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Desert Wind Whipped

Amtrak Service Between L.A. and Las Vegas Runs Out of Steam With Dwindling Ridership and Will Be Eliminated in November

August 16, 1996|RICHARD SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Desert Wind, the only passenger train running from Los Angeles to Las Vegas and then on to Salt Lake City, is blowing into history.

The last train is set to depart Union Station on Nov. 7, a victim of dwindling ridership or, some say, bad management and poor service.

Oakland will now have one more thing that Los Angeles doesn't (besides a pro football team)--a train to Salt Lake City. And Los Angeles won't have a train to Las Vegas for the first time in nearly two decades.

"It's a shame," said Tony Watson, a sleeping-car attendant aboard the Desert Wind. "America needs trains." The train that left Los Angeles Thursday was about half full, carrying only 138 passengers, even though this is the busy season. Most of the passengers planned to get off in Las Vegas; only two were going to Salt Lake City.

The Desert Wind appears to have reached the end of the line, even if Congress boosts tax subsidies to Amtrak. Amtrak staff has recommended eliminating its biggest money losers in order to increase service on more heavily traveled routes, such as Chicago to San Francisco.

"Even with more funding, is it a smart business decision to operate a train that you know is going to continue to lose money?" asked Amtrak spokesman Dominick Albano.

The Desert Wind replaced the legendary City of Los Angeles, which carried such passengers as Herbert Hoover and Mae West. That train ran between Chicago and Los Angeles from the 1930s until 1971. The Desert Wind was started up in 1979.

The train stops in Fullerton, San Bernardino, Victorville and Barstow on its way to Las Vegas and Salt Lake City. It then goes on to Chicago. (You'll still be able to take the Southwest Chief from Los Angeles to Chicago via Albuquerque.)

The loss of the Desert Wind is not likely to affect tourism in Las Vegas.

The train carried only about 60,000 of the 9 1/2 million visitors to Las Vegas from Southern California last year, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Some are, nonetheless, saddened by the loss of the Desert Wind.

Even though flying--and, for some motorists in the post-55-mph speed limit era, driving--is faster, going by rail can be more fun.

The Los Angeles-to-Las Vegas train ride takes six hours and 50 minutes. It costs $74 one way.

"It's the end of an era," said Rob Powers of the Las Vegas convention bureau. "Las Vegas has its roots as a railroad town."

Waiting to board the Desert Wind on Thursday at Union Station, passengers said they would miss the train.

Joyce Lingor, a retired nurse from La Puente headed to a family reunion in Las Vegas, said she has traveled around the U.S. by train, though this was her first train trip to Las Vegas since 1943.

"I love it," she said of riding the rails. "If something goes wrong, you're not going to fall 35,000 feet."

"Yes, I can take the Greyhound bus over there, but it's miserable," she added. "And the planes are not much better. They're crowded. You're squeezed in."

Barry Kolsoozian, a financial officer from Garden Grove, had another reason for traveling by rail: "There's nothing like riding the train and looking at the scenery as you cross the desert."

Some say the Desert Wind's demise will hurt the nation's rail system by providing fewer choices. "And you ask why people don't take the train," said Kolsoozian.

Critics also say Amtrak contributed to the Desert Wind's low ridership by cutting back service last year from every day to three times a week.

Amtrak is studying ways to make a Los Angeles-to-Las Vegas route more profitable--perhaps a train that would feature gambling once it crosses into Nevada. Nevada officials are continuing to talk with private companies about running a high-speed train--one that would travel 200 mph or more and make the trip between Los Angeles and Las Vegas in 70 minutes. Previous efforts have run into financial and environmental problems.

Train buffs suggest that if there is ever to be a successful rail link between the two cities, the operator needs to make the ride a "Las Vegas experience," maybe with each car decorated in a different motif--Roman, Egyptian, medieval.

Los Angeles residents, meanwhile, still will be able to take the train to Salt Lake City. But they'll have to go to Oakland first.

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