Regional affiliate should form to take over Coast Starlight train

(Op-Ed from the San Jose Mercury News, Published July 23, 2006) By Arthur L. Lloyd and Paul Bendix — Bay Area Amtrak service to Seattle and Los Angeles has declined so dramatically that state rail agencies must intervene.

The Coast Starlight, once the most popular train in America, now limps into San Jose hours late, in disrepair and in disrepute. Amtrak politics and congested freight lines are literally driving it off the rails — and driving passengers back to driving. With the Bush regime openly hostile to long-distance trains, California, Oregon and Washington must forge a regional solution.

The Los Angeles-to-Seattle Coast Starlight once set something of a standard. In 1995, Amtrak’s Brian Rosenwald gave the overnight train a dramatic makeover. He decided that the 1,400-mile run, averaging 40 mph on Union Pacific track, required more than scenery. Amtrak ordered new sleeping cars and installed a diner with white tablecloths, carnations in bud vases and restaurant-quality food. The Starlight acquired a glassy observation car, a “Kiddie Kar” for children — and a domed lounge car modeled on posh old trains like the Super Chief, with armchairs, a bartender and even a movie theater downstairs.

Soon, passengers jammed aboard the Coast Starlight for views of the central California coast, the upper Sacramento River canyon and Mount Shasta, followed by a cliff-hanging ride over Oregon’s Cascade Mountains. Still, there were problems. Freight trains from West Coast ports often delayed the train for hours. Track repairs added to the headaches.

But it took the Bush administration to stop success in its tracks. Since 2001, with draconian budget cuts and the ousting of Amtrak’s popular president, David Gunn, the Starlight’s service and equipment have deteriorated. Congress has fought back with bipartisan support for rail. Still, ideological opposition from the Bush administration and chronic delays from freight trains jeopardize Amtrak’s once-a-day service along the West Coast.

The case for the Coast Starlight rests with the passengers who still sell out the train part of the year. Each departure can take upward of 300 cars off the roads. Fares account for a hefty proportion of the Starlight’s revenue. In the summers, a couple can pay more than $900 to travel in a sleeper from the Bay Area to Seattle. Year-round, student discounts attract college kids from the many campus towns en route.

Like a scenic highway, the Starlight carries travelers and tourists, but without the cars — and without the lobbyists. Powerful commercial interests push for tax-supported airport and highway construction, while grass-roots groups speak up for funding Amtrak. It’s an unequal fight.

Still, the train’s supporters include state agencies like the Caltrans Division of Rail. Over the decades, the Coast Starlight has helped keep Western rail service alive. Four intercity trains have sprung up along the Starlight’s route, from San Diego to Vancouver, B.C. One of these, the San Jose-to-Sacramento Capitol, is the nation’s fastest-growing passenger line.

The feds seem determined to kill the Starlight. Passengers keep paying to keep it alive. In today’s reality, California, Oregon and Washington must operate the train. A regional affiliate — call it Amtrak Pacific — should run the Coast Starlight in conjunction with the national system.

The three states value the Coast Starlight. They know its role in rebuilding Western rail service. They are used to fighting delays on its freight-clogged route. For the sake of passengers, they need to take over.

Art Lloyd is a RailPAC Vice-President and member of the NARP Board of Directors. Paul Bendix is a long time rail advocate and is a member of Caltrain’s Citizens Advisory Committee.

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