Forget High Speed Rail (For Now) — What About Better Amtrak Service In California?

High speed rail is going to take decades to build in California. Meanwhile, the state has a functioning passenger rail system in Amtrak. Matt Dellinger of The Atlantic’s CityLab takes a ride on the state’s two Amtrak lines, one along the coast and one through the Central Valley. The coast line is largely geared for tourists and the leisure class:

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.

Meanwhile, the Central Valley line is much more functional:

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.

The Amtrak Bus: your "train" ride to LA from Bakersfield

The Amtrak Bus: your “train” ride to LA from Bakersfield

Frustratingly, this more useful line doesn’t even go all the way through to LA, requiring a bus transfer in Bakersfield over the Tehachapi mountains at the southern end of the Central Valley. Meanwhile, Dellinger notes that the planned high speed rail line in this section of the state is odd and that readers are “forgiven if you’re not sure why a high speed train line between two major cities isn’t starting in either major city.”

This story raises the question: why not just improve Amtrak service on the Valley line? Freight trains currently ride over the Tehachapis, so presumably for a relatively small investment, we could create additional track to allow the Valley line a straight shot to LA. It would be cheaper than high speed rail, boost ridership and utility, and reach completion potentially years before the state ever sees high speed rail service. And even when statewide high speed rail service begins in the (gulp) 2030s, we’ll still need a cheaper Amtrak service with more frequent stops.

We can dream about hyperloops all we want, but sometimes the simplest solution is right in front of us.


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