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The West from a Car Window

The West from a Car Window is the title of one of the 19th century books on my bookshelf. The “car” in question is a railway car, not that insubstantial quadricycle, the automobile. If you had asked a 19th century visitor how he traveled, he would have replied not “on the train” but “on the cars.”

In early January, I journeyed up the West Coast, from LA to Seattle, by train and other public transportation. Here are a few observations from that trip.

With a friend and his nine-year old son, I took the Coast Starlight from LA to San Francisco. Bad dispatching made us run about an hour late – – as the conductor said over the train’s PA system, “You can’t spell stupid without UP” – – but it was a scenic run and faster than if we had driven, since snow closed Interstate 5 for eighteen hours. When everything else shuts down, the trains usually still run.

Both my friend and his son loved the train. Accustomed to flying, they could not get over how much more comfortable the train was, yet also cheaper (we were in coach). It was the boy’s first real train trip, and he cannot wait for more. He was astonished and delighted by the freedom of the train. Instead of having to sit in a small seat, belted in, he was allowed to go everywhere on board; the only rule we laid down for him was “Don’t get off.” He made new friends, enjoyed the lounge car, saw wonderful views out the big windows and dinner (with us) in the dining car. From the age of eight, I took all-day journeys by myself on the train, and there were few things I enjoyed more. Boys still love trains and always will.

We spent a weekend in San Francisco, a city my friend had often visited by car. We got transit passes and saw the city by cable car and streetcar. At the end of the day Saturday, he said to me, “I never really saw the city before at all. It was just traffic and the hunt for parking. I noticed far more today than in all my previous trips.” Add another convert to the merits of rail transit.

Together, San Francisco’s cable cars and streetcars (the F Line on Market Street) make an important point too many transit professionals overlook: equipment need not be modern to provide good service. The cable cars were almost always crowded (the nine-year old was ecstatic when he found you can ride on the running board; it made a better ride than any amusement park, despite the $6 fare). The streetcars, Peter Witts and PCCs, were also often full. The F line carries over 20,000 people per day. As conservatives know, what worked then will work now, and not just in transportation. The older is often also cheaper, better looking and more fun. San Francisco’s PCCs painted in the colors of other cities that had them add real beauty to the streets, which modern LRVs are not likely to match.

Sunday night I did something that, 80 years ago, thousands of Americans did every evening. That night, I was probably the only one. What was it? I took the streetcar to the night train. The last conservative left on earth will still be doing things like that, lest old traditions fail.

Waking in my comfortable roomette on the Coast Starlight just after we entered Oregon, running early, I enjoyed the west from a car window at its best. The day was clear and crisp, temperature above zero, with fresh snow clinging to the pine trees. Snow muffles the sounds of the train, so you seem to be riding on a magic carpet. And magical it was: I had views of the mountains normally vouchsafed only to intrepid outdoorsmen, as I lay warm and comfortable in my bed. Now that’s civilization!

The next day, a friend and I took the Talgo from Portland, mostly because I wanted to see the Cascade Corridor in operation and get first-handed impressions of the Talgos. These Spanish-designed trains did not do well when tried in this country in the 1950s, mainly because ride quality was poor. That has changed. Our ride to Seattle was smooth and comfortable, much more so than Amfleet. Also, unlike Amfleet, the windows are large.

Our train was the first of the day from Portland north, and it was well patronized. Because the Talgos are slow, it felt like we were going faster than we were. Top speed is 79 m.p.h, because the Cascade Corridor has rightly focused on average speed and trip time, not top speed. Within a minute of leaving the station in Portland, we were running at a good speed, something common in Europe but rare in America, where passenger trains crawl endlessly through cities. That is how higher speed rail works, and it makes much more sense, outside of the Northeast Corridor, than does high speed rail with its enormous costs. The Cascades Corridor and its Talgos are exactly what my region, the Midwest, needs on corridors such as Cleveland-Columbus-Cincinnati. Thanks to one-term Governor Kasich, we won’t get it anytime soon.

