6.15.2008

Jeff the Great calls "Alllll Aaaboard!"


I have been meaning to sit down and write a blog post on Amtrak and the state of rail travel in our nation ever since I took the train from Portland to Spokane back in the summer of 2007. Little did I know that as I sat down to write this blog post I would learn of the record $14 billion funding package that congress approved for Amtrak this past week. The timing is pure coincidence, I swear!

It is hard to imagine that at one point, train travel was the dominate mode of transportation in our country. Today it is little more than a joke that hasn't been very funny to tax payers.

A little history lesson on Amtrak tells us that its birth can be traced back to 1971 when the US government created it in response to declining ridership at private companies. The new rail company was expected to be profitable by 1974. The rest, financially speaking, is history….you don’t need me to tell you they have never reached profitability.

Alas, a new era may be upon Amtrak….or at least it could be. With rising gas prices, congestion on our freeways and lines at the airport, I have recently found myself considering train travel as an alternative. Little did I know that it would be an unrealistic alternative.

The first thing that struck me was the odd schedule that many routes keep. My recent 2007 trip took me from Portland, Oregon to Spokane, Washington…a roughly 300 mile trip by car that I can usually do in 5 to 5.5 hours. My train left Portland at around 4:45, a great time for a business person. However, the 5 hour trip by car would turn into a 7+ hour trip by rail…putting me in Spokane at 12:30am! To make matters worse, my return train was scheduled to leave Spokane en route to Portland at 2:3oam on the day of my departure.

Rule #1: if you want me to ride the train, get me to and from major cities at reasonable times.

So what’s with the 7.5 hour travel time for a route that takes only 5 by car? To Amtrak’s credit, it is not all their fault. In the western United States, Amtrak owns little if any track. This means they are buying the rights to use track from commercial rail lines such as Union Pacific. What does that add up to? What I’ll call rail priority to the freight trains; Frequent stops to allow another train traveling the opposite direction to pass. Can’t blame the freight companies; as the saying goes: he who has the gold makes the rules.

Another problem however is the frequent stops along the way. Just out of Portland our train stopped in Vancouver, WA which is basically a suburb of Portland and only 10 miles from the Portland city center. Later we pulled into a no name town that literally did not have a station. There was one guy standing next to the tracks with a duffle bag in hand. Yep, we stopped and he got on.

I’ve come to learn that our elected officials tend to support congressional bills ONLY if they can ensure train service to the po-dunk towns in their district. This ensures rail service in our country but it also adds up to inefficient, unnecessary stops along the way. The ‘Coast Starlight’ route from Washington to California is a perfect example. It serves the west’s larger cities like Seattle, Portland, Sacramento, Oakland, San Jose, and Los Angeles. It also stops in Centralia, WA (population 15,000), Albany, Or (population 42,000), Chemult, Or (population 300), Klamath Falls, Or (a few hundred miles off course from a more direct route), Dunsmuir, CA (population 2,000), Martinez, CA (population 36,000), Paso Robles, CA (population 30,000) and just under a dozen other small or out of the way locations.

Rule #2: if you want me to ride the train, take me directly to my destination with only a few, efficient stops.

How about the rail cars themselves? On a trip probably 10 years ago I remember riding from Portland to Eugene on a really sleek train that had LCD displays with GPS mapping at every seat. We watched a short animated kids movie and I wandered to the lounge car for a beer at a bar that looked like most stationary watering holes.

On my trip to Spokane in 2007 if found myself on a train car that was probably older than me. The seats were big and reclined nicely (with foot rests, too) but the armrests still held the ashtrays of days past. Cleanliness is not Amtrak’s strong suit. Floors were well vacuumed but dirt and grime was present on most surfaces.

The kicker for me was that there were not electrical outlets at our seats or anywhere for that matter! I was able to find one set of outlets in the lounge car where I had to share with a power hungry hoard of cell phone users.

Rule #3: if you want me to ride the train, make me comfortable by keeping up a modern and clean car with the amenities to run my modern, digital life.

Finally we get to price. How much would you pay for an excessively long ride on an old train that makes lots of stops and doesn’t offer the level of comfort that they so easily could? You might be surprised at how much you’ll pay. From Portland to Spokane expect to pay between $40 and $80 one way (reserved coach)….or $80-$160 round trip. Compare that to booking in advance on Southwest Airlines for as little as $90 round trip (and only a 55 minute flight). How about round trip from Portland to San Francisco? Try $300 by train (reserved coach) compared to $225 by air.

Rule #4: either offer me a lot and then charge me a lot or charge me a little for the little you offer me.

I could probably go on and write 6 more rules to give us a nice round 10, but I really believe that the four points I have made could revolutionize the passenger rail industry. As oil shoots past $130 a barrel and we pay $4-$5 at the pump, as airlines continue to cut back while the lines and delays get longer, we should have other viable options. However, we don’t. Why isn’t there a high speed train outfitted with modern comforts going between Seattle and Portland? If I want to take the train to the bay area, why must I suffer for 17-18 hours as the train goes out of its way and stops at so many small towns? Why isn’t there a daily bullet train from Los Angeles to San Francisco?

When will Amtrak executives and congressional representatives take the step to modernize our rail system? When will you again have a third choice for travel, alongside flying or driving?
-Jeff the Great

1 comment:

Barbara said...

Yes, it does take longer. We took a round trip from Portland, Or. to Santa Barbara, California. The route was spectacular scenery in many places, add to that a snow fall watched from the dome club car at midnight when we were the only occupants. Flying, yes, we get there faster with a view of blue sky forever (hopefully), tiny seats with a massive body next to you, nothing to eat, no place to walk to except the john where you can wait forever to use a bitsy little facility that smells horrible. Compared with a room on the train with our own bathroom (which I admit was designed for a 110 pound somebody that didn't move around much), well, it is hard to compare. We could get out of our reserved seats on the train with no problem, we could walk to the bistro, we could go to the club car, we were served unlimited wine, crackers and cheese at 4:00 p.m. every night (free), our dining room dinners were elegant and quite good. Whenever I cursed the smallness of our room, I would remember the impossible task of trying to sleep in my seat on an airplane. Is it really possible to compare? The trains are in terrible need of updating, thank Mr. Bush for that, who in the world would ride a train? Hopefully, with fuel costs so nearly impossible, more attention will be paid to the rails. They require a relaxed state of mind which I won't describe, but each time you have to pull off for some obscure reason, you are still able to walk from car to car, use clean bathrooms, eat almost any time you want to, sometimes, you can even get outside and stretch your legs. I can write on and on but I think I have made my point. Airlines are for the birds who want to fly, trains are for romantics, those who know how to relax, and I agree there should be some special speed trains for workaholics that really must carry their laptops and their cell phones and every other device they can think of.

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