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
  • david vartanoff

    First off, the stainless steel cars are not rust-buckets. Secondly, Caltrans (which I believe owns the cars) seriously rebuilt the interiors, rehabbed/replaced air conditioning units, essentially kept the shells fixed/upgraded the rest. New Jersey was dumb to de-electrify those cars, but, we gained good bodies at a discount.
    As to timings between SF-LA, yes the same curvy, routes with stiff grades are the same they were 80 years ago except they aren’t maintained by their private sector owners) for optimum speeds. The overnight train was scrapped as an act of ideologically driven vandalism by one of our dumber GOP governors; sadly Amtrak isn’t smart enough to re-instate it.

  • Roger R.

    Thanks David. Fair enough…they’re not literally rusty. And, truth be told, I think they ride better than the California Cars. So I don’t think it was a bad idea to rehab some Northeast Corridor rolling stock, given the realities Amtrak faces. The interiors were certainly rebuilt (no 5-across seating like NJT) but they’re still pretty darned no frills inside. But that’s all beside the point. When we finally get some modern trains running in California, it’s going to be a game changer.

  • gb52

    Is there any way to quantify how much has been spent on roads vs rail infrastructure? These are probably some really staggering costs, not even including fuel, or vehicles. Imagine how much is spent on the purchase of new cars every year as well. I hope you can share some insight on this.

  • Baruch

    Or you can fly in an hour, or drive in six hours, which is what everyone does.

  • Edward

    Perhaps. But now there is Uber and Lyft, and by the time it reaches LA there will be on call self driving cars. Besides, what do you do if you fly? How do you bypass check in and security? One hour?

    You are also forgetting the millions who live along the route but who don’t live in San Francisco or Los Angeles.

  • Baruch

    There are millions living in Stockton, Merced, Modesto and Bakersfield? I had no idea.

    I love the idea if HSR but it works either for SF to LA, or as a commuter route at either end. There isn’t much money in moving people very quickly between Stockton and Bakersfield.

  • To give CalTrans (Amtrak California) credit, they found these cars and had them rehabbed in order to provide extra frequencies on the San Joaquin corridor.

    There have been attempts to have new cars built, but due primarily to the difficulties created by the USDOT FRA standards which would have us travel in “Tanks on Rails”, these have failed.

  • Caltrans (Amtrak California) is literally scrambling for cars to meet service demand. Witness the Single-Level set that is running on the Pacific Surfliner corridor and the attempt to lease (or buy?) the “Wisconsin Talgos”:

  • At Bakersfield, there is not only a bus to Los Angeles Union Station, there is also a bus that goes to Santa Barbara, a bus that goes to Pasadena, the I.E. and on to Indio. There is also a bus that travels via Van Nuys to Westwood and then Long Beach. The system of having these Thruway buses connect to the train could make the future initial stage of high-speed rail, from Bakersfield along the San Joaquin Valley to Stockton or Tracy, with buses there continuing to Sacramento, San Jose or Oakland/SF could create a time-competitive service early in the CAHSR construction.

  • Baruch

    I’ve been on the Japanese Bullet Trains, the French TGV and the Chunnel EuroStar. They go from, say, Tokyo to Osaka, Paris to Lyon, or London to Brussels. They don’t go from some god-forsaken crap hole in the desert heat and then make you wait an hour for a bus that sits in traffic for 3 hours.

    Either do this right or don’t do it at all.

  • Roger R.

    There are 6.5 million people living in the Central Valley, and the region is growing–fast. The Tokyo Osaka Shink has 17 stations. All TGV and Eurostar routes also have intermediate stops, with varying degrees of express and local services offered.

  • Baruch

    I suppose that depends on how you define the central valley but, in any event, I bet 6.4 million of them drive because there is no transit there to speak of.

    HSR is always justified in terms of connecting major population centers. If there is no HSR between Chicago and Detroit, or between Dallas and Houston, or between SF and LA, then why the heck would we build one from Stockton to Bakersfield? – two towns that I guarantee nobody outside CA has ever heard of.

  • Dave Campbell

    On the Zephyr train from Tahoe back to Oakland one winter, ran into a nice Dutch couple traveling America by train. They could not say enough kind words about our train system, which to them by comparison is more spacious, with leg room, power outlets, footrests, etc. It was a nice reality check for me.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    Yeah any Amtrak ticket gives you as much space as a 1st class ticket in Europe. That’s about where the list of positive attributes ends, though.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    Do these cars have bathrooms? I ask not because I think that is a desirable feature of a train, but because they are a source of constant problems on Capitol Corridor cars. Recently I had to depart the CC in Hayward and ride BART the rest of the way to Berkeley just because the smell from the toilet had become so overwhelming. And the WC in all its ADA glory takes up easily 15% of the volume of the car. You could u-turn a forklift in there.

