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Gone With the Wind : Demise of Desert Train Ends L.A.'s Amtrak Link to Las Vegas

May 08, 1997|RICHARD SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They are mostly train buffs and nostalgic retirees with time on their hands.

And by the hundreds, they have come to Los Angeles' Union Station over the past week to take part in the latest bittersweet chapter of the long goodbye that America continues to bid its passenger trains.

When the last Desert Wind pulls out of Los Angeles this morning, the sight of its last car receding into the distance will put a melancholy period on nearly 100 years of railway passenger service between Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Salt Lake City. Like a geriatric patient, the train is expiring from a host of seemingly inexorable ills--the decline in federal rail subsidies, Amtrak's consequent budget problems, the fierce fare wars among deregulated airlines, the repeal of the 55-mph highway speed limit and perennially rushed Angelenos' impatience with a nearly seven-hour train trip to the dubious promise of Nevada's slots.

The loss of the Desert Wind leaves Los Angeles lacking another thing--besides a pro football team--that Oakland has: a train to Salt Lake City. And it leaves Las Vegas, which began life as a railroad town, without any Amtrak service at all.

It is a day distant in more than time from the one 91 years ago, when the first passenger train traveled between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles. The press and popular opinion greeted the new service as a sign of progress, convenience and commercial promise.

The 11-car train had plenty of empty seats when it left Los Angeles on Tuesday, carrying 100 passengers. But today's final train is expected to be nearly full by the time it arrives in Las Vegas.

From 1936 until 1971, the L.A.-to-Salt Lake route was traversed by the legendary City of Los Angeles, which went on to Chicago. Service resumed in 1979, when the Desert Wind was launched between Los Angeles and Chicago, with stops including Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Denver and Omaha. And despite its loss, it still is possible to travel by rail from Union Station to the Windy City on the Southwest Chief, which makes the journey via Albuquerque.

Amtrak officials said they had no choice but to cancel the Desert Wind, whose ridership has declined along with the railroad's federal subsidies, which have gone from $720 million in 1981 to $225 million this year. Also being phased out is the Seattle-to-Denver Pioneer. Amtrak currently is seeking a half-cent from the 4.3-cent federal gasoline tax currently earmarked for reduction of the federal budget deficit.

"I'm very optimistic about our chances if we can get the half-cent," said Amtrak President Gil Mallery. "Without the half-cent, it's not a pretty picture."

Amtrak plans to shift the Desert Wind's rolling stock north to restore daily service on the California Zephyr, which runs from San Francisco to Chicago. "We have to put the resources where we can get the best return," said Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari.

"The fault lies with government policy that continues to do a lot for highways and airports, but is very stingy with passenger trains," said Scott Leonard, assistant director of the National Assn. of Railroad Passengers.

Tuesday, however, some Desert Wind passengers, though sympathetic to Amtrak's plight, complained that the rail service contributed to the line's decline by replacing daily trains with thrice-weekly service in 1995.

"There's just not enough of us to keep Amtrak going," lamented Jon Inskeep, a retired engineer and rail fan from La Canada Flintridge, who was taking a last trip aboard the Desert Wind on Tuesday. "You can't run a railroad on aficionados. You have to have steady, paying customers. Trains aren't fast enough," Inskeep said.

In today's era of air fare wars, they aren't necessarily cheaper, either. The Los Angeles-to-Las Vegas train trip cost $76 round-trip, while round-trip air fare can be had for $78 with a 14-day advance booking

The loss of the Desert Wind is unlikely to affect tourism in Las Vegas. The train carried only about 50,000 of the city's 7.5 million visitors from Southern California last year. That was down from 84,000 in 1992, reported the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Bureau.

But Amtrak said it hopes to bring back a more profitable Los Angeles-to-Las Vegas train as early as next year. It is looking at running a faster, glitzier train that would cut the trip to 5 1/2 hours and "capture the excitement" of Las Vegas with neon lights, videos on how to play blackjack and maybe even showgirls aboard trains. But the proposed new service is still far from a sure bet. A private company also has proposed running a 300-mph magnetic levitation train that would make the trip in 90 minutes, but it is considered a longshot because of huge construction costs.

As the Desert Wind rolled across the Mojave Desert, train conductor Alexander T. Pavlopoulos pointed out the sights. Then, he added, "This train is being eliminated in response to congressionally mandated budget cuts."

Most of his passengers knew that only too well.

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