In Seattle, we rode both the light rail line and the new streetcar line. Seattle’s light rail is fast and comfortable; the Kinkisharyo cars are remarkably smooth and quiet. The line runs mostly south of downtown mostly through what appears a downscale area, and because the stations are widely spaced, I am skeptical about how much effect it will have on re-development. Time will tell.

Seattle’s new streetcar line, in contrast, is clearly designed to bring development, and I expect it to do so. The areas is runs through are largely parking lots, and I would bet the libertarian transit critics that in ten years those will be gone, replaced by much more valuable high-density buildings. The streetcar line will pay for itself many times over.

We rode the streetcar at about 5 PM, and saw the new line already performing a classic streetcar function, local collection and distribution. At that hour, almost all ridership was inbound, toward the city center, not outbound. I would wager that most of those passengers – – the single car was quickly full – – were transferring to other modes – – trolleybus, ferryboat, commuter train or light rail – – to continue their homeward journeys. By offering convenient, pleasant collection and distribution, the streetcar makes all those other modes more attractive to more people. That is how a good transit system works.

We retuned to Portland the next day, again on the Talgo, but found that this trainset did not ride as well as that of the day before. A train crewman told me different sets ride differently. I suspect the reason may be maintenance: the Cascades Corridor has no protect sets, so it must be difficult to maintain trains to an adequate level. We were also an hour late, reminding us of the curse of American passenger rail travel, uneven quality of service.

Mt final day out west began with a gracious tour of Oregon Ironworks’ new streetcar subsidiary, United Streetcar, which is building the first new streetcars constructed in this country since the last PCCs were built in 1952 (for San Francisco). We quickly saw that this is no mere assembly operation. United Streetcar begins by cutting and bending the basic metal that forms the car frame. It is really building streetcars, not just putting kits together. With fourteen streetcars in various stages of construction, we had visions of the happy days at places like the Kuhlmann car works in my home town of Cleveland (the factory complex still stands, missing the “K” in the sign on the main building’s roof). The build quality of the cars we saw under construction appeared to be excellent. United Streetcar deserves to succeed in its bold venture to build streetcars for our small if growing market, and I very much hope it does.

After United Streetcar, Julie Gustafson took me on and a friend on a tour of Portland’s new extension across the river to Portland’s Eastside Industrial District. Portland’s eastside has a bit of the “wrong side of the tracks” feel to it, and the streetcar is clearly a development tool. I suspect it will be successful, as the original loop through downtown Portland was. Like its predecessor, the new line was built at a reasonable price of about $13 million a mile. It will eventually connect with the old line at its southern end as well as its northern end, which will make it much more useful to riders.

That new connection will be via a new bridge over the Willamette River which is being constructed mainly for light rail, at a horrendous cost of about three-quarters of a billion dollars. I’m sorry, but as a conservative, that price sticks in my throat. I have no doubt that if the bridge were for highway traffic, it would cost a similar amount. But can’t we find less expensive ways to build bridges? Do other countries pay that much for a light rail/streetcar bridge? Although the bridge is designed to accommodate light rail, streetcars, pedestrians and bicyclists (and various permits were required by a variety of agencies with waterway jurisdiction, no doubt adding to the cost), I wonder if cheaper alternatives were considered? And while we are on the subject of saving money, must we ‘beautify’ new streetcar lines with “public art” that mostly resembles abandoned, rusting Soviet radar antennae? Yes, I know its Portland, where up is down and black is white. But ugly is still ugly.

My variety of car windows provided a week’s worth of enjoyable views of the west, far more than I could have gotten through an automobile’s windshield. We sometimes forget that is what rail offers that little else can: pleasurable travel. Here’s hoping our country’s future includes more of it, in place of the miserable “efficiency” offered by equally miserable utilitarians.

William S. Lind serves as Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation

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