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Commuter-rail adventure is worth any price

Here's betting Julie Brown is quite a poker player.

Brown works out of Omaha, Neb., as director of passenger service development for Union Pacific Railroad. She - with several more U.P. officials and 400-plus others - was along for Wednesday's commuter-rail demonstration ride between Salt Lake City and American Fork. It was a nostalgic trip, rekindling the magic of train travel discovered on our family cross-country Union Pacific expedition at age 7.But first back to Brown and her U.P. colleagues. An assertion of keen poker acumen does not undermine integrity but is a begrudged tribute to toughness and an ability to posture without tipping one's hand. Listening to Brown defend Union Pacific's interests - protecting its infrastructure and freight traffic from commuter-rail encroachments - one suspected she and her associates could drive a hard bargain and were positioning themselves to do so. That's not surprising in a historically tough, even brutal, business like railroading where U.P. has emerged as kingpin.

Obviously, Union Pacific would need to profit from a local commuter-rail system, whether it owned and operated it or merely leased its infrastructure to a local entity such as Utah Transit Authority. If commuter rail got close to reality, Union Pacific would want to maximize its profit and see its infrastructure enhanced as much as possible through infusions of tax money. That's reality. Private companies benefit from public transportation projects in many ways, shapes and forms. U.P. would be looking for all it could get.

That fact should not be lost on local political and transportation leaders, who should not be intimidated by Union Pacific's bluster, though the fact is the railroad holds the cards when it comes to using its tracks and facilities.

A starting point in this high-stakes game is somehow finding a way for an extended demonstration project, despite U.P.'s claims it can't sandwich one into its schedule. Is there really a market for commuter rail, and what would such a system cost? A trial run of at least a couple weeks would help answer the first question. Continued studies and negotiations can solve the second.

Admittedly, this notion of tough-talking U.P. officials is derived in part from images of 19th-century railroad barons cutting deals in smoke-filled rooms. But it can't be an industry for sissies, even today.

A romanticized notion of trains and train travel was fostered by the aforementioned family train trip, Amtrak excursions and countless hours operating electric trains. Anyone who can successfully run a Lionel system without burning up the transformer qualifies as a bona fide railroad engineer - in the consultant sense of the word.

All of which makes it hard to be impartial about commuter rail. Anyone smitten by the train bug would move in a minute just to ride the thing to work. Commuter rail should happen just for the "feel-good" factor. Get everybody on the train and crime would drop, political schisms would mend and even the Salt Lake Organizing Committee would lighten up.

Last Wednesday's demo expedition was proof of that - 425 important people acting like kids on a field trip, which is what they were with their box lunches and sodas. Demos and Republicans swaying harmoniously to the same soothing motion of riding the rails.

Train travel, even the commuter variety, offers a unique window on the world. Salt Lake City to American Fork and back never was as intriguing as it was Wednesday by rail. Heavy snow helped foster the ambiance.

You saw small frame homes otherwise unnoticed, junkyards, Titan Steel up close, Chicago Bridge and Iron, cars languishing on I-15 at 2 p.m., graffiti-covered freight cars sitting idle, people old and young waving and wishing they were aboard, indifferent livestock glad they were not, backyards with trampolines and swingsets where kids gawk at passing locomotives, the Jordan Narrows, Thanksgiving Point.

Then back to the Rio Grande Depot and return to reality.

It was railroad magic and the spell of the name synonymous with the business - Union Pacific. A throwback to those three days many years ago of youthful running through railcars, eating in the dining car, seeing America from the observation car, sleeping in a Pullman.

Bring back that magic; transform us to an earlier transportation era with commuter rail - regardless of the cost. Union Pacific can name its price.