California’s Antique Trains

And What They Say About Demand for Transportation Alternatives

My New Jersey Transit train from Oakland to Bakersfield. Photo: Rudick/Streetsblog
My New Jersey Transit train from Oakland to Bakersfield. Photo: Rudick/Streetsblog

Last week I took the train from Oakland to Bakersfield. In Bakersfield, I transferred to a bus to get to Los Angeles.

Believe it or not, at eight hours, that’s the fastest Amtrak route between the two cities.

While the state has spent the past sixty or seventy years building freeways, its intercity trains have been utterly neglected. The fact that there’s no longer an overnight sleeper train between LA and San Francisco is testament to that. And the Coast Starlight, the only direct train service between LA and the Bay Area, runs once a day, takes an even more ridiculous twelve hours, and is frequently late.

Despite all this, my train was packed.

The orange, blue, and turquoise logo on the train car in the lead picture says a lot about demand for rail in California. That’s the logo of New Jersey Transit. There’s so much demand for transportation options that Amtrak is running antique hand-me-downs from New Jersey Transit to provide more seats.

My train used to be an Electric Multiple Unit (EMU) train called an ‘Arrow’ (EMU is the same classification of electric train that Caltrain is purchasing; electric/zero-emission self-propelled rail cars). These trains, which date back to 1968, originally ran on the Northeast Corridor between New York and Washington, where they hit 100 mph. So if the trains look dated, they are. There’s no electrification yet in California, obviously, and Amtrak pulls them with a diesel locomotive. Now the most they ever hit is 80 mph, and even that is rare.

This is what my train looked like when it was new:

An EMU train from 1969. These cars, now stripped of their motors, are now running on Amtrak in California. Photo: Wikipedia/Roger Puta
An EMU train from 1969. These cars, now stripped of their motors, are running on Amtrak in California. Photo: Wikipedia/Roger Puta

To put that in perspective, here’s what an automobile looked like when the photo above was taken:

1974 Plymouth Valiant, Wikimedia Commons.
Plymouth Valiant, Wikimedia Commons.

Yes, that’s the state of our trains in California. We’re running trains at considerably lower speeds than they ran when they were new, that were born in the age of rotary telephones, eight-track cassette tapes, and Valiant automobiles.

When I hear people complaining about the costs of building the high-speed rail system in California, I just shake my head. If an old rust bucket like the rail car I was in last week gets packed, what will happen when we finish a modern rail system that is quiet, has far more capacity, doesn’t shake, doesn’t share tracks with clunky freight trains, and travels at modern speeds–meaning around 200 mph?

I was thinking about that as I watched some high-speed rail construction go by out the window. In a few years, when it’s up and running, the age of auto dominance and short-haul flights between northern and southern California will be over.

The Fresno River crossing is one piece of HSR construction one can see while riding Amtrak's antique trains through the Central Valley. Photo: CaHSRA
The Fresno River crossing is one piece of HSR construction one can see while riding Amtrak’s antique trains through the Central Valley. Photo: CaHSRA
  • Hopefully that can be avoided. There’s talk of double-tracking a lot more of the route to increase capacity and on-time performance.

  • Right, but the current plans don’t plan on opening service all the way to SF on Day One. According to the current business plan, Day One service will be from SJ to Wasco and Merced.

  • Do they have that problem with the existing single-level cars?

  • crazyvag

    They do. There are a few high-level sets used for Pacific Surfliners, so schedules for all trains are padded since the high-level is not always the same set.

    Theoretically, they could put all the high level sets on San Joaquin trains, and speed up the Pacific Surfliner timetable.

  • Richard C. DeArmond

    It seems to be a blend of the automobile industry and conservatives.

  • Richard C. DeArmond

    Wouldn’t the IOS be separated from the commuter oriented CalTrans running in the same corridor?

  • Richard C. DeArmond

    Transferring to buses is going to slow the operation down.

  • Richard C. DeArmond

    There were buggies too, at least since a few centuries after the invention of the wheel.

  • Richard C. DeArmond

    Very sadly.

  • LoudRambler

    The author doesn’t understand the big problem with Amtrak: it’s a company that’s stuck in a grand old early 20th century Big City to Big City mentality. It doesn’t run local trains. It runs Grand Trains, like California Zephyr, which connects the Grand City of Chicago to the Grand City of San Francisco – and is operated as such.

    It doesn’t matter that an awful lot of people who actually take that train don’t actually go all the way from San Francisco to Chicago. It doesn’t matter that people can wait for hours for that train, because it can accumulate A LOT of late time over the two days it takes the train to get from San Francisco to Iowa, from where people sometimes actually take it. It doesn’t matter that in order to provide a faster service from Chicago to SF it bypasses a lot of places from where the people would actually take it and goes in the middle of nowhere instead – it’s all in the name of the Grand Train of California Zephyr!

    I remember Amtrak playing with the idea of using some of the stimulus money to route the train through Des Moines, from where people would actually take it – and killing it in the end for no good reason other than using some consultants study as a fig leaf. It’s hopeless. Local boring commuter trains are not a priority of Amtrak; Grand Trains are.

  • LoudRambler

    There are practically no destinations where HSR would make economic sense in US, and most of the destinations where it does are already linked by ACELA.

