Sunday, January 20, 2008

Riding The Friendly Rails

Perhaps my most interesting experience of the last two years was the vacation that I took to Los Angeles in Summer 2006. Rather than driving (too long) or taking an airplane (too short), I rode the train all the way from Pittsburgh to L.A. and back. I learned quite a bit about rail travel in America during that trip, and I always intended to say quite a good deal about it here on the blog, but never quite got around to it.

My interest in Amtrak was piqued by a couple of pieces in this morning's P-G, both of which are worth reading. The first is an article written by graphic designer Diane Juravich, who works for the paper; the second is an op/ed piece by the paper's travel editor, David Bear.

Juravich recently traveled to Washington, D.C. by rail. Her impressions of the train station in downtown Pittsburgh are fairly typical, based on my experience there: Unattractive, sparsely populated, and man, do you have to wait a long time for the train to show up. (Amtrak has a well-deserved reputation for constantly running late, though this may have a lot to do with the fact that it has to use rails owned by the freight railroads, and often gets shunted in favor of freight traffic.) The complete lack of security, both in the station and on the train, is noticeable. It's easier to catch a ride on Amtrak than on any airline in the country. If you don't like metal detectors, take the train.

Having boarded the train and left the station, Juravich takes in the view of her surroundings from a new perspective. This is one of the things that I enjoyed most about the local portion of my journey. On the eastbound Capitol Limited, Juravich catches a unique glimpse of familiar Oakland landmarks. I traveled west to Chicago on the same route, and I seriously felt a thrill when I rode past the playground at Rochester where I sometimes take my kids to play. Even if you never really have to go anywhere, I recommend taking at least one trip just to see things from the other side of the fence, as it were.

It's all there, in her article: The panorama of sights rolling past as she sits in the dining car enjoying a meal, or relaxing in the deck of the observation car; the comfort of the coach's reclining seats; the quaintness of the towns at every stop; and the glaring magnificence of the station at the end of the journey, in sharp contrast to the barren blandness of the Pittsburgh station. Oh yes -- and the anxiety brought on by arriving hours later than expected. Even the nocturnal return home from D.C. is reminiscent of my trip back from Chicago.

As for my trip, there certainly were some highlights as well as lowlights. Amtrak, I must say, takes care of its passengers. My late evening train did not show up in Pittsburgh until the next morning, experienced further delays crossing Ohio, and arrived in Chicago two hours late to make the connecting train to the west coast. Rather than stranding the passengers at Union Station for 22 hours, Amtrak bused everyone to a fancy hotel for the night. Everything was paid for, including meals. It almost makes you want to get "stranded" in Chicago again.

The best part of the westward ride on the Southwest Chief was the devotion of the dining car staff. One steward, a fellow named Flavio, was just brimming with personality, and we were pleased that he was also working part of our return journey on the Texas Eagle. On one of our visits to the diner, we were served by a gentleman who was nothing short of a wizard when it comes to serving chocolate milk. The man slathered the inside of a plastic cup with chocolate syrup, then poured what looked like a ribbon of white into the cup from around two feet in the air, on a moving train -- and he did not spill a drop! The kids were well-impressed with that feat. Most people wouldn't be able to do that at home in their own kitchen.

On the downside, such entertainment was the real value of the Amtrak diner. The dinners were a little pricey, by my standards, so we only purchased lunches there, otherwise subsisting on a selection of healthy snack items that filled our spare suitcase. It was a little painful to see that Amtrak served its prepared meals on disposal dinnerware, in order to save money on washing dishes and paying someone to do the dishwashing. Most dining car workers soldiered on as though they were working a fancy, high-class establishment. There was one exception: The lady in the dining car when we lunched near Dallas-Fort Worth did little but complain about the lack of federal funding for Amtrak that had reduced the passenger service to such meager dining accommodations. I really did not want to listen to her going on about this while I was eating, but I must admit she had a point. Passengers occasionally commented on Amtrak's budget woes, while also admitting that they prefer train travel under any circumstances. I felt the same way, and wondered what could be done to improve passenger rail in America.

That brings us to the David Bear opinion piece about the future of Amtrak. Rail travel in these United States has been in a sorry state longer than I have been alive. I was born at a time when railroads were going bankrupt, after it had become clear that competition from airplanes and highways were seriously damaging the railways' freight and passenger businesses. I have never known anything but Amtrak as an option for traveling via train in this country. Unfortunately, Amtrak has been steadily going downhill my entire life.

Bear points out a couple of problems in this sentence:

Even though every other industrialized nation recognizes the importance of having and subsidizing a vibrant intercity passenger rail system, the current administration in Washington has tried to eliminate subsidies entirely.

In the first half of the sentence, Bear compares the United States unfavorably to the rest of the world because it does not do the same thing that they do. This bothers me, because the whole purpose of the United States was to be something radically different from other countries. Using other lands as a model for what we can become is contrary to the spirit of the great American experiment. Furthermore, many of those other industrialized nations are much smaller than the USA, so it makes sense for them to stress the use of rail over flight for passenger services. Unless we fund Amtrak to the point where the system can stop using freight rail lines and build its own rights-of-way, including higher speed trains over long distance routes, it will likely die a slow death. To avoid that would require vast improvements over the current system.

Following some environmentalist propaganda and more stuff about how the rest of the world is better than us, Bear hits it on the head with this paragraph:
Obviously, creating a national grid of rail lines for passenger trains (as opposed to the current system where the vast majority of Amtrak trains are second-class citizens on rails where freight trains always have the right of way) will require a total change of thinking. Capital expenditures would be enormous. The PRWG calculates that its grand vision would cost $8.1 billion each year to 2050. Sums of that magnitude seem beyond the range of private enterprise, but who knows? It certainly took plenty of federal funding to build airports and the interstate highway system.

The amount of money required is painful to think about, but David Bear makes a very good point: The government has been sinking large amounts of money in air travel and highway travel for years, so why not cut some loose for rail travel? In the long run, it could be well worth it, and widen our options for getting from one place to another.

If something does not happen soon, Amtrak may well turn into Amtrek.

No comments: