The Travails of the Rails


I became an avid train rider a few years ago, after ditching my car for environmental reasons. Today, I also have an economic incentive to travel by train. With gasoline costs skyrocketing, Amtrak has reached what could be a tipping point — it’s now cheaper than driving for anyone traveling alone.

The 80-mile train trip from my house in Oakland to my hometown of Stockton, CA costs $12. The same automobile trip costs $13.60 just for gas — not counting tolls, insurance, and all the other car expenses. Using the 2008 IRS car reimbursement of 50.5 cents per mile, the same 80-mile trip now costs $40.40 in a private car. Suddenly a $12 train ticket looks like a very good deal.

brian smith photo

But, as a recent long-distance voyage taught me, reducing one’s carbon footprint via train is not so easy in the US.

It’s Friday night, and I find myself at the Union Station rail depot in Denver. This turn-of-the-century beauty beckons people with a glowing neon inducement to “Travel by Train.” The conference I’ve been attending has just wrapped up, and I decide to accept the sign’s invitation.

Feeling guilty about taking a carbon-spewing plane home to California, I buy a ticket for the next morning. This legendary train journey, known as the California Zephyr, travels through the Rockies, the loneliest parts of Utah and Nevada, and over the great Sierra Nevada to Sacramento and the Bay Area.

At 7 a.m., passengers in Denver line up for boarding. I pick a window seat to serve as my home for the next 36 hours.

Climbing out of Denver, the train makes wide, elegant switchbacks, gaining about 1,000 feet each level. Out the eastern-facing window, Denver sits on the plateau like Oz. From this elevation, you see the heartland gradually slope from the Mile High City to the flatlands of Kansas and beyond.

It’s February, and the snowbanks of the Rockies are impressive. In the high country, the train station is still the center of each town, as it has been for more than 100 years. Snowmass, Vail, and other winter wonder towns hum with ski and toboggan-toting families.

That night, we descend from the Western Rockies through a massive blizzard. Our train somehow finds the rails through an inch or two of snow. We stop for the occasional smoke break and to pick up passengers.

At Salt Lake City, the midnight stop, trains get no respect at all. This car-centric city has turned its back on the rail. The train station is a sad mobile home with a painted sign on it — shameful compared to Denver’s lovely Union Station.

As Day Two dawns, we pass through Elko, NV, where a group of riders waits at an uncovered station in a snowstorm. We are now four hours behind schedule due to the weather and having to give the right-of-way to freight trains. Every 30 minutes — or so it seems — our passenger train sits idle while loads of coal speed past on America’s privatized railroads.

Mid-Nevada, big trouble strikes. The conductor announces an eastbound train has been snowbound in the Sierra for 10 hours. One passenger later described the tedium on that train to the San Francisco Chronicle: “We were stuck for hours looking at the same trees. We asked if they could move the train up a couple hundred feet every hour, just so we could see some different trees. We were just hoping for some deer to come by. Even a squirrel.”

Hoping to avoid two Donner Party trains, the conductor announces that our train will terminate in Reno and return to Chicago. Amtrak will put everyone in a hotel for the night, and then send the passengers over the mountains by bus the next day.

I bail out, catch a flight over the Sierra, and arrive safely back in the Bay Area in less than 40 minutes.

The adventure was fun, but I’m not quite sure I would do it again. At least, not unless the US makes a major investment in long-distance passenger rail service. As the price of gas continues to increase, more people will need this service. And they will want the service to work well, which will require passenger trains to have their own set of tracks so they don’t have to play second fiddle to cargo trains.

Amtrak is an elegant, inexpensive, and ecological way to see the country. But it remains incredibly iffy. For travelers comfortable with ambiguity and without time constrains, it’s a journey that guarantees adventure.

But if you need to get somewhere on time, you might have to find yourself an easier ride.

Brian Smith, an avid bike commuter, is the Pacific/International Press Secretary for Earthjustice.

You Make Our Work Possible

You Make Our Work Possible

We don’t have a paywall because, as a nonprofit publication, our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action to protect our living world. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Subscribe Now

Get four issues of the magazine at the discounted rate of $20.