More Than Nostalgia: Railroads Still Have a Following

The first leg is to be built in the central valley between two spots with few people.

The funding for the project is questionable along with the ridership expectations and the amount of private investment. Many are calling it the "train to nowhere." But there was no shortage of enthusiasm for California’s bullet train this weekend at the spot where someday it might actually depart: Los Angeles Union Station.

In case you didn’t notice, Saturday was National Train Day. Thousands turned out to tour historic railroad cars, talk to railroad engineers and hear a pitch from the tourist bureaus of every city close to a train station. There were cooking demonstrations and dance competitions. Amtrak celebrated its 40th anniversary and Metrolink passed out keychains and coloring books.

And, the California High Speed Rail Commission touted the benefits of the bullet train, which, at an event like this, was pretty much akin to preaching to the choir.

But the rest of the public (those who do not show up at a train station on a weekend to pick up trinkets) may be ready for a second look at the idea. Take the comments by Matt Rose, the head of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad. The BNSF has never been considered much of a fan of passenger rail.

Rose though thinks California's bullet train should be built.

"A third of all air traffic is under 500 miles," he said on NBC 4's "News Conference" Sunday night. "The problem is that we have spent all our effort on building the interstate freeway system. We are now behind the rest of the world in high speed rail technology. We need it but we first need the will and the funding."

Fundamental to the effort will be the public's perception on the state's transit future. Much of that has a lot to do with the present. With gasoline headed toward $5 a gallon, there may be a growing consensus that a bullet train will be needed in the not so distant future.

Backers of the central valley segment on the HSRC argue that once it is built both the Bay Area and Los Angeles will start fighting over who gets the next segment. Such a competiton would go a long way to rid the project of  many political barriers.

Not that they needed to convince anyone this weekend at a legendary train terminal. Union Station, which in the 70s was nearly abandoned, now has so many commuter rail, Metrolink and Amtrak trains that the concourse in the mornings and evenings resembles the historic pictures taken during World War II (minus the men in uniform).

Plenty of rail fans this weekend are convinced that someday this LAX will challenge the other one for passengers.

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