On Amtrak.

Ben Jervey writes in Good Magazine (motto: “For people who give a damn”) about his Amtrak trip across the nation. I enjoy taking Amtrak, but only because flying is so bad. Jervey’s experiences are about the same: the train is chronically late, the food is terrible, and the services are sparse. I’ve been thinking about this article for a few days, and it really bums me out. The United States used to have the world’s greatest passenger rail system. Now we have a slow, inefficient system, neglected and ineffective, when the nation would benefit so much from having something on par with the European rail network.

What happened? About the same thing that’s happening to the airlines now. Consolidations and bankruptcies of the private carriers, though combined with the rise of the automobile and the passenger plane, plus unions unwilling to modify their rules to match the changing face of railroading. Pullman collapsed in 1969, Penn Central the next year. In 1970, under pressure from consumers, Congress created the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (dba Amtrak), a private corporation, but wholly owned by the federal government. It was federally subsidized, like airlines and automobiles. Nixon signed the bill into law, but figured it’d just be the dying gasp of passenger rail. Half of all routes were immediately eliminated. Many were converted to freight routes, with no passenger trains permitted. Major cities that once had a dozen train stations were reduced to just one, with the others abandoned or sold off to become shopping malls. (Fun fact: There are dozens of “Union Stations,” with the “union” bit meaning that they were jointly operated by multiple train lines.) And then came the long decline, the railroads sole investor—the U.S. government—unwilling to invest money into the upkeep for the infrastructure.

Buckingham Branch EngineRidership is up-up-up since 2001, for all of the obvious reasons, with each year since a record year. (Ridership in May was 12% higher than the prior May.) There are demands, especially from conservatives, that Amtrak be financially self-sufficient. Sen. John McCain has been a vocal critic of Amtrak, arguing that all subsidies for the company should be eliminated. That’s just goofy—no form of transportation is financially self-sufficient in the U.S. Passenger rail is 18% more efficient per passenger mile than cars or planes, and gets a good number of people off of our overcrowded roads.

The libertarian in me says Amtrak needs competition. The Democrat in me says we need to recognize that a vital passenger rail network is a national good, just like our interstate network, and we have to fund it under a socialist model. But the rail fan in me just wants to take a train ride across the country that isn’t unpleasant. I hope that happens soon.

Published by Waldo Jaquith

Waldo Jaquith (JAKE-with) is an open government technologist who lives near Char­lottes­­ville, VA, USA. more »

24 replies on “On Amtrak.”

  1. When I lived in Fredericksburg and worked at Pentagon City, the VRE was just introduced.

    The problem? It costed $380/mo, when the alternative of the slug lines (think passively permitted hichhiking at VDOT commuter lots) was absolutely free, and even dropped off at your workplace depending on the courtesy of the driver.

    Now virtually every slugger carried a 10-pass for the VRE/Amtrak in the event of ice storms, wrecks, early closings, or on the rare occasion that you want to know what you were missing. But by and large, those 10-passes lasted a long, long time. Eventually, you lent them to friends, lost them, or simply never used them. VRE just wasn’t worth it — especially if you couldn’t afford it.

    For those who are on VRE, while you get a good hour to yourself, the seats are entirely non-condusive to sleeping… which with a young family was precisely what I did with my one-hour commute.

    When I was in Colorado, I looked into shipping the family out to Greeley via rail. Cost? $2,000 one way. Cost by air? $780 both ways. No brainer.

    Fast forward to today. I drive about 75mi one way to work, drive the same amount back. It would be impossible to fathom a rail line from some place nearby to the Stafford Courthouse area.

    It wouldn’t be all that impossible to think of a commuter rail service from nearby Columbia, Virginia to either Richmond or Charlottesville. In fact, it used to run. From the pictures hanging in the run-down (but improving) Town Hall, Columbia used to have a beautiful train station before the triple floods starting in the 60’s that wiped out much of the town.

    Of course, there’s the additional question of hopping in the car, driving 15min to Columbia, another hour by train to Richmond, and another 15min via a non-existent light rail into the heart of Richmond… one way.

