From Point A to Point B,

published at 9:08am on 08/14/06

I love traveling by train.

I love travel in general, and I love airports (the latest brouhaha in the airports notwithstanding) and I love the feeling of knowing that you are in the process of getting to where you’re going almost more than actually having gotten there, but in any event, I really do love to travel. There is something about traveling by train, however, that I find so much more relaxing and fundamentally more intimate than flying, that I will wax on and on about it to anyone who will give me the time to open my mouth.

So it is with great bewilderment right now that I see that Amtrak has done nothing in the past several years, as fuel prices have gone up and as air travel has gotten more and more frustrating, to try to lure more people away from the skies. There is the argument that their Acela service was trying to do just that – by catering to business people who want to bop easily between Boston, New York and DC – but I am talking about trying to make it significantly cheaper than flying between any of those cities and actually trying to make some kind of end-run around the commuter airlines, rather than just sitting back on a sagging infrastructure with an on-time rate so abysmal that even I, the biggest proponent of rail travel around, am tempted to suggest that people fly because really, it’s a crapshoot when your train is actually going to show up.

We are, of course, talking about the short, inter-city trips such as are popular in the Northeast of the United States, or perhaps down the coast of California. Nobody is suggesting that we all hop a magic train from New York to London, because as cool as that would be, I suspect that it would be rather difficult to build (though maybe someone can do a hydrofoil, a la the QE2 on drugs). No, what I’m talking about is the fact that in order to get from one city to another in the 3-5 hour range, it is often more expensive to take the train than it is to fly. Take the one-hour flight from New York to Boston, for example. While the flight itself is only an hour, it will take about an hour of travel time to get to the airport, and an hour waiting around at the airport as someone sniffs your shoes and makes sure that you’re not carrying any shampoo. With another hour on the other end for travel from the airport, you’re talking about a four hour ordeal to get from point A to point B. Compare that, with train travel, which features approximately the same amount of travel time, where almost all of the travel is a serene voyage up the coast (serene other than the large man who spent most of the last trip sleeping on my shoulder, but I feel like that is a peril of any modern day travel, save the private jet or what have you), and it’s a wonder to me that anyone would voluntarily take a plane between these cities. Except of course, for the price, which is always, always, always a consideration, alas.

And then there is the bus. Oh the bus. I refuse to take buses any more, ever since my last experience on a Greyhound where, 20 minutes after getting on the road we pulled off into a Greyhound repair depot and had to wait to switch buses because “the brakes aren’t working too well.” Which is probably to Greyhound’s credit, since I’m sure that if we were on the Chinatown bus, we would probably have just barreled up the highway in hopes that we would lose enough momentum to run gently into the curb by the time we hit the city. The bus is, however, cheaper than dirt and is thus the de facto option for the budget-conscious among us.

Indeed the problem is that there really is no mid-range cost option for inter-city travel. There is the bus (cheap and horrible) and there is Amtrak or flying for six times the cost, and there is nothing else. Here is the perfect opportunity for Amtrak to fill a void in travel and probably pack every train that they run up and down the east coast. To be purely opportunistic, they can even take advantage of the recent air scares and pitch themselves as the safer, more relaxing alternative to all that bullshit you have to deal with at the airports – I’m thinking something like “Amtrak, bring all the shampoo you want.”

In fact, the one leg that I have found to be the perfect travel corridor in the Northeast is the trip from New York to Philadelphia. It has three differently priced ways to get you between the two cities, spaced somewhat appropriately (though as always, Amtrak tops out the high end of the range that I think they should be offering). At the low end, again, is the bus, always a ridiculous option, but cheap at $10 each way. At the high end is Amtrak, the comfortable option that knocks an hour and a half off the bus travel time, but includes a six-fold price increase. And in the middle, coming in at the lower-end, but still twice the cost of the bus, is the regional commuter rail service that takes exactly the same amount of time as the bus but features a city-to-city rail-only comfortable ride for not nearly the premium that Amtrak demands.

Amtrak may argue that they’ve catered their offerings to business riders in the past several years, and that is where they are going to make the bulk of their money, and we could probably argue that I’m comparing Amtrak’s business service to the airlines’ commuter service anyway, which is clearly a business-level service. And one could also argue that if I’m such a fan of rail travel then I should be willing to pay the premium for what I say is a more enjoyable experience anyway, and that I should stop my whinging. The thing is, without having looked too much into the economies of running a railroad, I feel like there must be a way to put rail travel somewhere in the category of high-end whim. That is, if it only cost me $40 or $50 to hop on a train to Boston tomorrow, I would be much more likely to do it and head out of town for the weekend. But with costs up at twice that amount each way, it is unlikely that I will be doing this kind of travel just for the fun of it. There must be some point at which the price comes down so much that more people like me will start to ride the train more and will thus make up for the loss ticket revenue in volume.

Now this isn’t to say that I want the railroad to lose money – though since the airlines are getting a bailout and the national highway system is subsidized, I don’t see why everyone gets their panties in a bunch about the railroads getting subsidies as well, and maybe that’s the larger question. I just want to not feel like I’m getting completely ripped off every time I head to Penn Station.

So come on Amtrak, bring me on home.

Filed under: Observations

At 10:16 am on 08.14.06, Danielle said,

And don’t forget the most environmentally unfriendly option of all: Driving. When you factor in the bus unpleasantness, unfortunately, driving from Boston to the suburbs –> commuter rail to NYC makes the most sense. Guilt.

At 10:18 am on 08.14.06, jcn said,

As a New Yorker without a car, and with the guilt factor overriding any convenience that the car might offer (not to mention trying to find parking in a strange city), I’ve all but written off the car as a reasonable way to get from city to city – though for convenience it can’t be beat, to be sure.

At 10:58 am on 08.14.06, aleja said,

I’ve always preferred trains to planes. For one thing, it’s a much more wheelchair-friendly way to travel. I was probably unnaturally happy to take Amtrak down to DC in April. But god yes, so expensive! I agree that there are so many was in which the rail industry could be stepping up its game in light of everything that’s going on… at least Europe has a viable railway alternative.

At 1:41 pm on 08.19.06, Sam said,

WORD. Actually, flying is even more environmentally unsound than driving for short trips, because it takes prodigious amounts of fuel just to get off the ground and land, never mind how long you’re flying in between. And so I’ve been looking into alternatives to planes for the mid-range trips I take most often: Boston to DC and Boston to Pittsburgh, both roughly 10- or 11-hour drives. I can basically assume that Amtrak is the worst possible option – it costs about the same as flying, and takes 4 times as long. I’m Greyhoundin’ it to Pittsburgh at the beginning of October…I’ll let you know how that goes.

Why the hell can’t we be more like Europe?

At 8:55 pm on 08.26.06, aleja said,

Belated but related, you may have already read “My other car gets 100 miles to the gallon”.

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