Thursday, January 28, 2010

Surfliner Stories: An Ode to Amtrak

No, really.  There are things to celebrate in Amtrak!

Aside from those living in a few urban corridors, most Americans don’t travel by train much.  Our much-maligned Amtrak system, which is a poor railway step-child forced to lumber along shared tracks and shunted aside by impatient freight trains, doesn’t offer the speed and glamour of the European train systems on their dedicated tracks with their strong government and society support.  We COULD have the rails we deserve...meanwhile poor old Amtrak does the best it can.

Railway tracks crisscross our landscape, but are barely noticed.  We hardly even register the plaintive whistles and dull rumbles in the distance . But trains are the great equalizers.  They click past pristine beaches, and past grim industrial zones.  They clack past simple back yards, where the passenger can peer over the fences and see a carefully maintained lawn next door to a junk heap.  They chug under cliffs where million-dollar manses loom with overarching sea views.   And they work.

Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner, which is partly supported by the CA Dept of Transportation,  runs between Los Angeles and San Diego,  with some trains going north as far as Santa Barbara or San Luis Obispo.  It's a great success: one of the most heavily used routes in the Amtrak system.  Prices are reasonable (one way between LA and San Diego, about 120 miles, is about $25, with discounts for frequent riders) and it's not uncommon for the train to be SRO on busy days and times.  Ridership is increasing steadily.

THe ride can be spectacular.  Not just the parts along the beach, but hidden jewels.  On a ride last spring just north of San Juan Capistrano in Southern California, the train veered away from the roads and the town through the remains of one of the old orange groves that gave Orange County its name.  Not many trees are left here, and in this area, they form irregular clusters in a huge meadow, now largely empty of its original trees.  Those that remain are great dark green balls, their trunks invisible with branches that dip to the ground. At this time of year they are laden with big oranges.  Their bounty is such that I hope they are not abandoned, and that someone still picks the sweet fruit. Every year, though, a few more of their number have died, and extend skeletal branches hopelessly, a sort of ruin to the relentless press of development in these parts.

In springtime, the meadow where the trees bravely make their stand is brilliant yellow with wild mustard.  The story goes that the padres who founded California’s missions flung mustard seed from the pockets of their habits to mark the road from mission to mission.  (San Juan Capistrano is named for the spectacular and picturesque ruins of one of these.)   The contrast of brilliant green and yellow of the mustard, with the dark green and orange dots of the trees dotted in the field, was a vivid picture.  And, not one that anyone else would see, except on the train that was industriously churning its way from Irvine to San Juan.

Another thing is remarkable on a train, and that is the way it makes a community.  On a plane for four hours, a passenger may say nothing to the person next to him.  ON a train, it’s rare not to have at least a minimal exchange, and it’s common to have much longer conversations.  Everyone is friendly on a train.  Time seems to change its pace. Whether it’s a regular commuter, or a retired couple visiting family, or a young family on a day trip,  people interact, and socialize.  They watch each other’s bags, take group orders for the café car, share pictures, and point out the sights.  The regulars explain to the new riders how to make a connection, or what the railway argot means. There is something special about the train, and for a short time the community that forms highlights  the best of American generosity and open heartedness.

Even the conductors have this positive attitude.  They are real characters:  railroaders,  a special breed.  Not as glamorous as pilots, but salt-of-the-earth types who have the sway of steel rails under their feet.

So let’s hear it for passenger rail, one of the unsung potentials of American economy.  Amtrak may suffer delays and mechanicals, but there isn’t anything there that couldn’t be fixed by a decent steady budget and at least a consideration of dedicated passenger routes and modern technology!  The Surfliner is generally reliable;  most of the delays are related to traffic on the part of the route it shares with freight.  (Amtrak can't run the lightweight trains that passenger-only rails in Europe have adopted, because of the shared rails. )  It's the perfect distance for trains and certainly beats the drive on choked Southern California freeways.

Trains remain one of the most efficient ways to travel mid-distances with efficiency and comfort.  Those of us who are in the train habit know this, and hope the rest of you have a chance to figure it out.

Originally posted on Daily Kos

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