I'd Love to Love Amtrak - But It's Hard
- 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
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. Its 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? Lets just
say theres very little optimism lingering around corporate headquarters
these days. At this birthday looms, you see, Amtrak is in one heck of a
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 companys 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 its
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 Americas "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 nations 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 didnt 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 thats precisely my point, and the
point I hope everyone at Amtrak, and everyone whos trying to help Amtrak,
will latch on to. As everyone whos 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.