    Then there’s all sorts of additional problems: land use decisions by localities, pirority of roads over rail, time, cost of ticket, what to use for transporation once I arrive at my destination, service on the trains (if any), etc.

    So sure I’d love rail. And I could be persuaded to take rail for major trips and business trips (if employers could spare their employees the afternoon or morning to get from point A to point B).

    The Republican in me doesn’t want to pay for it, the libertarian in me can’t see the profit margin, and the realist knows that it just ain’t gonna happen. Still, if someone can prove all three wrong…

  2. I currently live in Louisa Virginia and I’m used to having trains come and go past my house at all hours of the day. Sadly thoes trains only carry coal or just are simply empty. One of my teachers, Mr. Crebbs, has lived in Louisa (or close enough) all his life. He would go on reminiscent dialogues about how when he was young, he could go ride the train between Richmond and Charlottesville. I would imagine that thoes rails could still be used for such travel and become profitable to thoes cities and the communities along the way. Only if someone could make a statement about it. Trains are a new outlet for the transportation problem, if there could be some way of reenacting them. Or so I think.

  3. That would be a great boon for Louisa County. Rarely — if ever — do I encounter a train on my way back-and-forth to work.

    Besides, that rail has a great history to it!

  4. What I have to wonder—and I’m sure somebody who knows more about this industry than I can answer this—is what it would take to bring back the success of the passenger rail in the free-market days of the 1800s-1950s. In the 1920s, something like 99% of all inter-city trips were taken by passenger rail. How do we get back to that point?

  5. I’m about to experiment with Amtrak for my monthly (or so) visit-the-home-office commute between Charlottesville and Raleigh, NC.

    Unfortunately, I can’t do it reasonably from Charlottesville’s Union Station, as there’s no decent connection between Greensboro (which Charlottesville’s Crescent passes through) and Raleigh, so I’ll wind up driving to Richmond to catch the train there.

    Including the drive to Richmond, taking the train will add ~1.5+ hours to my trip (5-something v. usually under 4 by car), but I won’t waste the entire time doing nothing more than steering a car! I’ll only waste ~1h driving, and after that I can work/read/nap. By my bookkeeping, that’s a net win.

    Tickets vary from $28 to $67 (each way) between Richmond and Cary (a Raleigh suburb very close to my office), which means this will also save my company money over reimbursing me for mileage ($300+ per round trip at current IRS rate).

    Come fall, we’ll also be taking the train (again) from Richmond to Savannah for our family vacation. It’ll take a bit longer than driving, but…I won’t have to drive! The kids also like taking the train, as it means they’re not strapped into car seats for an entire day.

  6. Amtrak is the only sensible way (for me) to go to Philly or NYC (it’s a ridiculously long ride to Boston, though). I used to have to go to Richmond for work rather often, and was surprised at the utter uselessness of the train schedule between DC and there (I think the earliest I could get there was 10am).

    Was noodling a trip to see a friend in Nashville soon, and thought I’d see how the train compared to driving/flying. Well, it doesn’t. You can’t get there from here. Obviously Nashville needs a better Congressman . . .

  7. I ride Amtrak about once per month for regional trips because of the convenience of being able to sit and read and work instead of pounding my fist into the steering wheel while I’m stuck in traffic (thanks, General Assembly!) My observations as a frequent rider:

    1. I have taken the cross-country trek before, and my experience was wholely positive except for the slight problem that I am taller than most people, and hence the fold-out beds are not made for people my size.

    2. I would not have a difficult time believing that ridership this past may was 12% higher than the previous May. I would have actually expected it to be higher, if anything; the first time I took a train last year, the car was practically empty. The last time I took a train, two students from UVA had to stand for fifty miles because they accidentally oversold by two seats.

    3. Amtrak’s customer service is substantially better than any airline in the world. I had the misfortune to miss a train last month because of a twenty-mile long traffic jam between my house and the the station (thanks, General Assembly!) and when I arrived five minutes late, the ticket agent exchanged my ticket for one on the next train without applying any sort of additional fee. An airline would have charged me a huge fee if the same thing had happened and I missed a flight.

