The state is as likely a place as any to see the future of rail unfold.
By Matt Dellinger, August 12, 2014
I - TRAVEL TOWN
When people think of California, people think of cars. But hey now: trains
built California. Trains made it possible to reach the Pacific Ocean
from the east without cheating death aboard a wagon through the
mountains or a disease-ridden steamer around the horn of South America.
Trains carried fruits and vegetables east, helped turned the good valley
soil to booming agriculture, then formed a backbone for settlements.
Travel Town, a plucky little museum in Los Angeles' Griffith Park,
tries to honor this story. On a recent June afternoon, I wandered among
the collection of locomotives, passenger cars, cabooses, and trolleys
that are strewn about a small shed, parked under a pavilion, or baking
in the sun. It was a Sunday, so volunteers were scarce, and the Pullman
and dining car were closed to the public. But I was able to board a
Norris-Lancaster steam engine built in 1864, five years before the
transcontinental railroad connected northern California to the world by
rail. Adventurous visitors climbed metal ladders into open-air
locomotives and marveled at the number of knobs and levers that occupied
conductors back when the Southern Pacific first connected Los Angeles
to the transcontinental line through the Central Valley, in 1876.
In a small air-conditioned building, framed black-and-white
photographs were on display—tough guys in mustaches posing atop freshly
laid rails—and paraphernalia from the golden age of high-class passenger
travel—yellowing brochures and menus from routes like the Coast
Starlight and the California Zephyr. Outside, folks queued up for a
model railroad ride. You can have your birthday party at Travel Town,
evidently. I counted three that afternoon—one a picnic under a banner
strung up between steam engines, another inside a rented
mid-20th-century car, and a third a cookout to which a dad was seen
dragging a wheeled cooler, with another cooler balanced on top of it,
with a soon-to-be-destroyed Thomas the Train piñata under his other arm.
Kids get it. They love trains, even though the parents who indulge
m with birthday parties here weren't even born in 1952, when this
choo-choo petting zoo first opened. By 1952, the car was king, and for
adults, trains were morphing into something else, something quaint. Walt
Disney, a big time foamer, was beginning to milk the mode's inherent
sense of nostalgia and leisure—you can visit Walt's Carolwood rail barn
in Griffith Park, too, the third Sunday of the month—and it seemed
important to Charley Atkins, Travel Town's late founder, to preserve
California's steam engine for future generations.
future generations had their birthday parties here, before largely
growing out of their train fascinations. Travel Town is showing signs of
wear. It feels a bit like a train-museum museum. But the march of
train-loving kids rolls on, and the humble Train Town website insists the place is "in a state of new growth and development."
So is California rail, come to think of it. Despite controversy and setbacks, the state is pressing ahead with a $68 billion high-speed rail line
between Los Angeles and San Francisco. California might just make
itself with track again, and why not? Relatively speaking, the state is
still new. Its population is still booming, and its people are
relatively progressive. All those Republican Governors like
to send high-speed rail money back to Washington, D.C., but the Golden
State is happy to spend it.
Infrastructure is having a tough time these
days, but California is as likely a place as any to see the future of
II - THE COAST STARLIGHT
Speaking of birthday parties, Union Station in downtown Los Angeles
is turning 75 years old. And it's celebrating as so many 75-year-old
Californians do—with an extensive facelift:
renovating, going greener and multi-modal, and prepping for its
high-speed-rail close-up. Much of the station is underground and
utilitarian, like today's Penn Station in New York. But the older parts
are superterranean and grand, like the old Penn Station in New York. The ceilings are high and the windows are big, which is architecture for "someone gives a damn about this place."
booked a sleeper on Amtrak's Coast Starlight to Oakland, an all-day
trip that would not include sleep. The smallest sleeper rooms cost about
$100 more than a coach seat, though the free meals easily make up for
half of that. Besides, if you want to travel cheaply, or quickly, you
should just fly. A plane between L.A. and the Bay Area costs the same as
the train—about seventy bucks—but the plane takes an hour and the train
takes twelve. The eventual high-speed rail service promises to make the
same trip in a snappy two hours and forty minutes, which approximates
flying, if you count airport travel and rigmarole.
The passengers boarding the Coast Starlight that morning were not
preoccupied with "quick" and "cheap." My lunch companions, Maureen and
her tweener son, Kyle, were travelling from their home in Beverly Hills
to visit friends in San Jose. They suffered no phobias or disability
that would prevent them from flying. They simply find the long trip
enjoyable, and peaceful, a chance to see the gorgeous coastline. On a
clear day, you can see the Channel Islands, Maureen said. That day we
settled for dolphins, spotted by a middle-aged musician and motorcycle
mechanic who joined us late.
We passed oceanfront RV parks and beaches and kids probably smoking
pot near the tracks. We passed through backyards and caught locals'
private moments—taking out the trash, leaf-blowing, sunbathing, staring
at the train like it was a meteor and not a thing with a thousand eyes.
