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Riding the Western Rails May Be a Comfortable Route to Extinction

February 23, 1986|Bill Stall | Bill Stall is a Times editorial writer

Train travel may be more comfortable and more affordable to more Americans today than at any other time in the rich history of the railroads in the United States.

And therein may lie its doom.

Relaxing in the observation car of the westbound California Zephyr in the Sierra Nevada on a sparkling February day, it suddenly occurs to the traveler that Amtrak has been a huge success in providing scenic, pleasant, safe transportation.

The debate rages about the cost of maintaining passenger rail travel in the United States. The Reagan Administration cites comparative prices of airline tickets and claims Amtrak is a boondoggle serving a relatively small number of affluent Americans; Amtrak fans respond that ridership is growing and that the subsidy has been cut by $400 million; they point to federal support for airports and highways.

The numbers game seems never-ending and overlooks what may be a central question: Just what is it like to travel on a train these days? On this particular Thursday in February, I find that the swiveling seats on the upper deck of the Amfleet lounge car are roomy and soft. There is more than ample leg room. Sipping a Bloody Mary or coffee, passengers gaze out on a spectacular winter scene. As much as four feet of snow has fallen here at 7,000 feet within the past 24 hours; the effect is dazzling. Evergreens sag under their virgin snow cloaks. The splash of a small creek sparkles in the mid-morning sun. It is ghostly quiet except for the oohs and aahs of the riders. There is no sound from the two 3,000-horsepower diesel-electric locomotives up ahead except for the faint occasional bleating of the horn. There is no clickity-clack of wheels against rails. The loudest sound, in fact, is the slight whish of the air conditioning.

The scene is so splendid and benign, few of the passengers who fill almost every seat bother to comment on the gruesome fate of the Donner party in these mountains 140 years ago. When they do, they speak in virtual whispers--and they can be heard.

If I tire of the scene, I can go downstairs for a refill of coffee from Gaylord, the steward who cheerily promotes his sandwiches, drinks and Amtrak souvenir playing cards over the speaker system. In the lounge, five men who boarded in Reno concentrate on pitching quarters into the pot of a high-low poker game.

Lunch service starts in the dining car at 11:30 a.m. Or I can return to the privacy of my economy compartment in the lower deck of the sleeping car for a nap, to read a book, write a letter or just gaze out at the passing panorama.

There is nothing to complain about. Last night the Zephyr, Train No. 5, left Salt Lake City on time at 11 p.m. Mountain Time. Later this afternoon, it would arrive in Oakland at 3:26 p.m. Pacific Time, four minutes early. The compartment is small, but clean and comfortable. The attendants are pleasant and ready to be of assistance. When I bought my Salt Lake-Oakland ticket, the clerk said, "Oh, it's too bad you couldn't start in Denver and see the Rockies, too."

Elegant dining is the singular missing element of yore. The tables are spread with a swath of plastic that tries to resemble linen, but doesn't. Silverware is stainless. Napkins are paper. The china is plastic and so is the yellow rose in the little vase by the window. The menu is limited and this is the single major complaint of people who have been on the train since they boarded in Chicago Tuesday afternoon. Still, the food is acceptable and moderate in price. The most expensive dinner item is grilled New York strip steak, served with mushroom caps and baked potato at $10.50. A reasonable breakfast is $3.25; lunch, $4.50.

Amtrak is experimenting with first-class dining on some runs, but that in itself will not tip the budget balance toward survival or extinction.

The grand passenger trains of the past--the Zephyr, the Lark, the Super Chief, Empire Builder, North Coast Limited, Twentieth-Century Limited--died of deliberate neglect. Their operators could not compete with the airlines and did not want to. Congress, convinced that rail travel was not yet ready for extinction, created the National Railroad Passenger Corp. in 1970 and subsidized the carrier so that acceptable service could be restored.

It has been--but at great cost. The nation has invested as much as $10 billion in Amtrak service and facilities since 1970. Yearly subsidies now run about $650 million. We cannot afford that, says the Reagan Administration, and the subsidy must end. If it does, Amtrak dies, except perhaps for some of the most traveled lines along the Northeast corridor between Boston and Washington and between Los Angeles and San Diego.

Today, Amtrak labors to compete economically with the air and bus lines and can't. The more it improves service to lure riders, the greater grows the subsidy. The Salt Lake-Oakland coach fare is $138, plus a $79 surcharge for an economy sleeping room. The air fare is as little as $69 for a flight time of less than two hours.

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