Greetings from aboard Amtrak’s northbound Coast Starlight, which has turned into an apparition of the Southern Pacific’s Shasta Daylight of yore as we left Sacramento at 7:45 AM and are traveling across north-central California in broad daylight. I am seated in the Pacific Parlour Car among a smattering of fellow passengers who are taking it all in stride (as one must do as an American train traveler) and enjoying scenery normally bypassed under cover of darkness.

My northbound Pacific Surfliner train 777 arrives 50 minutes late at Ventura, CA. Photos by the author.

My West Coast trip has gone very well so far. After we were warned to expect at least two hours of delay due to track work, the westbound Southwest Chief that I rode with the #NerdTrain group from Kansas City to Los Angeles arrived in L.A. about 45 minutes early on Thursday. I then took my first ride all the way to Santa Monica on the LA Metro Expo Line light rail, which is not even two years old, to stroll along the pier and the Third Street Mall with a few NerdTrainers. Friday, I visited gorgeous Santa Catalina Island, one of the Channel Islands off of California’s coast located an 80-minute ferry ride from Long Beach, where I stayed in an Airbnb.

Saturday, I joined my friend Ryan for a trip to inland Ventura County to ride the Fillmore & Western Railway, a tourist line that has made many cameo appearances in films, and where Ryan volunteers as a member of the train crew on Saturdays. I then caught the day’s last northbound Pacific Surfliner up to San Luis Obispo, where I met up with a friend and spent two days with him in Morro Bay, enjoying the laid-back Central Coast, which was blanketed in marine-layer fog the whole time I was there.


What I’m thinking about & writing

View of the Pacific Ocean from the northbound Surfliner near Carpinteria, CA.

California’s natural beauty and bounty has attracted migrants and visitors for generations. Today, the Golden State is attracting people who share my desire for robust rail transit systems combined with well-developed bicycle and pedestrian accommodations, making it possible to tour and to conduct daily activities without a car. The state government, with what federal assistance was made available by the Obama Administration, has made significant strides in upgrading the intercity passenger train network, adding train frequencies and growing the system of connecting Thruway buses. The number of origin-destination possibilities, and the choices of departure time, dwarf what is available anywhere outside the Northeast Corridor, but still pale in comparison to the European average.

In spite of the investment that has been made in California, my current trip has reminded me that I am still in the United States of Rail Starvation. My northbound Surfliner on Saturday was already a half hour late leaving L.A., but got further behind due to being out of its normal slot on a single-track railroad with limited sidings. We had to take a siding just past Lompoc-Surf station to meet the southbound Coast Starlight, which was running three hours late, and after it passed, it took 20 minutes to get back on the main line as my train’s crew had to wrestle with a manually-operated switch that was plagued by rust from constant exposure to the moist, salty marine air. The fact that one of the main lines connecting the two major cities in the state that has invested more in the rail mode than any other is still operated in much the same way as the earliest railroads — a condition that would be unacceptable in most other developed countries — speaks volumes about our country’s priorities and how far we have yet to go.

I’ve been pondering this state of affairs as I’ve been making my way through the weighty biography of the infamous Robert Moses, The Power Broker. In this week’s blog post at Trains Magazine’s Observation Tower, I consider the question of the extent to which those who wish to do big things in the rail sphere today should follow Moses’ example.


What I’m reading

  • Model of the ‘Supertrain’ used in the 1979 TV show. Photo from Core77.com.

    This story of a woman who faces a 2:15 AM wakeup call and a three-hour commute each way reminds us that all is not sunshine and roses for those who use transit in California. It will take more than transportation improvements to solve the Bay Area’s housing affordability conundrum, but at least the planned (and partly under construction) California High Speed Rail system would be a great boon to those who work in the Bay Area but can only afford to live in the San Joaquin Valley. It promises to put even Fresno within less than two hours of San Francisco. But that dream is still at least two decades from reality. In the meantime, BART’s extension into San Jose should make things easier for folks like Sheila James.

  • I’m intrigued by the story of Thor Pederson, a Danish guy who is attempting to visit every country on Earth without ever flying. He crosses oceans exclusively on container ships, a privilege for which he has paid next to nothing. The accommodations on board the ships, as Pederson describes them, are more generous than I would have expected, but he says it requires tremendous ability to (sometimes quite literally) go with the flow (and spend weeks without an Internet connection), and get in an out of tightly secured container ports. Still, I’d give it a try once if presented with the opportunity.
  • Core77 looks back at a 1979 TV series I’d never heard about (perhaps because it was a total flop) called Supertrain, which was set aboard a fictional cross-country train that had all the amenities of a cruise ship, including a swimming pool (it must have used a very broad gauge). Perhaps it was the poor plot writing that doomed the show more than the train concept, but it’s interesting that the creators and producers found the idea of a super-modern train captivating enough at that time period to think it would go over well with viewers.
  • Finally, what tenacious band of grassroots advocates will step up to save Amtrak’s threatened service to the darkest hollows of the spirit realm?

Where I’m Going Next

Canada 150 Discovery Pass

The free pass to Canada’s national parks that my friends and I will use over the coming weekend. Image from Parks Canada.

On Thursday, I join two friends who are Directors of the National Association of Railroad Passengers for a road trip north of the border to check out national parks and railroad sights in the Canadian Rockies and eastern British Columbia — including tourist railroads and rail museums in Kamloops, Lillooet, Revelstroke and Cranbrook. We’ll also take advantage of free passes to Canada’s National Parks given out for the nation’s 150th anniversary of confederation. We’ll return to the States on Tuesday, stopping near Sandpoint, Idaho for the night before driving west across Washington State, following the right of way of the defunct Milwaukee Road. I’ll be back in DC for one night on Thursday night, Sept. 7, then will head back to Greensboro, NC for the National Folk Festival.


A Musical Sendoff

Here’s a great tune about rambling around on the rails by the Singing Brakeman, Jimmie Rodgers, the grandfather of country music. He actually worked for the New Orleans & Northeastern Railroad, and the bluesy quality of his cadences and trademark yodeling was influenced by the work hollers of the African-American track workers he encountered.

Take care and best wishes,

Malcolm