City Journal Winter 2014

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Clark Whelton
The Cross-Country Jobs Program « Back to Story

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I won't be taking Amtrak ..thought about a train trip from Memphis to California with granddaughter but this article cured me of that unrealistic thought of "enjoyment"
Albignsian: It’ll take a generation or two, but eventually Americans will give up on rail travel entirely, not because of a lack of nostalgia but rather because we can’t afford it. High speed rail travel is a technical marvel but economics makes it infeasible except in high population density corridors where the break-even cost of moving passengers can be overcome by the volume of riders. The politicians know this but a chance to control taxpayer funded disbursements of $100 million or so for a couple hundred miles of new road beds and necessary rolling stock is too tempting to pass up. Only by jamming as many people and their luggage as possible into a jetliner, can airlines realize profitability today, given present fuel costs. And only through subsidies can Amtrak do the same – but how long will we tolerate the fear of flying crowd demanding subsidized modes of long distance travel?

As far as individuals and their travel budgets, it once took 3 weeks of travel by stage coach to reach San Francisco from Philadelphia. And the cost was $800 to $1,000 per passenger, far more in inflation adjusted terms than the cost of a ticket on the American Flyer of the 1930’s. Passengers brought along their own food and were jammed into cramped stage coaches with bad suspensions and the constant smell of horse manure at no extra charge. Rail travel was a vast improvement over what Wells Fargo offered but they couldn’t maintain their high service standards when jetliners took away their market.

Before commercial airliners hit their stride, it was a golden age of leisurely and elegant long distance travel by rail, never to come again. America’s younger generation won’t skim along the rails doing 180 MPH between Chicago and Detroit or San Francisco and L.A. – and they probably won’t regret missing the opportunity.
Amtrak is the best way to get from New York City to Baltimore. And the worst way to get from New York to Cincinnati. The trip is overnight and endless. If you pay for a tiny roommette you get adequate accommodations, if a commode in your roommette is your idea of adequate. The train arrived in the middle of the night, several hours late. Then as punishment, I had to go through the same route again to get home.

That experience cured me of my hesitation to fly. Cincinnati's train station is an art deco jewel and an attraction by day; that Amtrak arrives and leaves about 3 a.m. is a scandal.
"America’s passenger rail travel was among the finest in the world, offering first class cabins and amenities more luxurious than anything Amtrak currently offers."

It's easy to be nostaligic about old-time rail travel, but like all nostalgic memories, there are missing pieces.

It's true that one could have a pleasant rail experience IF one could afford first-class travel. But, such travel was seriously expensive. I don't doubt that four-day trip on a "name train" could be pleasant for those who could afford Pullman accomodations and dining car food, but many long-distance travellers just made do with coach seats and whatever food they brought aboard or could buy from vendors walking down the aisles. A 3- or 4-day rail trip with just a coach seat would have been more of an ordeal than today's air travel.

For that matter, an Amtrak hamburger may be over-or under-priced (depending on your PoV), but an old-time dining car charged as much as a first-class restaurant (that is, the inflation-adjusted equivalent of $50.to $100. per person for dinner).

And even coach seats were costly. Which is why, starting in the 1920s, low-budget travellers went by bus instead of by train (as is still the case). Of course, when airfares became competitive with rail travel over the same distance in the 1950s, rail travel just died.

I'd guess that even airline travel can be reasonably pleasant if one pays for first-class seats and perks. Airline passengers are treated like cattle because practically all travellers (for domestic travel, at least) are just looking for the lowest fare. Because, just about anything can be endured for a few hours.
Having ridden Amtrak many times, especially on the Lake Shore Limited (LSL), I feel compelled to respond to the author of this article.

Yes, Amtrak overcharges for food. But it is reasonable, when you consider what some airlines charge for snack packs. And, when you consider that on the LSL, you can get a full meal at a reasonable price, why would one limit one's choices to the cafe car?

