Two weeks ago I traveled from Seattle to Los Angeles aboard the Coast Starlight. Since the dark ages of 2005-2006, during which the train was late 90+% of the time, the Starlight has done much to reclaim its status as a premier passenger train. After a mudslide knocked out service in the winter of 2008, Amtrak ‘relaunched’ the service with a renewed focus on amenities and on-time performance, and it has worked. In June 100% of southbound trains arrived into Los Angeles on-time, while 93% of northbound trains into Seattle arrived on-time. My own trip confirmed this improvement. For $220 I had an on-time arrival, wireless internet, bottomless coffee and fresh produce, simple but decent meals, tablecloth service with porcelain dinnerware and real flatware, a small but comfortable room, a hot shower, leather lounge chairs, a cinema, and a panoramic view of Mount Rainier, the Tacoma Narrows, the Nisqually River Delta, the Columbia River, the Willamette Valley, the Oregon Cascades, Mt. Shasta, the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta, and the Central Coast of California.
Though we often discuss how well-developed passenger trains can take modal share away from car and air travel – and Cascades has a good chance of evenly splitting the air-rail market over the coming years – long-distance trains are qualitatively different. They offer neither the on-off freedom of cars nor the speed of airplanes. They are often the only high-capacity transit service available across a large swath of rural America and they traverse scenic pre-Interstate corridors. Being a functionally unique service, long-distance trains compete only against themselves and their own expectations, and they will live and die on the strength of the experience they offer. Amtrak seems to have belatedly figured this out, and the Starlight is again a wonderful experience. It’s not the ‘Star-late’ anymore.
As a footnote, I think Seattle and Portland have largely not recognized that we have arguably the highest quality Amtrak service in the country. We’re not a hub like Chicago, nor do we have the frequency of the Northeast or California, but we have the two best long-distance trains and a unique corridor service with Talgo equipment everyone else would love to have. While in many ways Seattle is behind the curve, we can at least be grateful for the high quality of service we enjoy.