A train would reign, not be built in vain

About a month ago, this paper ran a feature story on taking public transportation from Reno to Sacramento for a business trip. I truly appreciated reading Brian Morris’ adventure in walking, city bus, Greyhound and Sacramento Light Rail, because I am a huge fan of public transportation—when it works. And while Morris was satisfied with his experience, for me it raised a question I’ve been wondering for years: Why don’t we have efficient, timely and affordable commuter train service from Reno to Sacramento and the Bay Area?

It’s a subject sure to put most of my friends to sleep when I raise it, but to me this is a critical missing link in Reno’s economic future and overall coolness factor. A modern express commuter train would be a boon to both business commuters and tourists alike, while easing the environmental impact of that ginormous tax-dollar sinkhole, Interstate 80. Imagine whisking through the mountains in a comfy chair, typing away at your laptop while sipping a beer as you speed toward Sacramento or San Francisco, arriving in roughly the same time as you would if driving (or less, if faced with one of the interminable weekend traffic jams). Imagine being a Californian and coming up for a skiing or gambling weekend with no driving hassles—just a couple of cozy hours on the train to Truckee or Reno and a shuttle to your favorite slopes/casinos.

This could be so easy. I am not talking about building some expensive newfangled bullet train or high-speed rail (as is proposed for Las Vegas). A far smaller investment in tilt-train technology would allow existing Amtrak cars to navigate the mountain passes on current rails in a safe and speedy fashion. Indeed, train travel was the backbone of Reno tourism well until the 1970s. It took effort on Amtrak’s part to push travelers into cars—cutting runs and raising costs until we arrived at the clunky options we have today.

Now, you have to take a bus to connect to the Caltrain commuter line at Auburn, a milkrun that takes another five or six hours to get to the East Bay. If you are committed to the train all the way, you have to pin your hopes on the Zephyr, and even then lose an entire day each way to travel—departing Reno at 9:36 a.m., it arrives in Sacramento at 3:13, Emeryville after 5 p.m. The ticket cost is between $40-50 one-way—no savings compared to driving, especially with the time difference. But suppose we took some of the tax funds that currently subsidize freeway travel, and invested in extending the Caltrain commuter train from Auburn to Reno. (Caltrain is a commuter train that runs from San Jose through the Bay Area and Sacramento to Auburn several times a day. It runs on time and is very pleasant compared to driving. Suppose we had two express runs each day and used the subsidies to drive the costs down to just a little over what you’d spend in gas. We’d have a cleaner, safer, more pleasant mode of transportation over the mountains, not to mention reduce the environmental impacts of I-80.

Despite the numerous benefits to Reno that an express commuter train would generate, I’ve found little enthusiasm for pursuing this idea here. It is more common to run into Californians pushing for the Reno extension to Caltrain than us here in Reno. Anybody out there get stuck in the latest I-80 construction mess lately? Let’s figure out how to get the trains running again.