Now, Amtrak has no control over most of the tracks its trains use. Freight railroads control dispatching on their lines, and Amtrak usually gets screwed a little bit. Do they try to accommodate Amtrak? Usually, yes. But there is no guarantee that Amtrak can get the time slots it needs for on-time travel. When I was a regular traveler on the LSL, I caught the train from Croton and took it to Rochester. And I always factored in a 1 hour delay per 6-8 hours of travel. Today, Amtrak pads its schedule to account for these delays - but in between major stations, one will still have a hard time trusting Amtrak's schedules.

Why do I use Amtrak? First, it stops in my town. No indignities such as full body scans, pat downs, stripping for the metal detectors are needed. Of course, it goes direct into the core cities where I want to travel. But this usually limits me to travel where flying (with its headaches) takes as long as the train. Noting that, I have and will use Amtrak for cross-country travel (one way), as I love the scenery that a Rocky Mountain transit provides, and will pay extra to take these trips.

If anything, the USA should consider expanding Amtrak, not shrink it. But it should help the freight railroads by subsidizing the addition of extra rail capacity, where Amtrak has priority over freight traffic. The freight railroads are already investing in this capacity, but only to move freight. Adding a little more capacity in key places (for passenger travel) would add jobs, help a significant section of the public, and be useful for business, as we need better cross country links for freight transport....
Nice read, but I would have liked to have heard more about your fellow travelers. And, on US railroads, only one person on the train carries the title, Conductor. You may have dealt with the conductor, but, more likely, one of the assistants.
Going by our pleasant experiences of train travel in the U.K., New Zealand, South America, and, yes, even India, we made the mistake last year of going on Amtrak from Minneapolis to San Francisco. We suffered the worst travel experience our lives and paid dearly (private bedroom) for the "privilege". Cramped, noisy (because of the incessant unnecessary announcements--our fellow passengers were wonderful and the only pleasant aspect of our journey), with cabin and dining car service (and foul food) that would have earned the overpaid underworked jobsworths on board a horsewhipping in a more civilized place and time. Scrap the damned service and throw each and every one of its employees onto the street.
Last month I was on a plane that took off 3 hours late. I had to run like a maniac to make my connection, with only seconds to spare.

Can I blame the free market for this? The government? Who, then? I must blame someone for life not being perfect -- who would Whelton suggest?
There's no question that Amtrak's management structure is inefficient and needs streamlining. Nevertheless, generally, subsidies to rail travel that promote modal balance offset the economic inefficiencies of the unaccounted social/environmental costs of auto and plane travel. The vast majority of travel in the U.S. is by auto because of its relative low personal financial impact due to sunk costs. Consequently, a large percentage of travel is discretionary trips that don't necessarily need to be taken. Proper pricing on these other modes to recover the externalities would divert passengers to rail and bus, thereby making them more cost effective. Travelers would be better off due to behavioral changes that would lower auto ownership and the need to travel. Amtrak would then require less subsidies and would be more profitable in potential high-speed corridors with appropriate investments.
If Amtrak riders like me have anything to look forward to by looking at mass transit systems' Amalgamated Transit Union, cutting funding won't result in better management and operations, but worse service and less frequent timetables. Waste must be fixed at the executive and leadership level and not by indirect measures. Senior union members will fight to the death to keep their nice place in life and others would rather roll the dice in the hopes that someone else gets axed.

Fixing Amtrak is one thing, but talk of cutting funding entirely and making a garage sale of it makes me nervous. Amtrak helps maintain and promote economic development and is a component to this country’s transportation infrastructure; not just for high traffic corridors (I live in Baltimore), but for low populated states and communities without alternative transportation options other than automobiles and small, costly airports. Is Amtrak over subsidized? Given what I know, sure (the beautiful and beloved Empire Builder line is subsidized over $200 per passenger), but subsidies are fair and reasonable if the national system is viewed as not just a profit making venture, but something that keeps the country connected, literally and figuratively. Highways and airports are no exception.

