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I'd Love to Love Amtrak - But It's Hard

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  • Ronald Dawson
    From http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,108129,00.html Dawson I d Love to Love Amtrak — But It s Hard Train travel, says TIME.com s Jessica
    Message 1 of 1 , May 2, 2001
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      From http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,108129,00.html Dawson

      I'd Love to Love Amtrak — But It's Hard

      Train travel, says TIME.com's Jessica Reaves, is by far the most pleasant
      way to get from point A to point B. But as the nation's passenger-rail
      carrier marks its 30th birthday, there's not too much to celebrate BY
      JESSICA REAVES

      Monday, Apr. 30, 2001
      When I was small enough to find the entire experience extremely exciting, my
      parents took my brother and me on the Autotrain — from somewhere in northern
      Virginia right on down to my grandparents’ house in northern Florida. It
      promised to be romantic and glamorous — rather like those soft-focus,
      murder-on-a-train movies starring Marlene Dietrich. And for my brother and
      me, it was. We enjoyed nearly every moment of the entire 36-hour journey.
      Meanwhile, my parents, who had to endure a day and a half in a small
      compartment with two Coke-fueled kids, emerged in not such good shape.

      And therein may lie the future — or lack thereof — of Amtrak.

      When we disembarked in Florida, my grandmother took one look at my parents’
      haggard faces and swept my brother and me off to spoil us rotten, while my
      grandfather, chuckling, led my parents off to find a dark, quiet, childproof
      room. It’s very possible that my brother and I were holy terrors — although
      my sense is that we were actually pretty well behaved. No, it was mostly the
      inherent problem of long-distance train travel for people other than kids or
      crazy romantics: too slow, confining and expensive compared with the
      alternatives. My parents still blanch visibly whenever the trip comes up.

      Amtrak, the company that brought us the aforementioned adventure, celebrates
      its 30th birthday this week. How is the celebration shaping up? Let’s just
      say there’s very little optimism lingering around corporate headquarters
      these days. At this birthday looms, you see, Amtrak is in one heck of a
      bind.

      A Giant in Trouble

      On May 1, 1971, the first Amtrak train left New York's Penn station. And
      from that moment on, the company never stopped losing money, expanding its
      fleet to include 260 trains serving 512 stations scattered across all but
      five states. Granted, since its inception, Amtrak has raked in more than $24
      billion in federal subsidies, which sounds like an awful lot of money but
      which is actually just enough to keep the company’s hopes alive without
      committing absolutely to its salvation. It's divided between trains making
      long journeys, such as our Florida jaunt, and those making relatively short
      hauls, such as the much-traveled tracks between New York and Washington.
      D.C. And as every frustrated Northeast Corridor traveler knows, when it’s
      often cheaper to fly from between those cities than it is to take even an
      unreserved Amtrak train, something is very seriously amiss.

      In March, just a few years after pledging to achieve financial independence
      by 2003, Amtrak asked for another $30 billion commitment for federal
      subsidies in order to close what they call America’s "rail investment gap."
      Seemingly unanswerable questions continue to plague the company: Is America
      just too big for a national rail system? Should Amtrak be confined to a few
      regional services? Will Americans miss Amtrak if the whole thing just
      withered up and died?

      Meanwhile, back on board the nation’s trains, ticket prices keep rising and
      the number of seats appears to keep shrinking. And those of us looking to
      get between points A and B in the fastest and cheapest way possible are
      stuck with an unenviable choice: Spend around $150 to (maybe) get a seat on
      a N.Y.-D.C. Amtrak train, or spend slightly less to fly. Standing in the
      aisle of an oversold unreserved train this winter, I (belatedly) began to
      wonder if underneath all this frustration, someone is trying to tell me
      something. Something that probably sounds a lot like, "Buy a car, dummy."

      Riding the Rails Again

      The pity is, it can be done right. Years after the Florida trip, I ventured
      back onto a sleeper train for a totally different experience: My boyfriend
      and I booked ourselves onto the Coast Starlight, for a two-day jaunt from
      San Francisco to Seattle.

      The ride was lovely — a 36-hour orgy of quite tasty food served in an
      old-fashioned dining car, a movie car where we watched a couple of new
      releases, and a wonderful porter to who turned down our beds and brought
      wine to our cabin. There was also a sightseeing car, encased in glass
      windows, where we watched the Cascade mountain range slide by.

      It was, for the most part, magical. Sure, I found things to grouse about:
      Even ensconced in the legendarily comforting to-and-fro motion of the train,
      I didn’t sleep for even a second (Ed, however, slept for 10 hours a night).
      And when we got off the train in Seattle, we both stood there for a few long
      minutes, inhaling hungrily. The air on a passenger train is, as you might
      have guessed, not exactly daisy-fresh after a day and a half of incessant
      inhaling and exhaling.

      Anyway, we had a wonderful time. And that’s precisely my point, and the
      point I hope everyone at Amtrak, and everyone who’s trying to help Amtrak,
      will latch on to. As everyone who’s ever backpacked through Europe knows,
      rail travel can be everything we expect: Exciting, punctual, even a little
      bit romantic. At the heart of Amtrak are the beginnings of a great rail
      system, and whether it's a matter of tough love (i.e. less federal funding)
      or not-so-tough love (as much money as they can spend), I hope someone will
      figure out exactly what the company needs to finally realize that
      tantalizing promise of greatness.
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