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Railwatch 086 - November 2000
Rail comeback in America
By Michael Weinberg
A recent visit to the USA gave me the chance to try the new inter-city trains coming into service under the Amtrak California brand name on a route which most closely approximates to one of our lines. This is from Los Angeles to San Diego, a distance of about 130 miles.
There are about a dozen trains each way per day, some extended along the coast northwards from Los Angeles. There are frequent stops and the journey is not unlike that by, for example Midland turbos from St Pancras to Derby.
One journey was on an old train which is being replaced. What was it like? The airline-style seats were very comfortable with an incredible amount of leg room and foot rests provided. The ride seemed reasonable, and there was a buffet car serving hot meals and snacks throughout the journey, which customers could eat immediately or take to their seats.
Return was on a new train and the improvements were amazing. Superbly smooth and quiet ride, air conditioning that really worked, (it has to in America), the same comfortable seats with loads of leg room, but also obvious ingenuity and imagination shown in the layout so that almost every configuration of seating was allowed for.
Tables were plentiful and there was an upgraded buffet/restaurant. The feeling of spaciousness and easy travel was a joy, and of course, bikes, push chairs and heavy luggage were no problem.
It seems Amtrak realizes even short journeys can be made pleasurable and attractive, in stark contrast to some of our operators where "pack 'em in" and "charge 'em high" seems to be the order of the day. Why is it that our train operators can provide new sub-standard rolling stock and get away with it? Why are we so pathetically grateful to have a cramped and uncomfortable two-car diesel multiple unit when in the USA the same sort of journey can be done in such style?
It so happens that recently I had two young American nephews staying with me and I took them up to London from Milton Keynes by train. The return journey made me ashamed. After a tiring day, and having to travel at peak time, the train was so full that the four-year-old eventually went to sleep on the floor among people's feet. It was hot, sweaty and horrible, and all too common on Britain's trains today.
They wanted to know if we'd get our money back! They certainly didn't think much of our trains, having previously only used the BART system in San Francisco. After four years Silverlink has finally come up with what they are pleased to call a "refurbished" class 321. What do we find? None of the glaring design faults have been tackled. Still no air conditioning, still cramped and uncomfortable seats, still no leg room, still no decent view, still rattling doors and lurching ride over junctions, still incredibly noisy if you are unlucky enough to ride in the power car, still ridiculous hopper type windows which cause a blast of air to those sitting opposite the open one and no fresh air for the person who actually opened it!
But long-suffering Brits think it has to be like this, most of them having nothing with which to compare it. Virgin's new trains, if they ever gain a safety certificate, are rumoured to have very dense seating which may well be worse than the mark IIIs they are replacing.
On the privatised railway, the passenger is King, unless he wants a comfortable seat, plenty of leg room, a decent view, a quiet relaxing ride, room for his bike or pram and a place for a standard class ticket holder to get some sort of hot meal.
With the honourable exception of Virgin, not one of our entrepreneurial private rail companies is introducing any step change in speed over what was in operation 10 years ago and in some instances things are even slower today! By the time Virgin reaches 140mph the French, Germans, Spanish and Japanese will be running at 250 mph!
Much maligned BR electrified three main lines, radically modernised commuter routes in several major conurbations, revolutionised and set the standard for inter-city routes worldwide with inter-city 125s, completely revamped the entire provincial network with the Sprinters, in the process improving the comfort and speed of trains for millions of people, and all this against a political background of almost continuous implacable hostility.
Our new private companies, so far, do not show a fraction of the vision and imagination to equal this, let alone surpass it.
Julian Langston writes: It was a pleasant surprise to find out the range and quality of public transport in the San Francisco area on a visit earlier this year. That's not to say that the area is not car-dominated - it is, in common with virtually all of the USA. Congestion and smog are rife in some areas. Most people still rely on their cars, despite the public transport provided.
The cable cars running between Fisherman's Wharf, "Down Town" and Chinatown are a well-known feature of the tourist trail, with passengers often hanging from the open platforms often seen, even when there is no particular need for this. I was amazed to find that San Francisco boasts not one, but three tram systems, two subways, various bus lines and even trolley buses, as well as surface rail. At the top of the range is the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART). It runs from Colma, to the South West of San Francisco, under "Down Town" and then under the bay to Oakland. It tunnels under San Francisco and the Bay, though much of it is on the surface or even elevated in the East Bay, where most of the network is: there are branches to a variety of destinations. A European analogy would be the Paris RER.
An extension is under construction from Colma to San Francisco International Airport and Milrae, an interchange point with CalTrain. Running parallel to the BART through downtown San Francisco is the Muni Metro which has its own set of tunnels. A mile or so to the South West, it comes to the surface, from where it runs on street as a light rail system to various Southern and Western suburbs of the city.
Various extensions are under construction or consideration, including the E line to the CalTrain Depot at King Street. The Muni (where it is above ground) and the traditional cable cars account for two tram systems. The third is a preserved system - the F Line running a couple of miles from Fisherman's Wharf and Market Street.
Several trolley bus routes penetrate the North part of the city.
San Francisco is at the North end of a 50 mile peninsula, so conventional surface rail goes south only. There is also a local rail network using surface rail. One line, between San Francisco and San Jose, 50 miles away at the South end of the Bay is marketed as CalTrain.
The journey, provided by double-deck stock is slow, taking nearly two hours between cities, as most trains stop at every station. There are plans to electrify CalTrain. There are also surface rail routes in the East Bay, one of which I witnessed at Freemont.
Light Rail or trams are not confined to San Francisco. The Santa Clara County Light Rail System links San Jose with the area to the North. San Jose is the largest city in the Bay area (including San Francisco), and some say the capital of Silicon Valley.
However, there is more to transport than public transport provision. Much also depends on the provision for the private motorist: if it is cheap, easy and convenient to drive and park wherever you want, then no amount of public transport is seriously going to attract people out of cars.
Although it is still very car-orientated, San Francisco differs from the American norm. It has its network of freeways, more so than a British city of a similar size, such as Bristol would have. But unlike most US cities, the freeways don't all join up. The freeway from the North enters the city over the Golden Gate Bridge and then empties its traffic on to the city streets.
And after the major earthquake of 1989, about a mile of the Embarcadero motorway was dismantled. Trams now run along where once there was a road. Some still believe the road should have been rebuilt but the area actually seems to be thriving without it.
There is hope for the future here.
The site at http://www.webcom.com/petrich/transit/BA_Transit.html is worth a look for further information.
The Amtrak Reform Council is examining plans to break up Amtrak into about seven or so component parts and to privatise as much of the operation as possible. Rail campaigners in America are already worried about the consequences for safety.
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