of “named trains” providing first-class transportation across the country.  Trains with names like El Capitan, the California Zephyr, the Super Chief, to name a few.  Today, Amtrak may or may not have services that carry those names but, today, those names certainly do not carry the “service” they once did.

I was doing some research on the subject because I thought it would make for an interesting blog post and might serve to illicit memories of some of the readers of this blog to a by-gone era when things, at least in this respect, where a lot better.   I came across this Op-Ed article from the New York Times by Paul Kennedy.  Mr Kennedy is a Dilworth Professor of History and director of International Security Studies at Yale University.  While it doesn’t necessarily reflect the service levels of trains it does follow a similar thread by discussing the lack of acceptance of passenger rail travel today by most Americans.   It also gives us Americans an idea of where the rest of the world is on the subject.  Therefore, I am passing it along and recommending that you give it a read. 

Published: January 5, 2010
America’s preference for highways and airports over modern rail transportation will make the country increasingly look so 20th-century.

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I took my first train ever in 1992. It was Amtrak's Coast Starlight that originated in San Diego and would take you all the way up the west coast to, I dont know, my geography sucks, all the way up! Anyways, I only rode it from L.A. to San Francisco because my sister invited me to visit. I was terrified of flying and my parent were terrified of having me, a young, single, defenseless, woman, (little did they know!) travel alone on a Greyhound bus. My dad bought me a train ticket and I was very excited because I had always been fascinated by them from what I had seen in the movies.

The closest I had ever been to a train was the metro in Mexico City. Once I boarded, I felt that it was very similar to the metro in Mexico except without the crowds and the speed (now that I have actually been on a Greyhound bus, I can say that it was very Greyhound-esque (as you said). When the train conductor came to collect my ticket, I was charmed by his uniform which was just like I had seen in the movies right up to his hat. He was very pleasant and I mentioned to him my dissappointment about the train being nothing like I had imagined, like in the movies. He told me that this was because I was in coach and that I could upgrade to first class and have my own cabin if I liked. Well, for an additional $200 oneway, I could. I decided to go for it and it was amazing! the most beautiful, wonderful ride I had ever taken. The service was phenomenal. It was tiny but it had a bed that pulled down from the wall and a bench; the window was larger than those in coach so you could take in more of all of the magnificent scenery there is along the western coastline. Waitstaff came frequently to check on me and bring refreshments. I had the option and took lunch in my cabin and dinner in the lounge car. There were actual chefs on board that came out to greet the patrons and the food was delicious - chicken cordon bleu (another first for me:) though a little more pricey than the food at the snack shop in coach . The whole ride took about 10 hours that day. I did try out the bed but didn't really sleep in it because I was too excited and there was too much to see and a train ride is afterall, not the smoothest ride! But overall, it is one of the most memorable times in my life.

And, that was it. I have been in love with trains ever since. Of course, I have children now and I can't afford luxury, first class trips on trains anymore. I don't even know if they exist. I do know that I still travel by train once or twice a year to L.A. from SF (See, I also fell in love with SF on that trip so I went back to LA quit my job and moved here!). It's still Amtrak but its not the Coast Starlight. It doesn't take you along the west coast but rather through the San Joaquin valley. It's a thruway now and you take the train halfway to Bakersfield and then an Amtrak bus to LA Union Station. And, most of the time it's a little less than $200 for me and both my kids round trip. Quite a bargain. Someday though, I would like to take the Amtrak across the US first class. It's one of the few things I have left on my bucket list :)

January 22, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAngel Lechon

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