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Passenger rail more than a dream over Donner Summit

Union Pacific tracks increasingly eyed as option in times of rising gas prices
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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With gas prices rising, the streamlined, modern Silver Lariat and Silver Solarium rail cars provide a look at both what rail travel over the Donner Summit once was — and what it one day could return to. Excursions like the recent Silver Lariat-Solarium journey over the summit are a rare opportunity now. But it wasn’t always that way. Passenger trains with luxury leanings were once a fixture on routes like the Union Pacific’s current rail line between the Bay Area and Reno — with the California Zephyr of those times providing a step up from local commuter routes. On a recent weekend, passengers again boarded two vintage 1940s rail cars for an experience much like their grandparents or parents would have looked forward to. Tables were set with white crested damask tablecloths. China, with the Silver Lariat and Silver Solarium patterns, graced tables set with fresh flowers. At meal time, a dinner bell announced serving time. Outside the domed windows, the two cars seemingly floated above adjacent traffic. Trains Unlimited Tours tour manager Chris Skow said that with the cost of gas rising, train excursions and holidays are getting a longer look from vacationers. The two vintage rail cars were attached to the back of the regularly scheduled Amtrak passenger train that runs between Oakland and Chicago. Throughout the summer, through the 1960s, the Silver Zephyr was a popular vacation option for families, with train times scheduled to allow daylight viewing of the most spectacular scenery the west could offer. Burt Hermey, who bought and restored the Silver Lariat in the 1980s, said that the tipping point for passenger rail came in the 1950s and 1960s when the better roads movement produced superhighways such as Interstate 80 over Donner Summit — engineering marvels that turned rail passengers into motorists. “By 1970, everyone was married to the auto,” Hermey said. Now that marriage appears to be on shaky ground. With gas prices topping $4 a gallon, more people are looking for options to driving. For some, that means taking a train instead of a gas-burning, nerve-rattling Bay Area-to-Reno excursion by auto. Silver Lariat and Solarium passengers sat back — some on the first floor, and others under the clear second-floor dome — and watched the miles drift by over a snowy summit. The Trains Unlimited Tours trip, due to be repeated again in August, is one of a handful of rail options along the Union Pacific track through Auburn. Capitol Corridor offers roundtrip commuter rail service once a day between Auburn and Sacramento, with several trains available from there to the Bay Area. Private trains also run between the Bay Area and Reno, including a snow train taking skiers to bus links at Truckee for transportation to resorts. And Amtrak has its regular Bay Area to Chicago run. Trains Unlimited also has taken the dome cars on winter “snowflake” runs. Nationally, about 120 passenger rail cars are owned privately. On the Donner Summit run, private owners have enjoyed a good relationship and access to the pass in recent years because Union Pacific has switched much of its traffic onto the Feather River Canyon line to the north. The rail corporation has shifted traffic northward because the canyon route allows double-stack rail cars. But Union Pacific is now working with the state Department of Transportation on plans to raise tunnels through the summit route to allow higher trains on the Donner route. Scott Moore, Union Pacific vice president of public affairs, said that if that project is completed it would divert some double-stack trains from the Feather River Canyon to the Donner route. “Union Pacific continues to hold the position that this will be a project for freight trains, not for additional passenger trains,” Moore said. Union Pacific is also stating that the work it would do to increase freight train traffic over the summit — about 10 to 12 trains now pass Auburn daily — would take truck traffic off the road and ease some congestion. Every double-stack train is the equivalent of 280 trucks on the route, Moore said. He added the train length in the calculation would be 7,000 feet or longer. The Journal’s Gus Thomson can be reached at gust@goldcountrymedia.com, or leave a comment online at auburnjournal.com.