    I don’t recall ever having to smell the toilet on more civilized trains.

  • david vartanoff

    Another 15 or 20 “exArrow Comet” cars put through the same rehab would be a good start. The Nippon Sharyu plant inIllinois has been very quiet eversince the failure of the (I agree, way too tank like specs) prototype. Seems to me the rehab included at seat plugs, and wi-fi could be added. If the seats recline properly unlike the bi-levels, then they are better.

  • Edward

    You seem to believe that the Interstate Highway System appeared fully formed one Sunday afternoon. It doesn’t work that way. The Initial operating segment of CHSR will be from Bakersfield to San Jose *and*, because Caltrain will have been fully and compatibly electrified by then, San Francisco.

    By the way, the city of Fresno is now over 525,000, more than Sacramento, and the rest of the county has another half million. Lowly Bakersfield is 365,000, making it the 52nd largest city in the country.

    If you want it built right, i.e. all at once, all you have to do is convince the Republican party that trains aren’t evil so they won’t do everything possible to block high speed rail everywhere it tries to raise its head, e.g. Florida, Wisconsin, Texas etc. If Obama touched it it *must* be evil.

  • I generally agree with you, but remind you that that trains are electric and so cannot continue at present from Bakersfield to Los Angeles, nor can they travel from Stockton/Tracy to either Sacramento or the Bay Area.

    Get the Bakersfield to Stockton/Tracy portion built (easy, all on flat land) and run buses to each end. You will then have a viable alternative to the car, and a competitive option to the airplane.

  • Let’s look at the trains you mention:

    Shinkansen was built in stages.

    TGV built in stages, original line was from Paris to Lyon, but France had the advantage that there were electrified lines south and eat of Lyon to places like Dijon, Lausanne, Nice and Marseilles. Trains could run at high speed on the original “LGV” and then continue to their ultimate destination, often going around Lyon on the way from Paris.

    Eurostar? It ran using third-rail commuter lines out of Waterloo until the London to Chunnel HS1 was finished allowing the current centenary running service from St. Pancras to France. You build what you can when you can.

    (Which is exactly how the interstate system was built)

  • SuperQ

    Yea, the Dutch have one of the slowest train systems in Europe. Most routes top out at 160kph (100mph), but typically it’s 120-140kph. Some of that is due to tracks, but mostly the 1.5kV DC power.

    The only high speed route is the upgraded line from Amsterdam to Belgium as part of the link to Paris.

    As someone who lives in Germany, the Dutch trains are kinda antique by comparison as well.

  • Baruch

    Everything has to be built in stages. But in those other cases there was a complete plan in place before construction started. With CA-HSR we are building the easy part but still have no detailed plan about how, where and when the difficult parts will be done, i.e. into the two major population centers, without which this is just an expensive boondoggle.

  • crazyvag

    I don’t think plans need to be very detailed. We know that Merced to San Francisco will go via Gilroy and San Jose, and whether we decide that today or tomorrow isn’t going to move the cost dial very much. It’s hardly a boondoggle.

    Scoping the cost of such large projects is very hard. Consider that you want to build another garage to your house. Construction will start in 2027 and your wife is screaming that this a boondoggle because you can’t tell her how much the drywall will cost 10 years from now.

    Sadly, the only thing that does move the dial is the continual stream of lawsuits.

  • crazyvag

    I’m not sure why they didn’t just order of the existing California Cars? The design of good, Alstom made them reliably. Those are always my favorite Amtrak trains I’ve ridden on in the US.

  • Igor

    patience your grasshopper. CAHSR HAs 2 options: 1) move you to a bus / slow train, or just couple a diesel loco to the front of the HSR and keep on trucking.

    Again — all is built in stages, and the Stage 1 SF -> Bakersfield is a good stage one that will revolutionize CV. Then LA. Then ;ets build the 2 spurs to SD and SAC … (and then maybe we will finally fix one of the worst planning mistakes in CA history and let trains cross the bay again (I am sure we will have people complain how expensive a second transbay tube will be ,, not realizing that we had already paid for a rail crossing of the bay, but then generously gifted it to cars).

  • Igor

    And everyone rode a horse before Model T came about.

