California Crunch 3
Get on Track, California
Monday, March 5, 2001
IF CALIFORNIA wants help with its transportation worries, it should look no
further than the little-used train tracks running through most communities.
Rail travel, long ignored in a car-crazy state, has a renewed role to play.
From a humble start 30 years ago, Amtrak passenger service has collected a
growing ridership, mostly among travelers on short trips such as routes from
the Bay Area to Sacramento, within the San Joaquin Valley and between San
Diego and Los Angeles.
Amtrak lost a bid last year to win a 10-year, $12 billion bond measure from
Congress, but it's back on track this year. The publicly owned corporation
is also in line for state money, with Gov. Gray Davis among the prime
boosters for a $700 million grant over the next five years.
But if they build it, will anyone ride? So far, the answer is yes. Ridership
jumped 52 percent in the last 12 months on the seven Capitol trains that
connect San Jose to Sacramento. The biggest complaint is that there aren't
more trains at convenient hours. Additional passengers rode the other two
routes in the valley and Southern California.
As state policy, more passenger trains make sense. Rail lines are cheaper to
upgrade than freeways. Modern diesel trains burn less fuel than airplanes
and run directly into downtown areas, where riders want to go. Small cities
little served by airlines need quick connections with bigger communities.
But trains remain a tough sell in a state built on freeways. Barely 1
percent of California's 34 million residents have ridden a train. By
comparison, a train culture along the Boston-to-Washington corridor inspired
popular 150 mph train service that competes with planes.
Amtrak also faces a political test: a congressional dictum to break even by
2003. That goal will be hard to make.
Despite such obstacles, it's encouraging that Amtrak is thinking big in
California. If Congress approves the bond package, the real work of
expanding the state's bare bones service can start.
Double-tracking can end delays for freight trains waiting to clear a narrow
point. Track beds can be rebuilt to handle 90 mph trains. More locomotives
and passenger cars can be purchased. More departure times should coax
drivers from behind the steering wheel.
Transit planning is all about options. Give drivers another way to get
there, and chances are good they'll leave the car behind. It's time to bring
back trains as a convenient and comfortable way to travel in California.
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle Page A - 22