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Dreaming of the Night Train: Sleeping from LA to the Bay Area

A sleeping compartment on Amtrak. Adjusting existing schedules could provide overnight service from L.A. to the Bay Area. Photo from Amtrak website.

Like many Californians, I travel regularly between Los Angeles and San Francisco, often taking an early morning flight. The crack-of-dawn wake up, the airport traffic, and the security pat-downs and delays are exhausting. Wouldn't it be nicer just to crawl into bed in L.A. the night before and wake up in the Bay Area?

During Jerry Brown's first reign as Governor, that was a possibility. There was an overnight train called "The Spirit of California,” with compartments and real beds. The Spirit left L.A. around 9 p.m. and got into Oakland at 7:20 a.m. and Sacramento at 9:50 a.m. That's slow, of course, but it didn't matter since passengers slept through most of the trip. It also served cities along the route, including Oxnard, Santa Barbara, and San Jose. But it was killed in 1983 by Brown's successor, Republican Governor George Deukmejian.

Today, there are overnight buses. But even if you can sleep in a bus seat, you wake up in morning rush-hour traffic. With California's population doubled and our roads and airports congested, maybe it's time to bring back a night train.

High speed rail between Los Angeles and San Francisco won't be completed until 2029 at the earliest. Until then, Amtrak's Coast Starlight will remain the only direct train from L.A. to the Bay Area. Currently, the Starlight leaves L.A. at 10:10 a.m. and arrives in Oakland at 9:24 p.m.--too slow to be of use to anyone but the most leisurely travelers. Since it continues to the Pacific Northwest, it already has sleeping cars. Its schedule could be shifted by twelve hours, so that it left L.A. in the evening and traveled to the Bay Area overnight. That said, the shift might anger people in cities further north, like Portland, Oregon, where it would stop at 3:30 a.m. instead of mid-afternoon.

Another option, say rail advocates, is to extend Amtrak's California Zephyr. That train arrives in Oakland at 4:10 p.m., where it waits until 9:10 a.m. before heading back to Chicago. Instead, it could hold in Oakland for a few hours and then head to L.A. overnight. “It becomes a labor issue about who crews the train,” explained Paul Dyson, President of the Rail Passenger Association of California and Nevada, adding that some additional equipment would be needed. “The state could say to Amtrak: 'We want you to do this,' and Amtrak would come back with an invoice for the state.”

However, Sacramento has been delegating responsibility for California's existing rail services to regional government groups and Joint Powers Authorities (JPA). Someone would have to form a coalition to fund an overnight train that runs through multiple sectors of California. But why would a JPA based in San Luis Obispo, for example, support a train that rolls through at 3:20 a.m.? “Amtrak has looked at extending the Zephyr to Los Angeles,” explained Chad Edison, Deputy Secretary for Transportation for the California State Transportation Agency. He said the money to do it would have to come from Washington.

How much money are we talking about? Amtrak failed to provide even rough estimates. But the Zephyr, according to the most recent figures I could find, requires a $56 million annual subsidy for its Chicago to Oakland service. Extending it to Los Angeles shouldn't increase that by much, especially given that California Amtrak routes perform better than the national average. But either way, it seems unlikely the additional funds will come from Washington, given the current political climate.

Extending the Zephyr, rescheduling the Starlight, or bringing back a sleeper train in some other way, would add a more practical, direct service between Northern and Southern California while we wait for HSR. But absent a coherent push from Sacramento, reviving the night train will remain just a dream.

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