    4. There’s more legroom on the train. Like I said, I’m tall. It makes a difference.

    5. People are nicer on the train. I don’t know why, precisely, but the pleasant woman my own age who sat herself down next to me on my last trip observed as well that there was pretty much no way in hell she would have tried to strike up a conversation with me had we been on an airplane instead.

    Trains are a winning solution, I think, for regional transport, it’s still not time and cost effective for a flight across the country, but if you’re traveling up or down the Atlantic coast, it more than beats driving or flying. I hope we’ll continue to see more Americans rediscover this as a transportation alternative, that the government will continue to be a partner in improving the infrastructure, and that we’ll see some more regional-rail competition, as well.

    (Incidentally, you do see competition in some states; it’s far cheaper to use Connecticut’s regional rail than Amtrak to get to New York City, but then again, their system Sucks with a capital S…)

  8. Either this nation needs to understand and support the value of passenger rail, or it should destroy Amtrak altogether. Because what we’ve been doing since May 1971 hasn’t had satisfactory results. Each year barely enough money–and in recent years not even that–is allocated to keep some trains running. There is a skeleton of a national system in place, but it is doomed to flounder and ultimately fail because we as a nation haven’t had the foresight to do what almost every other civilized nation has done to make passenger rail an important part of its transportation infrastructure.

    Passenger rail, when operated with modern, efficient rolling stock over well maintained tracks not overloaded with freight trains can and has proven to be the best method of moving people between cities while serving smaller markets in between. Amtrak has had brief periods throughout its 37-year history when it has done this well enough to earn a grade of B on many days and even an occasional A.

    But most of its history has been mired in robbing Peter to pay Paul, not focusing on a solid business plan or serving the public adequately. Sometimes the blame can be shared between poor Amtrak managers and the legislative and/or executive branches of government. Sometimes even the best Amtrak management couldn’t get the job done because of obstinate politicians hell-bent on destroying Amtrak to further their own careers. George W. Bush and John McCain are two of the worst offenders in this regard.

    Amtrak had its best President ever in David Gunn in the early part of this decade. Following a relentless agenda to kill Amtrak, the Bush braintrust gradually took over the Amtrak board and fired him in 2005, replacing him with David Hughes, an interim political hack most akin to “Brownie” of Katrina fame. The current Amtrak President, Alexander Kummant, is not nearly as qualified as Gunn was nor as dedicated to the long-term success of passenger rail but he is an improvement over Hughes.

    The biggest hinderances to Amtrak succeeding like railroads in most other nations are:

    1) Deferred mainenance of rolling stock (contributes to breakdowns and late trains)
    2) Inadequate trackage (typically owned and maintained by freight railroads)
    3) Insufficient train frequencies (once per day, or as little as three times a week, for most long-distance routes)
    4) Lack of equipment to expand frequencies

    Items 1-4 can never improve unless Amtrak has a reliable, predictable, and sufficient funding source free of ongoing political demagoguery. The 1.5 to 2-penny reassignment from highways to passenger rail—out of the Federal gasoline tax—would do exactly what is needed long-term, with perhaps a one-time capital improvement grant to kick it off. The oil and highway-building lobbies, and their dependants, crush such thought by getting into the pockets of legislators and presidents.

    To be a mode of transit that large numbers of people will willingly use, passenger rail needs to traverse a given route at least six times per day in each direction, at user-friendly times, at a cost people can compare favorably to other transit alternatives. Many people will choose rail over air or private auto for trips of 300 miles or so, if given a good rail product. Others will choose rail for longer trips for aesthetic and safety reasons, but again, the rail product has to compare favorably.

    Every other mode of transportation–even the private auto–receives government subsidy in some form. Only with Amtrak do we actually call it a subsidy.

    AIR: The infrastructure is paid for by local, regional, state, and federal governments and/or their authorities. User fees only partially reimburse the cost of providing airports, traffic control, safety agencies, and marketing.

