By Noel T. Braymer
It was before my time, but like many people I have heard of the Southern Pacific train the Lark, which for many years ran overnight between Los Angeles and San Francisco. There is still a major market for overnight service which could easily fill up a train with decent service. An overnight train today wouldn’t run between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Because of future High Speed Rail constructions which will share the tracks to San Francisco with Caltrain, there won’t be track capacity to add additional trains on this line like the Lark north of San Jose. A better solutions today instead of Los Angeles-San Francisco would be to start service in San Diego to San Jose, then extend service north to Seattle and Vancouver.
San Diego and Orange Counties are large markets that would be well served with an overnight train along the Pacific Coast. San Jose is a big market and is becoming a rail transfer hub with Caltrain, future BART, local VAT Light Rail and ACE rail service to Stockton. What this new new Lark should do is connect with the California Zephyr at Emeryville. This could be done with passengers transferring between trains with connecting schedules. Or it could be done by interchanging cars making the StarLark a section of the Zephyr. Extending the StarLark further north makes a great deal of sense to major cities like Portland, Seattle and Vancouver.
What would the schedule for this new train look like? Most likely it would roughly be a flipped schedule of the Coast Starlight. Northbound trains could leave San Diego around or before 7:30 PM and Los Angeles no latter than 10:PM. With new run-through tracks at Los Angeles this shouldn’t require a long layover there. The train could be in Santa Barbara before midnight. It could be in San Jose by 8:00 AM and Sacramento by or before Noon. Most of Oregon northbound would be during the wee hours. The train could be in Seattle before 9:00 AM and Vancouver before Noon.
Southbound the StarLark could leave Vancouver in the late afternoon, hit Oregon again in the wee hours reaching southern Oregon and Northern California during the day. This will give daylight service to a scenic area the Starlight runs though at night. The StarLark could reach Sacramento around 6:30 PM and leave San Jose before 10:PM arriving in Los Angeles by 9:00 AM
One nice thing about adding a second frequency to a route like that of the Coast Starlight, is it doesn’t double the overhead costs of the existing route. This is because the stations and maintenance facilities already exist. Adding a train servicing facility would be a good idea in San Diego, not just for the StarLark, but also for additional trains between San Diego and San Luis Obispo. Extra frequencies open up more travel options by rail on this route not only to the major cities, but also the many smaller towns along the route. Instead of “robbing” ridership from existing trains, adding service usually increases ridership on both existing and new trains on a route.
So what is holding up this service from running? Lack of Money is one reason, also lack of equipment and lack of cooperation from the railroads; particularly the Union Pacific. So what can be done about these problems? To raise money we will need the local communities along the route and the States and even Province of British Columbia to work together to raise the money both locally and Federally for this upgrade in service. We have models of how this can be done with the Southwest Chief, where local communities in New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas worked together to raise money to start rebuilding the on the historic route of the Chief in these states and prevent a possible reroute. We are also seeing much the same thing happen along the coast of the Gulf of New Mexico between Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida to restore service between New Orleans and Orlando.
With Congress appropriating money for equipment and operations this new service could get up and running. This will require support from both urban and rural districts. But this will have an economic boost for all congressional districts along the route. Linking this project with other projects around the country would get even broader support and a bigger order for new cars and locomotives which will have economies of scale.
So what about the Union Pacific? The Union Pacific and most of the other railroads in North America have seen freight business drop in the last year. Much of this is from the drop in transport of oil and coal. Neither of these markets are likely to rebound. The railroads are not against passenger rail service, they are against losing money. They are not in the business of moving freight, but of making money. There is a need to make track improvements along the Coast Line. This will increase track capacity and allow faster running times. Faster running will reduce train running time and allow more flexibility in scheduling for passenger and freight rail service.
Good rail passenger service with enough capacity to generate significant revenue will make it possible to pay the railroads more for carrying Long Distance Passenger Trains. This is a major reason why new and additional equipment is needed for Long Distance Service. The Long Distance Trains are often sold out. Simply adding a few cars here and there would greatly increase the income at little additional costs for these trains. With good service along a densely populated region as long the Pacific Coast, several trains with large consists could generate high revenues. Not to forget that the cars that produce the highest income, which we need the greatest number more of, are Sleeping Cars.