Others waved at us. I saw the Ellwood Oil Field, at which a Japanese
Submarine fired 17 rounds in February 1942. I saw the Point Conception
lighthouse, built in 1855, and the Santa Ynez mountains. The picturesque
was sprinkled with the mundane, and it all went by at a speed that made
sense of both. There was supposed to be WiFi, but it wasn't working,
and I didn't hear anyone complain.
In the parlor car, an amenity for us sleeper-class people, they had a
dome observation lounge with excellent views of various crops. A
stainless steel buffet served rumors of wine and cheese tastings (not on
Mondays, I guess) and a string of oldies could be heard alongside the
squeal of metal wheels. You're just too good to be true. Can't take my eyes off of you.
"Are those green peppers?" a woman in a yellow shirt and baseball hat
asked a man in a shirt advertising wheat beer. They were staring out the
window. "There sure are a lot of them."
the first level, there was a tiny movie theatre. The curtains were
closed and comfy seats faced a screen on the front wall. Later, they
would show Frozen, something for the kids, but now the room was
empty and eerie. A half-empty cabinet contained a random assortment of
forgotten board games—Parcheesi, Chutes & Ladders, Scrabble—along
with some left-behind magazines, including a copy of Arizona Highways
from 2002. On the wall were little relief maps of Washington and Oregon
that dated, I’d say, from the 1980s. The room smelled like hot meat,
some kind of stew. It had the feel of a grandmother's house, a heavy
comfort mixed with little hints of magic charm, but also a tinge of
sadness or pity, and passing thoughts of mortality.
I needed a drink before dinner. But I lucked out with my tablemates.
From youngest to eldest, there was David, 67, from Orange County, on a
trip for the sake of the trip; Ann, 72, a semi-retired nurse on her way
home to the East Bay from her niece's wedding in Santa Barbara; and
Ruth, 81, an Elaine Stritch doppelganger from Ventura on her way to
Sacramento, who regaled us with tales of a midcentury voyage on the
Queen Mary. Maybe it was the evening light, or a shared sense of
well-being from being on the train so damn long, but we got along
wore a traveler's khaki vest and a baseball cap and kept a digital
camera close at hand. He was a bit shy at first, but opened up talking
about train trips he'd taken. The Coast Starlight is easily in his top
three, he said, along with the California Zephyr and the Glacier Express
in Switzerland. His kids had bought him this solo trip as a father's
day gift. He'd never taken a sleeper, but he'd been on high-speed trains
in Europe, and will definitely take the bullet train in California if
the thing ever gets built. Though he enjoys the slow train, too. "You
have to think of it like a cruise on land," he said, motioning to Ruth.
"The trip is the whole point of it."
We spent two whole hours together. We were train people now, in no
particular hurry. Afterward, I bought a half bottle of wine and took it
back to my room for the last hour or so before Oakland. The lights in
the sleeper, like the buttons and knobs, are old and inelegant, so I
kept them off and watched the sun set in the dark. In South San Jose, we
sped past a drive-in movie theatre.
As I waited in the vestibule to disembark, I spoke with Bob, the
sleeper car attendant. He's been doing this job for 18 years, since he
was 61. His daughter has worked for Amtrak for 34 years. Bob sleeps in
room number one, which is full of things like schedules and bottled
water. He gets to go to bed after Sacramento, but he's not feeling too
tired. He takes it easy, talks to folks. "People are in such a hurry
these days," he said. "Some people don't know how to relax."
III - THE CENTRAL VALLEY
If you are in a hurry, the "fast" Amtrak connection between the Bay
Area and Los Angeles is not the meandering Coast Starlight, but Amtrak's
San Joaquin line, which goes straight through the flat, open Central
Valley. This train is more prosaic. The rolling stock is newer, more
modern, more commuter-like. There are fewer amenities—no movie theatre,
no observation parlor with swivel seats—but it's comfortable, there are a
lot of tables among the seating, and the WiFi works. People are just
getting where they need to go. The scenery is a bit of a loop: grain
elevator, vast stone-fruit or nut orchard, small town crossing, grain
The San Joaquin train essentially follows the old Southern Pacific
line out of Oakland and down through Modesto, Fresno, and Bakersfield,
where passengers are unceremoniously herded onto a bus for the last leg
of the journey into Downtown L.A. This is also the general route planned
for high-speed rail, and a common criticism of the project plan has
been that the state is not starting construction with this missing link
between Bakersfield and Los Angeles. (In late June, while I was riding
the Coast Starlight, officials announced plans to accelerate a segment in L.A. County from Palmdale to Burbank.)
grand bullet train will break ground with a section in the
middle—through Fresno, from Madera down to around Hanford. You're
forgiven if you've never been to any of those places. You're also
forgiven if you're not sure why a high speed train line between two
major cities isn't starting in either major city. It probably has
something to do with the fact that the "unimproved" agricultural land is
cheaper to acquire and easier than mountains to engineer through.