    INTERCITY BUS: The highways buses travel are paid for with tax dollars. These dollars are partially derived from gasoline taxes in a never-ending perpetual source of funding for both new highways and maintenance of existing highways. Bus company taxes don’t begin to cover the real apportioned costs of providing the highways.

    METROPOLITAN MASS TRANSIT: There are very few privately operated local or regional transit systems remaining today. The economies of providing this very necessary infrastructure have demanded that they be operated with government money, often by quasi-governmental agencies similar to Amtrak. The farebox only partially pays for the cost of operating most of these systems. The rest is subsidy.

    PRIVATE AUTO: If anyone believes the taxes we pay on gasoline or on our vehicles actually pays for all the costs associated with the roads we drive on he or she is delusional. Additional tax dollars pay the rest, only we don’t refer to those dollars as subsidies.

    You can move at least 500 people on a modern intercity passenger train in a more environmentally friendly manner than any other mode. By contrast, most intercity buses carry 45 to 60 people, less comfortably, while adding to the road congestion and pollution. Airliners hold a lot more people than buses, but most carriers are now in the same position as the private railroads were pre-Amtrak; we have already seen $20 billion subsidies going to airlines. The infrastructure of the air system is a lot more costly to maintain, and planes are fuel hogs and big polluters. The worst offender on a cost-per-passenger and pollution basis is the private auto.

    The ability to move people between cities and serve smaller markets in the process is as necessary to infrastructure as the electric grid, water systems, and trash collection. As fuel costs increase, even more important.

    Passenger rail will only ascend to its rightful place as an efficient, comfortable method of moving people as part of the overall transportation infrastructure when we as a nation make a real, ongoing commitment to seeing it happen. We do that by dedicating a sufficient, dependable source of funding. We take Amtrak’s existence, survival, and expansion away from the politicians and give it to competent, experienced professionals who are enthusiastic about passenger rail.

  9. What great timing. The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT) has a state Rail Plan in draft and are holding a series of public hearings (link here). And they have also posted a survey(.doc download) so that you can provide feedback.

    The plan is heavy on freight improvements and intermodal to get trucks off the road. There are passenger rail plans but mostly for the NoVa and HR regions. There is little here for rural drivers paying high fuel prices.

  10. Stop subsidizing roads for automobiles.

    OK, since that is unreasonable, how about subsidizing rail just as much as we already subsidize roads?

    There are some pretty good books out there about how the US Auto Industry bought up and destroyed many light rail and trolley car systems around the country to make private cars sell better. We need to effectively reverse that predatory marketing today.

    Another way is to simply insist on environmental impact studies for every parking lot.
    When parking becomes so outrageously expensive that taking your car along is not an option, rail becomes economically viable. Took a recent trip into New York City for the a long weekend and overnight parking rates inspired us to take the train; which turned out to be a pretty good deal. Cost of gas was no big deal (I have a Prius), but the hassles of parking and the cost of parking were the proverbial straws…

    I rarely drive into DC anymore because the local police use parking fines as an auxiliary revenue generator. So we park way out and Metrobus or Metrorail in. Saves hassles, pollutes less, and we get to meet people besides. In DC private parking is affordable, but traffic tickets and parking tickets (for street parking) cover a whole lot of Metro bus/rail rides.

  11. I have to admit that, generally, I kind of glaze over when Trains Are Our Future! discussions come up. And it’s not because I don’t believe that trains are a good thing (they were the doorway to the rest of the world from my rural village in Germany, and (as noted) are a regularly used form of business transport). It’s that trains have had a pretty dedicated lobby for some time, and I don’t feel like we’ve really gotten anywhere. Amtrak is still held hostage to stopping in every podunk town (making that DC-Boston trip nigh unbearable), and is still a gov’t subsidy whipping boy. So what’s going to get it moving this time? I suppose fuel prices can play into it, as will a (somewhat) more progressive Administration at the Federal level. But any real improvement in train service is going to take a pretty massive amount of money (always tough, but particularly tough when things are already in the toilet) and time (thus proving an unattractive option for grandstanding pols). Maybe we have to wait long enough for fuel prices to rise so much that people are practically forced off the roads? Dunno. But I don’t really have a lot of hope for a smart rail expansion plan.