  • Igor

    sadly hard to do — especially when you have things like ROW converted from one mode to another (usually, stupidly rail to cars (or trail)). So that the inirial construction bears the cost, and the conversion is relatively cheap … biggest case in point: The Bay Bridge, which used to carry all manner of rail .. and then was stupidly gifted to cars. We will have to build a second transbay tube to fix that idiocy, and watch how many will decry it as a stupid boondongle.

  • Every time I’ve taken the train, the bus lines up reasonably well with the train times.

  • Clearly, you haven’t checked the thousands of pages worth of documents with plans that are already in place and being worked on.

  • Or put it another way, the IOS will connect the third- (San Jose), fifth- (Fresno), and ninth-largest (Bakersfield) cities in the state together.

  • Stockton isn’t even part of the IOS, though the San Joaquins trains which go through Stockton will use the HSR infrastructure from Wasco to Madera before full HSR service starts.

  • Actually, there are talks by many stakeholders to reinstate a Coast Daylight that would run between LA and SF.

  • Amtrak realities are immaterial to the corridor services in California which are all funded by the State.

  • California should just go with the same cars that Brightline is using from Siemens. Only downside is that they’re single-level.

  • Now the most they ever hit is 80 mph, and even that is rare.

    No, not really, unless the train is delayed. The moving average of the San Joaquins is 57 MPH, which I’ve personally verified by tracking trips. There are many points where the train hits 80 MPH and the SJJPA is actively exploring the feasibility of upgrading some segments to 90 MPH.

  • crazyvag

    And SF, which is #4.

  • tommy t

    But those talks to bring back the Coast Daylight have been going on for at least the past 15 years. I don’t think there’s significant progress.

  • IIRC, the State Rail Plan has it listed as happening by 2030 and I know that several counties on the coast are making moves to enable that.

  • Service to SF isn’t part of the plan for the opening segment.

  • Edward

    True enough, although the word I would use is utilitarian. They do have one good thing though, the OV-chipkaart. This is a national transit card like the Clipper or TAP cards, but it is good on anything that runs on the ground or water, including intercity trains. Handy.

    I wonder how long it will be before California has a statewide card. My guess is two more changes of technology, about twenty years.

  • mx

    A bus from SF to Stockton, a train to Bakersfield, and a bus to LA is not in any way remotely competitive with an airplane.

  • crazyvag

    That’s a pretty big downside. It would probably take an extra 2 minutes per stop for each passenger to disembark single file down and up 4 steps. That might add 10-20 mins to the end-to-end trip time.

  • crazyvag

    So you thought it would be easier to switch trains rather than switch seats?

  • crazyvag

    Caltrain corridor upgrades will make that harder, since most of Caltrains platforms will eventually be high-level, while platforms between SF and LA will remain low-level.

    That might not be bad that train is “BrightLine” style with high-platforms to begin with and doesn’t stop between San Jose and LA.

    Any city that wants a stop will need to find rooms to build new platforms.

  • crazyvag

    I think that can be fixed for a few million bucks by building a few high-level platforms at 4th & King if they aren’t built yet for Caltrain. Rest of the corridor would be compatible.

  • crazyvag

    Capitol Corridor is spending a few millions improving the runtime by pushing the max speed on curves since that’s same for a double-stack container as for a modern passenger car. “Not going slow” is an equally good method to reducing trip time.

  • Edward

    The IOS (initial operating segment) of CHSR will be from San Francisco to Bakersfield. What causes confusion is that Bakersfield to San Jose is being built by CHSR, while San Jose to San Francisco is being built by Caltrain, albeit with some money from CHSR.

  • This is a national issue, not just a CA one. In general, rail sucks in this country. We are lagging behind developing nations in HSR construction and countries in Europe and Asia simply laugh when they come here. We can’t even get Caltrain to downtown SF without generations of delays. You really think we can get riders to LA in under 8 hours?

  • p_chazz

    It wasn’t a stupid decision. After WWII, train ridership was declining, and automobile traffic was increasing. Doubling the bridge’s eastbound automobile capacity was a no-brainer. Planners of the day had to address the problems at hand, not what would happen 70 year in the future. 20-20 hindsight doesn’t help anyone.

  • p_chazz

    How could a governor have scrapped a train? Seems like it would be the decision of the railroad owner pre-Amtrak or the Secretary of Transportation after 1971.

  • p_chazz

    Except it would be the Coast Daylate because that’s about how long the delays would be…


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

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