I wasn’t paying close attention at the time, but in the late 1970’s the US government decided to buy out all the failing passenger rail services, with the goal of preserving some semblance of intercity passenger rail in this country. Out west, cities are far apart, and the new czars of rail travel realized that comfort and convenience would be paramount for success.
They took a design from the Santa Fe line, adapted it, made it too tall to work east of Chicago, and the Superliner was born. Superliner I was the last passenger coach built by the renowned Pullman company, while the Superliner II, a smoother-rolling variant that was a little more… judicious with the output from the toilets came along a short time after that.
None have been built since. Sure, there have been upgrades (self-contained toilets retrofitted, electricity available everywhere), but the rolling stock is aging.
On electricity — long ago I took a ride and there was exactly one electrical outlet available to coach-class passengers. A little community grew around that outlet, and while the cafe attendant tried to regulate us, we worked out a better system on our own.
But while the cars have been superficially modified to evolve with the needs of the passengers, there’s really no denying that they are getting older. Train 4 from Chicago to Los Angeles brought that home to me. Some cars had trouble with toilets. The public address system was spotty — at one point the attendant for my car got on the PA to say that the rest of the announcements were’t coming over our PA. Apparently there were a couple of dicey almost-missed-stop moments in my car.
The dining car’s air conditioning failed; my waiter said that on the last leg of the journey one of the crew knew what switch to throw, but now he was gone. Sounds to me like a circuit breaker.
The cars themselves still felt solid, we moved along smoothly. But it’s the little things, the door latch that required coaxing, the outlet that just won’t let go, that give you the feeling that maintenance is falling behind. And as the cars get older, the maintenance requirements are just going to increase. It’s going to require commitment to keep these cars comfortable and safe, and when the little things start to slide, it’s an indicator that the commitment is not there.
Twice on my journey east I heard a rumor that Amtrak would be canceling the long-haul western routes. If that’s true, I’m glad I took this ride. The subject of California’s high-speed rail also came up often. To which I said, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” I would honestly prefer it if the state spent maybe one percent of that cost to upgrade the low-speed rail already in place along that line (California has already pitched in to pay for other Amtrak upgrades in the state.) It’s beautiful country. Slightly-less-slow service would attract a lot of new customers, at a price the high-speed option could never touch.
I look forward to rolling along the coast in a brand-new Superliner III, then turning inland on the Southwest Chief, its rolling stock gleaming in the desert sun — the iconic journey that everyone must do at least once. The Route 66 where someone else drives.
Those will be the days.