Thursday, September 27, 2007

All Aboard, Amtrak

Whether it's the whiff of diesel fuel, the clickety track as the schedule board turns over, the clackety-clack as the train sails along, or just staring out the window, I've always enjoyed train travel. So part of the pleasure of last weekend's trip to New York City was taking the Amtrak Acela from Boston.

Years ago, when I was making frequent business trips to New York, I wouldn't have considered taking the train. The train took a long time and was notorious for delays.

No one took the train. Everyone flew.

After all, taking "The Shuttle" to New York was a no brainer. It was fast, cheap, and ran once an hour - or more, during peak times. You didn't need a reservation, you could just show up and, amazing as it sounds, if they filled up one plane, they'd run something called the "second section". I was on a couple of second sections with no more than half a dozen travelers on them. If not exactly The Golden Age of Air Travel, it was certainly fast and convenient.

Everyone took The Shuttle. When the Challenger exploded, the receptionist at our office got on the public address system to announce that "The Shuttle just crashed." We all came streaming out of offices, trying to figure out who among our colleagues might be on the The Shuttle. Oh, that shuttle. Big and tragic news to the world, but a small relief to those of us with immediate concerns about friends. (When it comes right down to it, everything's local, not just politics.)

Two things have happened that make flying to NYC  less attractive. One is the improvement in the trains. They now run pretty much on time - if you take the Acela Express, takes under 4 hours - and the cars are better. The other, of course, is the hassle factor since 9/11.

So, rather than cab out to Logan, queue up (or not: sometimes there are no security lines), wait on the tarmac, get to LaGuardia, cab into the city.  Well, this process can take 3-4 hours - only 50 minutes of which is relaxing on a flight. Why not just walk over to the station and hop on Amtrak? For what will often be an equivalent time investment, you're right in Manhattan (not sitting at the entrance to the Midtown Tunnel breathing fumes).

Every once in a while the talking heads come out to rail against railroad subsidies. They only benefit the East Coast. They only benefit a few people. This is public (ick!) not private transportation we're talking about.

Is it just the general hinterland bias against anything and anyone living and working in the Boston-NY-Washington Corridor? These are all damn blue states! And why is it okay to spend on highways? To build airports? To bail out airlines? But not to spend on passenger rail?

You can certainly argue that nothing in the transportation world should get a government subsidy, that if it can't pay for itself, it shouldn't exist.

But there is such a thing as a common good, and having a decent rail system is one of them - or at least it should be. As the price of fuel increases, and the cost of pollution - from cars and planes, becomes more obvious, this is one common good that's going to start looking gooder and gooder.

All I know is that as I went back and forth among staring out the window, reading The New Yorker, and drifting in and out of naps, the Amtrak journey to and fro New York City was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. (We sat in the "Quiet Car", where you can't do more than whisper. Very nice.)

Yes, I know there are train travel horror stories, but this wasn't one of them.

All aboard, Amtrak!


Charlie D. said...

I totally agree. The Acela to NY is relaxing, scenic, fast, and convenient. I look forward to going to NY just so I can take the train!

Anonymous said...

Amazing how the aviation industry has driven transportation policy in the US - cumulatively, over the course of the last 65 years, the industry, when allocated the same true costs of infrastructure, access, tax loop holes, FAA, etc., has lost money - a lot of it. AMR, UAL, SWA and others are masters at working Capitol Hill and the many beleagured communities and public authorities that the industry often rips off (hello, Worcester Regional or Gary Indiana?). You are right - Amtrak is often the way to go. But as a single point government entity and being fully accountable, Amtrak has never been capable of pulling the same shell game that aviation has been able to swindle.

Everyone is scratching their heads over all of these flights delays in the New York area (EWR, LGA, JFK) - this is an easy one - rationalize the system. In corridors with certain travel times and frequencies, simply disallow certain flight plans during wide portions of the day. And sit back and relax.

BenRad said...

Every time I've tried to take the Acela down to NY for business, the trip has taken over 6 hours. That was 3-4 years ago, so maybe things have changed, but I had sworn off it completely. Maybe I'll try it again.

Anonymous said...

Isn't it about $160 round trip? I've flown to California for only 20 more dollars than that. It just doesn't seem like a good value. Especially if it turns into a 6 hour ride. If it's going to take more than 5 hours, I'd actually rather take the Fung Wah.

Anonymous said...

For $79 each way you can take Limoliner which leaves from both Boston and Framingham and drops off at the the Hilton Millenium in NYC. The fare includes a meal, on-board movie, and wireless internet access.

Anonymous said...

I too love the train for all the reasons you state. There simply isn't anything good about flying these days, especially to NYC. I used to take Acella the other way - from DC to NYC and it was 3 hours flat. A great ride. Although I would normally favor more government investment in trains, with the way our Congress works, I actually think their involvement hurts trains (at least on the east coast). One of the reasons that Amtrack is so inneficient and has to be propped up year after year by Congress is that every congressman demands that there be stops in their district regardless of ridership. This drives their costs up considerably. Its at least possible that if the government sold the railroads in the east back to private companies they would become more efficiently run (albeit to a more limited number of places) and therefore cheaper and better able to compete with the airlines.