  12. Under the Passenger Rail Initiatives in the plan, there are some definite positives. The Urban Crescent and theTransDominion are the most ambitious, and could literally change the way people in Virginia and beyond travel.

    The key will be fast, frequent reliable service. Many states have tried putting together similar intrastate routes but almost all made one big mistake–they only offered one or at most two trains per day in each direction. That’s not the way to change public behavior in any meaningful way. The train needs to run at least six times per day, each way, at user-friendly times–and be reliable and affordable.

    When this happens, people see the train as a real travel option. They need the ability to catch that train morning, mid-day, late day, and evening.

  13. Many excellent points have been raised on this thread. I’d like to shed a different perspective on the debate. While Europe and Japan have prioritized passenger rail, the U.S. has prioritized freight rail. The consequence is that passenger rail in the U.S. generally sucks, and freight rail in Europe/Japan generally sucks.

    While we lament the fact that Amtrak carries a tiny fraction of the ridership of European rail, we should take some solace in the fact that our freight carriers (CSX and Norfolk Southern here in Virginia) are (a) profitable, (b) highly efficient, and (c) willing to invest in expanded capacity. Our freight railroads take a lot of tractor-trailers off our highways.

    The downsize of a super-efficient freight railroad system is that U.S. freight trains generally have priority over passenger trains and commuter rail. No question, that’s a problem for passenger rail. It would be really nice if we could build parallel rail lines so the two modes didn’t conflict. But the cost does have to be considered. Right-of-way acquisition would be enormously expensive, as would be the cost of building and maintaining new rail beds, tracks and stations.

    As I understand it, there are additional challenges. Our railroads are built for slower speeds than European/Japanese rail lines. We can’t run Bullet trains in the U.S. — passenger rail would never be as fast as in Europe/Japan. In theory, we could straighten out the lines so the passenger trains could run faster, but that, too, would be enormously expensive.

    As air routes become increasingly congested and air fares escalate due to higher costs for aviation fuel, people will look increasingly to the inter-city rail option. We need to keep the rail option on the table, but we also have to be realistic about the costs involved.

  14. I recently found an excellent discussion of the various funding/support models for trains in the rest of the world (UK v. France v. Japan v. India, I think), and I might have gotten there from Boing Boing. But I can’t seem to reconstruct my path there – does anyone else recall that? It was sometime in the past couple of weeks.

  15. For trips up to 300 miles, we don’t need bullet-train speeds to make passenger rail a viable option for the consumer. We need frequent, reliable trains that run as fast or slightly faster than the private auto. That run just fast enough to compete with airlines. That run on rights-of-way that already exist in most cases, but need upgrading.

    When you consider that passenger rail can get its customers from downtown-to-downtown, while those who fly must get to an airport on the fringes of a metro area, arrive hours early to go through security, fly to a destination, wait around for luggage, and then possibly be transported to a city or suburb far from the airport–rail often wins any real-world speed competition in the 300-miles-or-less range.

    As for further distances, passenger rail has an appeal not measured in speed, but in civility. There is a market for long-distance train travel, and it can co-exist nicely with the short- and medium-distance markets.

    The key is frequency and reliability. The path to that is a dedicated 1.5 to 2 cents per gallon from the Federal gas tax that now goes to the Highway Trust Lobby, er, Fund. That, would provide a constant, reliable source for supplementing a robust passenger rail infrastructure.

  16. One thing that needs to be mentioned early, and often, when discussing rail as a viable transportation alternative, esp. in VA:

    We need to lay more track.

    Expanding passenger service on existing lines without ramping up carrying capacity (i.e., dropping more rail) will do two things:

    1. Clog up the system, same as any infrastructural system that suddenly sees a substantial boost in usage without a reciprocal expansion of capacity.

