- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 2, 2002

ABOARD THE CALIFORNIA ZEPHYR — It creeps through the twilight into Ottumwa, Iowa, a silver ghost from the past. In 1923, 57 passenger trains a day called here. Today, there is only the California Zephyr eastbound in the morning, westbound at night.
Ottumwa's two-story brick depot has been in continuous use since 1889, but only barely. Amtrak rents a glass office for its one attendant. Most of the building is used by the local historical society, as a museum.
The Zephyr has a storied past. It follows part of the original transcontinental rail route as it travels from Chicago to near San Francisco. But its future is in peril.
In February, Amtrak President George Warrington warned that the Zephyr and 17 other long-distance trains, which cost $1 billion annually to run, but brought in only $514 million, would be the first ones cut this fall if Amtrak, perennially short of cash, did not receive a major boost in federal support.
Mr. Warrington's threat had momentous implications. Shutting down these legendary trains including the Chicago-to-Los Angeles Southwest Chief and the City of New Orleans, memorialized in song would mean that, for the first time in 133 years, travelers could not cross the United States by rail.
Now Amtrak's entire system is on the brink. A $200 million deal reached with the government last week would allow passenger trains to run through September, said Amtrak's new president, David Gunn.
Amtrak was given just enough to keep running but not enough to prevent the next crisis or the one after that.
For now, the Zephyr lives. At the stop in Ottumwa, 20-year-old Maegan Lee Andrzejewski steps off the train as she returns from Chicago, where she and her aunt have been planning her wedding.
The trip marks the first time Miss Andrzejewski and her husband-to-be, Rodney Baker, have been apart during their seven-month engagement. "I'm home. I'm home. I'm home," she calls, rushing to his arms.
Then, with the hoot of a whistle and the creak of steel, the Zephyr eases out of town. It picks up speed, heading west, running from extinction.
The westbound Zephyr leaves Chicago's Union Station each day at 2:45 p.m., carrying a diverse cast of passengers, from retirees and fearful fliers to the cost-conscious and even a few business travelers, working as they go.
The two-day, 2,438-mile trip has barely begun when the Zephyr stops in Union Station's yard so that cars containing mail and packages can be coupled to the train.
Amtrak receives 43 percent of its revenue from services other than transporting passengers, including shipping time-sensitive packages. Even so, it has lost money every year since its creation in 1971, including $1.1 billion last year.
Even though the trains are full, the biggest problem is the cost of operations labor and maintenance, for example and wide agreement that fares cannot be bumped much higher. Mr. Warrington called the long-distance trains "inherently unprofitable."
Mail cars attached, the Zephyr restarts its journey across Illinois, and riders settle in the three double-decker coach cars, where the ride to the West Coast costs $164. In two double-decker sleeper cars, other passengers are splurging on compartments that, depending on size, add $400 to $1,000 to the fare.
The two groups mingle in the lounge car, the train's Main Street. On top is the sightseer lounge, with floor-to-ceiling windows and swivel seats.
Below is a refreshment stand selling cocktails and soft drinks, sandwiches and sweets, postcards and playing cards.
Long-distance trains are for those with the time and inclination to savor the journey with a cold drink, a collegial atmosphere and a pillow. Even as airplanes have become faster and highway speeds higher, train travel on many routes takes longer than the trips of 50 years ago, partly because of increased congestion and decades-old tracks.
"When you're not in a hurry to get where you're going, and you want to see what's in between, and you don't want to drive, what better way to go?" asks Virginia Switzer of Fern Creek, Ky., bound for Denver.
The typical Zephyr traveler, Amtrak says, is at least 55, on vacation or visiting family and friends, and on board for 876 miles.
"When I was growing up, rail travel was seen as old-fashioned," says Ray Dellacroce, 55, a real estate developer heading home to Colorado Springs. "What I've come to find out is it's a much more civilized way to travel."
He stretches out in his seat as western Illinois unfolds before him. "Here I can lean back and put my feet up," he says. "Try that on a plane."
Before 1869, when the pioneering rail route between Omaha, Neb., and Sacramento, Calif., was completed, a transcontinental trip took months. Later, New York to San Francisco could be accomplished in a week. A nation still recovering from Civil War suddenly found itself not only united but linked, coast to coast.
It was 80 years later, in 1949, when three railroads created the first train called the California Zephyr. It had meals with silver and linen, Vista-Dome glass viewing cars and Zephyrettes, hostesses in teal two-piece suits.
But as Americans turned to automobiles and planes, the Zephyr's losses mounted and the route was shut down in 1970.
A year later, Amtrak was created to take over money-draining passenger service from freight railroads. Amtrak eventually resurrected the route.
Cutting Amtrak service would "isolate and cripple the transportation systems in southern Iowa," the Wapello County Board of Supervisors said in a February resolution urging continued federal subsidies for the Zephyr.
Supervisor Rhea Huddleston faxed the resolution to other places served by Amtrak long-distance trains, collected more than 1,400 signatures on petitions and traveled to Washington to speak at a pro-Amtrak rally.
"If you are any small town, any rural town," she said, "and you end up with the post office leaving, or your school leaving, that makes a big dent. It's like your identity is fading away. And you can look at that with rail service also."
At Green River, Utah, population 1,000, an unstaffed depot awaits riders departing or arriving. There aren't many: last year, not quite four people per day.
The town's fortunes have been tied to the railroad almost since its founding in 1878. Green River grew as a shipping point, then declined when the railroad moved operations.
"We never dreamed about being a town without a railroad," says Allene Spadafora, who has lived here since 1940. "That's part of our inheritance."


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