Reporting from Barstow — With a horn blast and a whoosh of air brakes, a special train carrying 254 rail fans, civic leaders and adventure seekers rolled out of Barstow on Sunday morning with a goal of reviving interest in passenger rail service across the Mojave Desert.
The train was the Kelso Flyer, six vintage cars pulled by an Amtrak engine between Barstow and a remote mission-style depot in the heart of the 1.6-million acre Mojave National Preserve.
As it gathered speed, passengers settled into lounge and observation cars with sleek, Art Deco-style interiors for the 90-minute ride. Awaiting them down the tracks were spiky lava flows, salt flats, massive dunes and a four-mile ribbon of wetlands wedged between sandstone cliffs.
The success of what the train's sponsors regarded as a "market test of rare mileage," will hinge on whether the trip interests someone willing to bankroll the service, which could make Barstow a regular tourism destination for the first time in 39 years.
It's not going to be easy to convince prospective investors that such a train can be comfortable, punctual and profitable. The Kelso Flyer's weekend excursion, which began in Los Angeles, required five years of planning and permitting and cost more than $50,000 to launch. On Sunday, its passengers, who had bought tickets ranging from $115 to $415, were plagued by engine problems and delays.
"Putting the Kelso Flyer together was like pulling off the Normandy invasion," said lifelong rail enthusiast Norm Orfall, who arranged the event with Mal Wessel, chairman of the Barstow-Kelso Heritage Railroad Committee and a former mayor of Barstow. "But by God, we did it."
Orfall and Wessel believe the Kelso Flyer would have a competitive advantage against similar ventures elsewhere.
"We pattern ourselves after the tourism train in Williams, Ariz., which hauls about 300,000 people a year to the Grand Canyon," Wessel said. "We have a better ride because, except for the Grand Canyon itself, there's more interesting scenery to enjoy from the windows" on the Barstow-to-Kelso trip.
"More than 60 million people drive through Barstow on their way to Las Vegas each year," he added. "If we can get just 500 of those people a day, we've got a successful train trip."
The Kelso Flyer's supporters include San Bernardino County Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt, the National Parks Conservation Assn., the Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad lines, and the city of Barstow, a high desert community of about 24,000 at the juncture of Interstate 15, Interstate 40 and California 58.
"This has provided me with a rare and unusual view of my district," said state Assemblywoman Connie Conway (R- Tulare). "Most people think of this stretch of desert as something to get through as quickly as possible. But this train forces them to slow down and enjoy its natural beauty."
The train departed Los Angeles' Union Station an hour late Saturday morning, bound for Barstow, where about 30 ticketholders had spent the night in Pullman cars or at local hotels.
Dozens of train buffs gathered at road crossings to photograph the Kelso Flyer as it snaked up the 3,600-foot-high Cajon Pass. Half a dozen passengers waved back at them from the open-air vestibule of the rear car, a teak-paneled Canadian model built in 1959.
A crowd of supporters and elected officials welcomed the train when it pulled into a century-old depot in Barstow, a city named after Santa Fe Railway's 10th president, William Barstow Strong.
Among them was Carol Randall, head of economic development for the local Chamber of Commerce. "When I saw her coming into town, I had tears of relief in my eyes and I hollered, 'She's here!' " Randall said. "It was the fulfillment of a long, hard fight."
Randall was among the 150 passengers who boarded in Barstow. About 75 had traveled from Los Angeles, while other passengers had come aboard in San Bernardino and Fullerton.
By 11 a.m., the train was about 20 miles east of Barstow and wobbling along at 75 miles per hour. On a dare from his wife, passenger Anthony Cortez, 39, of Silver Lakes, about 25 miles southwest of Barstow, plopped into an antique swivel chair for a haircut administered by Carl Hunt, a Barstow barber for 47 years.
As Hunt maneuvered to keep his balance while snipping away, Cortez mused, "She thought I wouldn't risk this on a moving train."
A National Park Service ranger was on hand to answer questions when the train clacked along panoramic Afton Canyon, a four-mile furrow carved by the Mojave River and shouldered by chiseled cliff faces inhabited by bighorn sheep.
"Cool! This was worth the price of admission," one passenger said while gazing out at the rugged canyon, which has been a cattle trail, a campground, a firearms range, an off-road motorcycle course, a bird-watchers paradise and, on Sunday, a scenic train experience.
A few miles farther down the line, the Kelso Flyer rumbled past waves of steeply-pitched dunes up to 600 feet high.
At noon, it arrived at the end of the line: the recently renovated 86-year-old Kelso Depot, an oasis of tamarisk trees and desert willows that is home of the preserve's information center.
After lunching at the facility, the passengers filed back into the Kelso Flyer for the ride back to Barstow and Los Angeles.
"The biggest challenge was just doing this once," said Mary Martin, former superintendant of the Mojave National Preserve and a longtime supporter of the Kelso Flyer concept. "Will it roll again? I hope so."