    2. Make every interstate in the country into I-81.

    Waldo, you mention the Europe comparison, but that’s what brings me to my point. In Germany, where I now live, there is far more truck traffic on the highways, because so much of the rail capacity is dedicated to passenger rail. Don’t get me wrong, the passenger rail is generally pretty good, and hey, you can now get from Mannheim to Koeln in 1.5hrs., if all goes as it should — none too shabby. Still, as justified as the image of the “anal-retentive, detail-oriented, fastidious, efficient German” may be, it doesn’t really apply to the trains, esp. not since Deutsche Bahn has been privatized (which was supposed to solve the efficiency problems; all it did was make the same problems more expensive). Trains are frequently delayed, there are all-too-frequent problems, and more than once have I gotten the dreaded “Faellt Aus” with no explanation.

    Here, meaning VA, by comparison, there is substantially less truck traffic on the interstates relative to the Autobahn because the rail network is almost exclusively dedicated to cargo.

    I love commuting by rail in Germany, and I don’t mind traveling by rail there, either. I’ve done some rail travel here — an up-and-back from Virginia Beach to New York for a concert, a weekend trip from East Lansing to Charlottesville and back via Amtrak, that sort of thing — and it’s … not comparable.

    I love the idea of rail, but if it’s going to work, it’s going to take a real commitment — because the first step is unjustifiable: you have to lay more track before even thinking about adding more trains.

  17. Anthony, we need to get together and take a run down Eye 8.1 some Sunday night, or maybe Wednesday evening when the Truck-convoys start to form up. Bring your bite-guard that roll down into the Maury grade is second only to Christiansburg Mountain and the button-hook off Exit 118. I’ll drive, this stuff ain’t for you lightweight Deutschlanders!

  18. Waldo,
    I wish you’d have had a chance to chat railroads with my grandfather, pre-dementia days. He lived railroads and was constantly typing up letters to the editor, letters to his legislators and keeping up relationships with rail buffs around the country, as well as traveling by rail world-wide every chance he got. He left a treasury of old slides and pictures of trolley systems mostly North America but some global, as well as a library of railroad and trolley publications. When I get some $$$$ together I plan on sending all of his photos and slides, and perhaps 8 and 16mm films to ScanCafe to get archived properly.

    For some reason (probably to go against his father, the raging green liberal), he was a Republican, but would speak his mind in support of Dems if they supported Amtrak and regional railroad, and trash Reps if they were against funding for RR.

    He also, with 2 friends at the time, bought abandoned trolley track and several trolleys in the late 40’s and founded the CT Trolley Museum (www.cera.org), and I was fortunate enough to ride with him some days when he was a volunteer conductor.

    I also took many long “rail and tie inspection” walks with him on stretches of rail in Bristol, Terryville, Southington and Plainville, CT. There is a great tunnel in Terryville that seemed like a mile long to me as a kid, but is probably more like .2 miles. It was very exciting to walk through that, and “the light at the end of a long tunnel” is very visual to me from those memories.

    I also had a great experience (and a great deal) riding Amtrak from New Haven to Gainesville, GA to start the AT in 1994. We had two unanticipated stops in the Carolinas to drop off heart-attack victims. Less dramatic than an airplane diversion, but still interesting.

    I was never into trains like my grandfather, although several of my cousins share his enthusiasm. I feel somewhat guilty about that lack of shared interest. I do, however, know that mass transit by rail is the best way to go for the environment and for the good of responsible urban planning. How cool are the French and the Japanese for having mag-lev and bullet trains!

  19. Bubby — while I’m no Deutschlander (Virginia born and raised), we can talk about that drive later on. I’m only too familiar with the button-hook on 118 — as well I should be, being a UVA Alum, and having been that way god only knows how many times.

    In fact, I’ve gotta drive up to Charlottesville from Virginia Beach tomorrow morning. Won’t THAT be fun.

  20. “The Democrat in me says we need to recognize that a vital passenger rail network is a national good, just like our interstate network…”

    Why is that a Democratic ideal? Republicans have pushed to expand highway and air subsidies for years

  21. Well, Democrats claim to be the party that supports the socialization of private services, while Republicans claim to support their continued privatization. But you’re right, it hasn’t really gone like that recently.

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