Print Page

Railroad passenger service continues to play key role in Castle Valley

Sun Advocate publisher

Claudette Langley arrives from Oakland Calif. Friday.

Once, the train stations of Carbon County bustled with activity. But in the last 50 years, the idea of traveling on trains has become a novelty, not a necessity for many people in the western United States.

In Castle Valley, the only stop left for passenger service is in Helper at the railroad station, where the building is mostly taken up by Union Pacific personnel who maintain the tracks and take care of the train yard.

Amtrack maintains a small presence in the facility, a clean but austere stopping and starting point for passengers. The passenger waiting area has two restrooms, a 20 by 30 foot waiting room and a set of stairs.

The ticket counter is closed off, a remnant of the day when people could walk up to the window and buy passes to places like Cuckmonga and Kallamazoo.

The seating consist of old theater chairs, some splashed with ribbons of duct tape to keep the tears from leaking out cotton batting. The seating also includes an old church pew, in case more people show up than will fit in the dozen chairs available.

The area cannot compete with an international airport's offerings. But people come to the station and wait for the train to pick up a passnger or carrying bags to travel to stops along the rails.

"I am going to Omaha to see my grandkids," said Becky Larsen of Ferron as she and her brother, John Behling, sat on the chairs, reading a newspaper while waiting for the 7:47 a.m. Callifornia Zepher. "I am looking forward to the trip."

Many times, people can go to the station and not find any passengers.

An Amtrak train runs through the station only twice a day - once in the morning going east and once in the evening going west.

Becky Larson and John Behling talk about the news as they sit and wait for the train at the Helper Amtrak Station. Departing and arriving passengers on the train come through the little station, which was built in the early 1950's when train travel was still fairly popular.

Tickets for the passenger train are sold over the phone or over the Internet.

If the train doesn't have a passenger to let off or pick up, it will not stop at the Helper station.

Instead, the train rumbles through the station slowly and picks up speedafter it leaves the railroad the yard.

The changes come from a time when rail service was king began in the 1940's and accelerated in the 1950s.

Trains switched from steam to diesel electric engines, which made travel smoother and cleaner.

But the passenger trains couldn't compete with air travel, which had gone from prop service to jet service.

The beginnings of fast, dependable air service taking people to destinations in two hours that would take days to travel to by train has ended the times of rail terminals crowded by people and the priority passenger trains used to take on the rails.

The automobile has also contributed to the demise of rail service in many parts of the country.

Yet train travel is up and may have a new future as people view the railroad mode of transportation as a more relaxed way of taking trips and vacations.

Trains have always had a purpose with crowds of commuters in many eastern and more densely populated western metropolian locations. And changes in commuting patterns in western states are changing many people's view of riding trains.

The newest public transportation system along the Wasatch Front had a 15 mile trial run last week in Davis County. The system may bring people back to more than just riding between Payson and Brigham City. It may bring people back to real interstate travel.

For passengers who take the train today, the conditions and the services are limited.

First is the timetable. In the day of passenger trains as king, passenger haulers were expedited. Passenger trains were the first on the list when it came to using the track.

The first depot at Helper circa 1884. In defiance of 'higher authorities' statewide, the railroad dropped the original name of Pratt's Siding and went with the more descriptive name of Helper for the town. Newspapers statewide despised the change and begged the railroad to change it back.

Now passenger service is relegated somewhere down the line. Consequently, arrival times and departure times along the line can be suspect when compared to the printed schedule.

For instance, the 7:57 a.m. train Larsen was taking to Omaha, Neb., arrived at 8:31 a.m.

But a check of the Internet schedule a couple of hours before showed the discrepancy. Air travel schedules are not much better.

At least when a train leaves the station, it usually moves out and travels.

People frequently get on an airliner that leaves the gate on time, but sits on the tarmac for up to two hours before taking off.

The up-to-date train schedule posted on the Web usually reflects the right time. The train heading west in the evening is scheduled for 7:25 p.m. daily.

Second is the service. While train personnel are helpful and courteous, the food certainly leaves something to be desired.

"It's expensive and it's edible," said Claudette Langley who departed on the train from Oakland, Calif., the day before and got off Amtrak at the same time as Larsen was getting on the train. "That's about all I can say about it."

The railroad is still a vital link to the surrounding area. Some people commute to Salt Lake when they are without a vehicle or cannot drive. Others see the train as a nice change for a vacation or a way to travel without having to drive through Wasatch Front traffic to get to an airport. And many like the simplicity of getting on the train without the long lines and security screening.

The station at Helper is a link to the world that many areas don't have. It's a piece of history, that will continue to affect the future.

Print Page