My hope is that talk of cutting funding entirely is a negotiation ploy to increase efficiency, but one never knows.
Perhaps the answer is to divide the train service back into the super 8 (or smaller) and let private busiensses bid for each single unit. It is far from perfect, but it works reasonably well in the UK and certainly better than British Rail did.
Let the private businesses decide on whether they franchise out the various services. Climate change / carbon taxes may give rail the edge in the future, so a way to maintain the infrastructure is advisable.
I found AMTRAK Chicago -> Seattle very good - except there is little sightseeing since apparently the freighters get track priority.

If you like train rides, I recommend the Trans-Siberian :P
America’s first commercial airliner could move 4 passengers, seated within two noisy cabins, at the amazing speed of 115 miles per hour, no drink carts, no cabin attendants and no claustrophobic restrooms. About that same time in our nation, America’s passenger rail travel was among the finest in the world, offering first class cabins and amenities more luxurious than anything Amtrak currently offers. But, nowadays, airlines are like high tech Greyhound buses. Passengers are crammed into planes almost always fully loaded at take off with airline profit centers now healthy by expanding to include lucrative baggage fees plus miscellaneous charges for every so-called extra service imaginable. Yet, some airlines, like American Airlines, remain plagued with union problems and operate at a loss. Still, airlines and air travel remain the only sane alternative to traveling long distances in a short time.

Decreasing routes previously serviced, jamming passengers in and levying stiff baggage fees allowed airlines to regain profitability in an age of high operating costs. In certain Asian countries, jumbo jets are employed as commuter planes, shoe-horning over 600 unhappy passengers into a 747, so Americans continue to enjoy a modicum of comfort when flying. However, the present move toward high speed rail is not a feasible alternative to air travel. It’s merely another opportunity for politicians to expand their own profit centers through increased graft, corruption and political favors for under the table kickbacks from private industry. Passenger rail service will remain a subsidized mode of travel and politicians, like their brethren among the locusts, will descend, feed and then move on.
to funkg:

I should be a little wary of travelling ACROSS the U.S. by Amtrak. Did Chicago to Seattle in 2009, and the experience could well be summed up as the good, the bad, and the ugly. Nowadays, I would "hate flying" as much as the next guy, esp. in America, so the choice becomes limited, indeed. The best option would be - private jet; failing that, hiring a car comes distant second. And then there is Amtrak ... Greyhounds I only like in old movies.
"Regarding the 'loss' on food services. It must be noted that Amtrak's sleeping car passengers contribute an important part of the total revenue taken in each year. Take away the food (or jack up the price) and watch that revenue disappear. The 'loss' on the food is more than offset by the revenue taken in by sleeping car travelers who prefer to eat in the dining car. Check the fares and note the premium fares in the sleepers... Pays for a LOT of hamburgers.... Of course, those who would kill Amtrak never look at the big picture..." - William Brown

The problem with the $16 hamburger is that is shouldn't be costing Amtrak that sort of money in the first place. But more importantly tou do understand that you're arguing that a money losing service, selling hamburgers for 50% less than they cost, needs to be provided to ensure Amtrak can continue to sell another money losing service, sleeper berths, right? How exactly does that make sense?
"When Amtrak was formed in 1971, it was to relieve a tangle of dozens of railroads (the so-called "Super 8" and others) that were either in bankruptcy or on the verge of. These roads had their financial legs cut out from underneath them by two Federal programs: highways and airports" - Jan Brooks

That is an often repeated claim but not historically accurate. Passenger train travel had large issues long before the interstate highway system came into play. For example, long distance train passenger travel is very labor intensive. Equipment utilization is relatively low. And management of some of those railroads was just flat out screwed up. There are other issues too.