Building the middle of the system first will also create a feeling of
inevitability, the thinking goes, a yearning to finish the project at
The drawback is that the state is spending billions of dollars
building a giant infrastructure project through a region that in large
part feels ambivalent about it, if not downright unenthused. The San
Joaquin may not be a glamorous train, but it serves the communities it
created. High-speed rail, by definition, can't stop in every farm town.
And when people feel they're in the way of someone else's progress, they
sometimes grow resentful. Even litigious.
Late in July, the Fresno County Board of Supervisors passed a non-binding resolution
against the high-speed rail plans, and called for another statewide
ballot to allow the voters a chance to reconsider their blessing for the
borrowing of enormous amounts of cash. For several years, Fresno County
had supported the plan, but now it joins Madera, Kings, Tulare, and
Kern counties in opposing it. The blanket of formal local-government
hostility is now complete from Merced to Los Angeles—some 250 linear
miles, or about half the route.
The concerns in the region include: California can't afford it, it
won't get finished, they're starting in the wrong place, it won't stop
where we need it to, it'll stop too often, it'll take too much land,
construction will be a disruptive menace, it won't help the local
economies, it won't be as fast as they promised, no one will ride it,
it'll require public subsidy forever. There is a general feeling that
the planning process has lacked transparency and local participation.
Aaron Fukuda, co-chairman of Citizens for California High Speed Rail
Accountability and one of the plaintiffs suing the high-speed rail
authority, believes most of these concerns are valid, and yet he
considers himself a supporter of the project. "Put it along existing
transportation corridors," he told me over milkshakes from Superior
Dairy in his hometown of Hanford. "If you cannot go down a
transportation corridor, look to go underground. Look to go aerial. They
even had it designed. But they won't do it."
is no armchair urban planner. He makes his living as a civil engineer.
His field is water, which is an even greater concern to Central Valley
residents: for every roadside advocacy sign about high-speed rail, there
are twenty about water. In severe drought, farmers skip annual crops in
favor of permanent producers like fruit trees and vines, which has left
an estimated 800,000 acres idle, and thus many idle hands. Local State
Senator Andy Vidak—whose pointed campaign signs read, "More Water. More
Jobs."—authored a bill to increase funding for regional water supply
projects, and another to kill high-speed rail.
It's harder to harbor lofty and expensive transportation dreams when
you're trying to feed your family—and families across America—during a
drought. And hard to support spending tens of billions of dollars on
technical heroics to achieve those transportation dreams, when you're
begging for tens of billions of dollars to help you keep crops alive. In
California flyover country, water beats bullet trains.
IV - METROPOLIS
In California’s cities, meanwhile, proponents are steadfast in their
optimism. They see High Speed rail bringing jobs and commerce, intercity
business travelers and state-hopping tourists, reduced traffic and
pollution. They see it uniting the two metropolitan areas into a
Northeast-corridor-like super-region, with transit-oriented development
at stations in between. They see it as a infrastructure project worthy
of a great state, of a great nation. They see it, in short, as the
people don't want to drive everywhere. They want to live in cities,
more than before. They're not eager to own suburban houses or cars like
their parents do. They don't mind sharing cars, and they like
to have transportation choices, such as bikes and trains. There are
plenty of planners predicting a world where cities grow denser and more
prosperous, transportation options bloom and diversify, and life without
a car becomes something easy and normal.
In Los Angeles, before my Coast Starlight adventure, I went to the
Los Angeles County Museum of Art and saw a kinetic sculpture called Metropolis,
for which the artist, Chris Burden, uses toy cars and model buildings
to simulate a bustling city of the near future. Hot Wheels in a familiar
slow gridlock climb up a conveyor belt, and at the top they're set free
on superhighway tracks, whisking among buildings down ramps. In
Burden's vision, though, cars move more autonomously. "The future of
automobile transportation is that there won't be drivers anymore,"
Burden told an audience at
the Los Angeles County Museum of Art when the sculpture moved there in
2012. "It's a hopeful future. Cars will have an average speed of 230
miles per hour as soon as Google gets all their cars up and running."
Quietly among the buildings and buzzing highways, little trains and
trolleys move too—majestically, purposefully.
But this is California, you say? The car will always rule? Yes, this
is California. Where they're not afraid to create their own culture, not
afraid to disrupt and invent. Maybe trains will build a new California,
just like they built the current one. And maybe someday Travel Town
will have exhibits of dusty old Toyotas and Fords. And on Sunday
afternoons, kids will have birthday parties there. They'll be able to
climb into seats and see what it was like back when people actually had
to drive themselves in cars. When every traveler had to be a pilot too,
and on your trip between cities you couldn't even eat steak or drink
wine or nap. Those primitive days, before whatever came next.