What a Train Trip From L.A. to S.F. Can Teach Us About California's High-Speed Rail Future

The state is as likely a place as any to see the future of rail unfold.

Image
Matt Dellinger

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 them 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.

Travel Town, a plucky little museum in Los Angeles' Griffith Park, tells the story of how rails built California. (Matt Dellinger)

Those 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 rail unfold.

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."

Union Station in downtown Los Angeles, 75 years old this year, has high ceilings, tall windows, and a grand feel. (Matt Dellinger)

I 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."

On 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 famously.

The parlor car of the Coast Starlight has a dome observation lounge with excellent views of the coastline. (Matt Dellinger)

David 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 elevator.

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.)

Amtrak's San Joaquin train cuts through the farmland of California's Central Valley, a future corridor for the high-speed rail system. (Matt Dellinger) 

The 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 both ends.

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."

Many Central Valley residents have concerns about high-speed rail (above, a right-of-way line)—even those who support the project. (Matt Dellinger)

Fukuda 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 future.

The kinetic sculpture, Metropolis, uses toy cars and model buildings to simulate a bustling city of the near future—but there are plenty of train tracks, too. (Matt Dellinger)

Young 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.

There are plenty of hopeful futures to go around. That speed of 230 miles an hour, for those of you keeping score at home, would nudge these platoons of self-driving cars to the pace of the California high-speed train, apparently the new speed to match. (Unless you count the 800 miles per hour contemplated by Elon Musk's Hyperloop concept, but few count on that.)

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.

This article is part of 'The Future of Transportation,' a CityLab series made possible with support from The Rockefeller Foundation.

About the Author