That's not to say those other modes nor any subsidies they may have accrued didn't play a role. But there's far, far more to the problem with passenger service than just that. Neverthless, it is a good point to raise. The same with the issue of time sensitive freight.
"Amtrak does some things well. In the Boston–Washington corridor, it hauls more passengers than all the airlines combined. "

Carrying 6% of travel on the corridor versus 5% by airlines doesn't mean they're doing well. Roads carry 85-90% of travel on that corridor. Just think, as "nice" as train travel is, all of those people willing to deal with nasty congestion instead of the convenience of taking the train.
Even the popular NYC-DC run has been beaten by vastly-cheaper, quicker,bus runs. There are at least two companies that have buses with internet access and are non-stop; unlike the train, which seems to stop in every Congressional district.
When Amtrak was formed in 1971, it was to relieve a tangle of dozens of railroads (the so-called "Super 8" and others) that were either in bankruptcy or on the verge of. These roads had their financial legs cut out from underneath them by two Federal programs: highways and airports. Today we're down to four major railroads and many regionals and short-lines who are all profitable. But they're all missing out on LCL shipments (Less than Car Load). Most of this is still going by truck, but COULD go by rail in express cars attached to passenger trains. This revenue could pay for passenger service if offered to the roads tax-free.
I love riding the train and have had much better luck with them being on time. I certainly agree with the need for appropriate incentives and cost efficiency. But I've always wondered how much of the "subsidies" are used for track and station maintenance which are paralleled by subsidies for highways and airports.
I had the misfortune to take Amtrak from San Jose, CA to Santa Barbara many years ago. Not only was the train 2 hours late coming into SJ, it was 2.5 hours late when it puled out of San Jose on the way to SB. By the time we arrived in SB, we were over 4.5 hours late and had missed dinner in SB. However, we did have a very nice dinner on the train.

To make things worse, the day we were to depart SB for SJ, I learned SB was the first stop, being that the train started in LA - what could happen that would make the train late, SB is the first stop. Well, we didn't wait beyond it being more than 1.5 hours late. We, and another couple, rented a car and drove back to SJ. On the way we stopped at wineries and had all sorts of fun. We arrived in SJ earlier than what the 'scheduled' time (3PM) would have been for the train. We later fond out from others in our group the train did not arrive until just shy of 11PM!

A day or two later, someone had looked up the 'on time' record for the Coast Starlight (that's the name of the run) was a dismal TWO PERCENT! That would be, 'the train is on time two percent of the time!
The Boston-Washington corridor would be profitable were it privatized; as for the other lines, I kinda doubt it.
As a 'Brit' I have never travelled on a US train (apart from the NY subway' this article despite its mild critism has inspired me to want to travel this way across the US. Thank you.
To William Brown,

If I understood correctly, the author was arguing that it would be more efficient for Amtrak to contract out the services in the dining cars. That is common enough in regular buildings and even sometimes on cruise ships. A contractor bids for the right to sell food (keeping most of the profits) and pays the main owner for the privilege.

An example would be that the current system is run by the train company at a loss of $64,000 per worker. Now the company accepts a bid from a contractor and then Amtrak doesn't have to pay his salary and they don't have to micromanage his job. The contractor pays Amtrak $20,000, makes money off of the food sold, and the passengers get cheaper food. No loss of service, the government loses less money, and a small businessman gets to make a living.

I'd kill Amtrak if I could because it is inhuman to let such mismanagement go on at public expense. That is a practice that is normal in many office buildings, universities, and even government buildings. Amtrak fails to do it to massive financial loss. They deserve to be cut loose.
Regarding the 'loss' on food services. It must be noted that Amtrak's sleeping car passengers contribute an important part of the total revenue taken in each year. Take away the food (or jack up the price) and watch that revenue disappear. The 'loss' on the food is more than offset by the revenue taken in by sleeping car travelers who prefer to eat in the dining car. Check the fares and note the premium fares in the sleepers... Pays for a LOT of hamburgers.... Of course, those who would kill Amtrak never look at the big picture...
The railroad was the best job growing up in Conn but you could not get on without a parent who worked there and spent all their spare time at the Hibernian club. I know conductors that make 140K a year at age 40 and go to nYC and spend 2 hrs in the gym every day. A great job to get..bad for us to be paying it