Thursday, June 19, 2008

Amtrak, anybody?

Amtrak is getting a lot more attention these days. Streets Blog had this 5 part series a while back, but this recent article in Good Magazine gives us the good and the bad.
Ask around onboard almost any Amtrak train, and you’ll get a pretty short list of reasons why people ride the rails. In the cafĂ© car, chugging along one of the country’s oldest routes, I counted four types of passengers. There are thrifty ones looking to save a few bucks on plane tickets. There are those who are scared of flying, a group that has no doubt grown in recent years. There are the zealots—without exception, older men—who describe themselves with charming lack of inhibition as “rail junkies,” “railroad nuts,” “train buffs,” or, my personal favorite, “railfans.” The rest—indeed the majority—say they’re here for “the experience.” Good thing for Amtrak, that romantic notion of the rails is alive and well. Naturally, it’s something the beleaguered rail company promotes to death. The experience is an important sell; nobody ever mentions reliability or practicality.

The American passenger rail—once a model around the globe—is now something of an oddball novelty, a political boondoggle to some, a colossal transit failure to others. The author James Howard Kunstler likes to say that American trains “would be the laughing stock of Bulgaria.” The numbers show just how far this once-great system has fallen. In 1960, U.S. rail travelers logged 17.1 billion passenger miles (the movement of one passenger one mile), the standard measure of a system’s reach; by 2000, that number had fallen to 5.5 billion, just one percent of the total travel between U.S. cities that year. (Of course, over this same period, airlines’ passenger miles increased 16 times; even intercity buses’ service nearly doubled.) Most of this decrease was seen in the 1960s, as highways and air travel took precedent both in travel plans and in government subsidies. Since its ill-fated formation as a quasi-public, for-profit corporation in 1971, Amtrak has seen only meager growth and loses billions of dollars annually.

Will increased ridership finally be the thing that gets Amtrak more funding and the proper attention it deserves in Washington? This week the house passed a $14.9 billion bill to fund passenger rail for Amtrak. Although this is great news for me, it is not so much about the time it would take (I am hoping to take Amtrak from NYC to Chicago), but rather that the cost is still too high. While flying is clearly not the direction to go as costs are skyrocketing, Amtrak is going to have to compete with buses to stay viable and keep moving forward, especially in the Northeast corridor.

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