The Rewards of Slow-Motion Locomotion

Something is happening with the passenger train in California. It's not a boom, exactly, and it's nothing that poses a threat to the airlines or even the bus lines. But somehow, the passenger train has made a comeback.

You look at recent Amtrak numbers for California and you'd think this was the Eastern Seaboard. In the past several years, the train from San Diego to Los Angeles has become one of the highest revenue producers in the nation, and the Coast Starlight connecting Los Angeles to to San Francisco runs full trains week after week.

This performance is all the more surprising because these trains still proceed at their infamous, 19th-Century pace. When I stood in the post-dawn of the Oakland station, waiting for the Starlight with about 150 others, we all knew the trip to L.A. would take 11 hours. Even the bus was faster, yet there we were.

That crowd forms every day at the Oakland station, and another just like it at Union Station in Los Angeles for the trip north. In the summer you'd better make your reservation many days in advance or you won't get on. It leaves you to wonder how large the market for rail travel would be if Amtrak could whip around the state at the speeds of West European or Japanese trains.

I decided to take the Starlight because someone mentioned to me that California is a nearly ideal piece of geography for train travel, if only the service could be improved. Its two major population centers, Los Angeles and the Bay Area, are separated by 450 miles, a perfect distance for the modern, high-speed train.

By my calculations, for example, the French T.G.V. Atlantique train, now the world's fastest at 186 m.p.h., could make the trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco in about three hours. That's an elapsed time that comes close to competing with the airlines, if you factor in the laborious trip to and from the airport.

The future market for that kind of fast train in California, delivering its passengers from downtown to downtown, is nearly incalculable. Just keep in mind that the air corridor over the same route is the busiest in the world and one of the richest.

What we are currently stuck with, of course, is something very different. The Coast Starlight trundles down the track at an average speed of 40 m.p.h. or thereabouts. When it pulls up the hill at Cuesta Pass just north of San Luis Obispo, figure 20 m.p.h. The Starlight does not pretend to speed. It travels with all the deliberate dignity of a land-bound zeppelin.

But there's an irony here. After a few hours you begin to realize that the slow pace of the Starlight may also offer some rewards. And it may explain why these trains are crowded. Is there anything so terrible about having 11 hours with nothing to do but gaze out a picture window as California glides past?

And in this case, the California you see is not what you expect. The Starlight takes you to a central coast where 40 years seem to have fallen away.

Leaving San Francisco Bay, the train cuts its own route down the coast, following a path that is usually far from the interstates.

The landscape becomes remarkable for what's not there: no cloverleaves or clusters of Arby's and Chevrons. The usual paraphernalia of intrastate travel has disappeared and in its place you discover a pastoral California. The train glides through great ranches where roads are still dirt and where ranch hands wave when you pass. Past stretches of beach with no "access," no park rangers, no crowds, nothing.

And because there are few of them, the people in the landscape become interesting. In the Salinas Valley we passed an occasional pumpkin field where fathers had brought their daughters to poke through the selection, looking for the best jack-o'-lantern candidates. I saw one father pick up a huge pumpkin and the little girl next to him made a quick hop and clapped.

Much of this view of California is a lie, of course. At San Luis Obispo, for example, the Starlight stops at a small, lovely station with the air of the 1930s. You would never know--from the perspective of the train--that San Luis Obispo is caught in the midst of a great boom, that the hills all around the city are being carved into new civilizations.

But, for 11 hours, what a nice lie. It almost leaves you hoping those 180-m.p.h. trains never make it to California.

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