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The Ups, Downs of Long-Haul Train Travel

The Texas Eagle pulled into Tucson mid-morning, nearly 21/2 hours behind schedule. It meant that I had missed the morning museum tour I signed up for. But on the upside, it was no longer too early to check into my hotel. Perversely, I was a bit pleased at the delay because it meant I had enjoyed a few more hours of sunshine to watch the desert roll by before reaching my destination.

Such thinking is typical of veteran Amtrak riders like me, who know that timetables are a fantasy. I’ve traveled on long-haul Amtrak trains for 30 years and I could count the number of on-time arrivals on one finger. Staff attitudes undoubtedly will range from cheerful “what-me-worry” resignation to downright surly. Toilets or latches or whole engines will be broken on the 1970s-built rolling stock. Arbitrary rules (“No breakfast served in rooms until after the dining car closes”) will suddenly appear.

I could have flown from Los Angeles to Tucson in about 90 minutes. In the first 90 minutes on the Sunset Limited, we got about as far as Pomona. On more than a few occasions, the train would travel at the pace of a jogger, or speed up so that only most of the cars on the highway were passing us. Not infrequently it came to a dead stop. Part of it was rail repairs. But as every Amtrak staffer can tell you — echoed by veteran passengers — the main culprit for delays is the requirement that Amtrak’s passenger trains cede track priority to the freight trains. The rails are still owned by the same companies that abandoned passengers to the feds almost a half century ago. Failure is built into the system.

I travel often enough outside the country to know it doesn’t have to be this way. It took 111/2 hours to go the approximately 550 miles from Los Angeles to Tucson. The fastest bullet train in Japan, called the Nozomi, covers a comparable distance between Tokyo and Hiroshima in a little more than four hours. In Europe, rail has bound together the continent as never before. New train stations like Berlin Hauptbahnhof, a glass and steel beauty that opened in 2006, show that rail is a 21st-century option. High-speed trains have erased the need for all but a handful of the overnight trains. But when I did take an overnight train from Rome to Paris last month, it was the antithesis of Amtrak. The train departed and arrived on schedule. When the heater in the dining car broke down in the Alps, all the staff threw on heavy winter coats and pitched in to retrieve the coffee maker and toasters, jerry-rigging a makeshift cafe in a car attendant’s cabin. They served breakfast to passengers in their rooms, all the while effusively apologizing. To do anything else would have been unthinkable. I was amazed — even more so by some of my fellow passengers who sniffed that the breakdown was “so Italian” and never would have happened on Swiss or German railways.

But this is not Europe or Japan. By the mid-1960s, Americans had abandoned rail for the interstates or airlines in all but a few spots, like the Northeast Corridor. The railroads threatened to end passenger rail service altogether, forcing the U.S. government to create Amtrak. There’s the occasional short-haul success story like the Pacific Surfliner that runs mainly from Santa Barbara to San Diego. But that is the exception. Amtrak remains a target of congressional budget cutters nearly every year, though it also has powerful allies, particularly in the rural states where air service is a rarity. It says something that Amtrak supporters were celebrating at the end of last year: The rail service’s 2012 operating loss was “just” $361 million — the lowest since 1975.

Still, we rail fans ride Amtrak. I was with the “land cruise” contingent, who sign up for private compartments. And it is popular. My Sunday night train recently was sold out for sleeping cars. Part of the reason is financial. The basic one-way fare for my journey was $74. But for a while, Amtrak was selling the basic two-person Superliner sleeper option for $94. So together, that’s about the price of a one-way ticket to Tucson by air. I was too slow and paid $100 more. Yet I saw just before departure that the final rooms were going for $297 per night. At “All aboard,” there were no vacancies left.

The “bus on rails” is the coach section. Many budget travelers and families buy coach seats, sitting upright all night, lovers cuddled up together and families flopped across each other — small children often using Mom and Dad as a bed. Others read, watch video on their portable devices or play cards. On my recent trip, a few talked too loudly and drank too much. The compartments come with a shower area. In coach, well, it’s a long way from Los Angeles to Chicago without a shower. When I went to the dome car to watch the sunrise and then to the cafe car to get some coffee, I found many of the couches and booths were taken by sleeping passengers who had abandoned the sometimes noisy coach area to try to find a quieter spot where they could stretch out.

But despite the many drawbacks, there is still something wonderful about lying in a train sleeper and looking out the window at the full moon glistening off the metal of the engine as it negotiates a looping curve. I love waking up and pulling back the curtains to the pink of dawn. I had fallen asleep amid the graffiti, barbed wire and warehouses of the backside of San Bernardino that flanked the train tracks. I woke up to cattle, blue skies and endless desert around Maricopa.

Though I was very late on my slow night train to Tucson, there was a side of me that would have been happy to have stayed aboard and put up with the hassles all the way to Fort Worth or even up to the end of the line, running past St. Louis and into Chicago. America’s trains aren’t what they used to be. But outside the window, the view of America is still well worth the price and hassle.