    Besides, VIA Rail in Canada somehow manages to run five-hour non-HSR trains between Toronto and Montreal – which would translate to five-and-a-half hours between LA and SF, and which would still be very competitive time-wise with the plane. It’s their most popular service where they simply mint money, and it starts at $35 US. Why Amtrak (or anyone else, for that matter) is not interested is a curious question.

  • LoudRambler


    Amtrak is quite often not that slow compared to European systems if you need to make multiple layovers to change from, say, French system to German system.

    Also, outside of the flagship trains in Europe, the quality of service often deteriorates.

  • LoudRambler

    The Canadian, which I took, and which hooks up a diesel locomotive to a train of cars from the 1940’es, topped 90 MPH in the Prairies.

    Top speed is pretty meaningless, particularly if your country is small.

  • crazyvag

    It would be a shared corridor. I think the plan calls for 6 slots / hour for Caltrain and 2 slots / hour for HSR. That can certainly be tweaked, but rush hour would be the one bottleneck.

    It’s hard more trains when they go at different speeds. That’s why Caltrain doesn’t have any locals during rush hour. Slotting in HSR means either slowing down HSR or speeding up the slowest Caltrain runs. Caltrain will get a boost with electrification and another boost from level boarding. Passing tracks at strategic locations also help.

  • crazyvag

    It’s hard to get ridership overnight, but once you get 5+ round trips, you start to gain momentum. Look at the Chicago to St. Louis route. It started with a train to Texas, added in Illinois trains. Now upgrading to 110 mph with more round trips. It’s not HSR, but a sign of a growing corridor by a state that cares.

  • Stephen Karlson

    I’d note only that for years, Southern Pacific, the private railroad operator before Amtrak and merger, sought for years to substitute a bus for the Los Angeles to Bakersfield section of its San Joaquin Daylight, because the run from Bakersfield to Los Angeles involves a congested mountain railroad through Tehachapi Pass. Great photo opportunities for train enthusiasts, but little opportunity to go fast. And tunnelling through that part of California for the high speed line has posed some challenges involving locating the line and securing permits.

  • This would be an interim situation only.

  • A) This would be an interim situation only.

    B) Have you checked fares on the SoCal to Bay Area routes? They are inching back to over $110 one way at their lowest. Walk-up is much higher. There’s a market.

  • Richard C. DeArmond

    OK. Reasonable.

  • neroden

    Wrong, wrong, wrong. You’re blaming Amtrak for the sins of the Republican Party.

    Amtrak still wants to run the train through Des Moines. Amtrak is ALL for it.

    The IOWA LEGISLATURE killed it. Specifically, the Republicans in the Iowa legislature turned down the federal funding to send the train to Des Moines!

    Amtrak loves to run short-distance, fast trains. The Republicans in the US Congress insist that Amtrak run trains, slowly, through the middle of nowhere… or more accurately, through the districts of said Republicans. That’s their “pound of flesh” for funding the rest of Amtrak.

  • neroden

    In fact, there are an awful lot of destinations where HSR makes economic sense in the US, including NY-Albany-Syracuse-Rochester-Buffalo-Cleveland-Detroit-Chicago to use my favorite example, or the California HSR route.

    The issue is that HSR, like all transportation, requires government support. In every single country, highways and railways are built by the government. And we in the US, uniquely, have a political party — the Republicans — which is opposed to building decent passenger rail for fetishistic ideological reasons. The places where we get rail built are the places where we have Democratic control, where Republicans have been marginalized.

    Amtrak has basically been kept on a starvation diet by the federal government, essentially since its founding — Nixon hoped it would quickly disappear. It’s too popular to disappear. But all expansion has come from *state government* funding.

  • neroden

    The FRA has indeed been a huge problem, an obstacle preventing good passenger service, due to its “tanks on rails” policy.

    There is talk that after Positive Train Control is installed nationwide (required by 2020), the FRA might FINALLY be convinced to get rid of its “tanks on wheels” policy.

  • neroden

    The last three times I visited LA, I didn’t get a car. You don’t need a car in LA any more, thank you LA Metro. (Yes, I was only going to the popular tourist destinations; I realize there are other parts of LA you can’t get to by rail.)

  • neroden

    There was a deliberate attack on trains after WWII. Trains were saddled with a huge pile of special taxes… which were used to pay for the Interstates.

    At the same time, there was a deliberate government attack on cities: an attempt to depopulate them. It was official government policy to promote sprawl, so that people would be more spread out in case of nuclear attack.

    The late ’40s and the 1950s were *really weird*.

  • neroden

    Self-driving cars are best described as delusional fantasies of technoutopians. They will work in very limited circumstances. They will not work in general for decades to come.

  • neroden

    It’s impossible to quantify. However, the federal government alone has been transferring between $10 and $40 billion per YEAR from income tax money to subsidize highways. That’s on top of the funding from gas tax. State funding for roads is much, much, much higher.

    For comparison, Amtrak costs about $1 billion per year.

    The military costs about $1,000 billion per year, so that’s the real money-wasting boondoggle.

  • neroden

    Post-1971, pretty nearly every US Secretary of Transportation has been ready to kill Amtrak entirely. Amtrak survives largely due to state support. This is why a governor’s attitude makes the difference between a train running and not running.

  • Richard C. DeArmond

    Re A) So the lines will be electrified up to Sacrament, too? Interesting. They should also electrify the Oakland to Sacto route as well.

  • ben

    I wonder if the zephyr made the crossing of the Sierra’s while i80 was closed?


A TGV in France, similar to what will eventually run in California. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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