I hear that train a’comin’

We stood on the concrete platform on one of those bone-cold, freezing-fog mornings, up waaay too early for a Sunday morning. Still, we couldn’t help feeling just a little excited as the whistle blew through the chill, and the headlights announced the arrival of the California Zephyr, churning into Reno from Chicago.

All these years, I’ve been wishing we could better commute by train in these parts, but have never actually taken the train from Reno myself. For many years, the notorious unpredictability of the Zephyr’s schedule—which could be up to five or more hours late—kept me back. Lately, it’s more reliable, though it still takes so much longer to get anywhere by train than by driving that convenience still wins out. But with the kids on winter break, and a need to get to California “sometime” in the week before Christmas, we didn’t have the normal time constraints. Finally, a trip by train made sense.

I have family in the Nevada City area, so we booked our tickets to Colfax. The stretch from Reno to Colfax is one of the most scenic of all the Amtrak lines. As scenic as the Sierra is from Interstate 80, the view is even more spectacular from the observation deck of the train, where we could choose between tables and swiveling lounge chairs, and we could sip coffee and play cards while the snow-covered peaks slipped by. I felt like a little kid, seeing familiar sights for the first time.

The contrasts between train travel and driving or flying are countless. Train travel is so much more relaxing than the other two. There is none of the hassle with security checks, weather, system failures, or the claustrophobia of the flight—none of the irritation of other drivers, having to stop for gas or to pee, kids getting car sick or bickering in the backseat. I always feel a little exhausted after driving several hours on 80—but that Sunday I stepped off the train feeling wonderful.

However, the train is slow, inconvenient (there is only one passenger route through Reno each way daily), and expensive. It cost us $150 one-way for two kids and two adults to get to Colfax. That’s at least 10 times what it costs to drive the same distance, and it takes twice as long.

But these cost and time differentials are largely a function of tax subsidies that disproportionately support automobile and air traffic rather than trains. When we compare travel costs, we don’t consider the cost of road maintenance or rebuilding—especially in the case of 80, our main arterial, which requires resurfacing about once a decade. We don’t count the multiple subsidies for oil extraction, transportation, and refining that gets the gas into our car, and all the other parts that get us from Reno to Colfax in 90 minutes. And we never incorporate the environmental costs into our bottom line.

Transportation studies around the country estimate that rail transportation provides a two to two-and-a-half times more efficient return on the taxpayer dollar, even for the weak subsides that currently exist, and it’s significantly less polluting than auto or air travel.

Once upon a time, trains were the way to travel. It took more than just the romantic “lure of the open road” to change people’s minds—everywhere beyond the Atlantic corridor, Amtrak in the 1970s slashed service and raised rates to help push us into auto-dependency. These were political and economic “solutions” to shift the transportation market. If Nevada wants to be the vanguard of the green economy, we should muster the imagination and political will to bring back the commuter train as a viable alternative to the I-80 parking lot.