Some good news — it looks like Amtrak isn’t going to die anymore, given that Congress just gave them $626 million. But are we just shoring up an industry that, sadly, hasn’t been self-sufficient in this country in maybe 20 years (total speculation there)?
I love trains, and I wish I could catch one out of Sioux Falls (sadly, there’s a huge hole in Amtrak service in the South Dakota – Montana – Wyoming area). What geek doesn’t get excited at a big ol’ locomotive?
I wish Amtrak could thrive in this country, but it’s never caught on much outside the Northeast. The sad fact is that it’s just cheaper and more convenient to fly.
An example —
Did you know Amtrak has a cross-country line? The Sunset Limited runs 68 hours between Orlando and Los Angeles. Hardly anyone knows this, because hardly anyone would even consider it.
And why would we? Coach fare on the Sunset Limited is $295. Northwest Airlines, on the other hand, is offering the same trip in six hours (with a stop in Memphis) for $283. With economics like this, it’s a wonder the Sunset runs at all. (According to this page, the Sunset costs $0.36 per mile to run, but the fare only covers $0.24.)
But where’s the romance in flying? Train travel can be a group endeavour to a much greater extent than flying. For $570, you and a friend can travel the Sunset in style:
The Viewliner Roomette is designed for one or two passengers, with comfortable reclining seats on either side of a sweeping picture window. At night, the seats convert to a bed, and an upper berth with its own picture window folds out from the upper wall.
For $1,295 you and the kids can travel like kings:
The Family Bedroom spans the entire width of the car and has two picture windows. The sofa and two reclining seats convert to beds and the two upper berths fold down from above. Located on the lower level of Superliner sleeping cars, these bedrooms include two adult-sized berths and two child-sized berths.
Plus, you get to travel on a trains with cool names like the “Silver Meteor,” “Capital Limited,” and “Southwest Chief.”
So, is that worth 68 hours? No, I guess not, and that depresses me.
So what’s the trick? What would make Amtrak survive in the United States without massive subsidies? Maybe this question is unfair — the Wikipedia article on Amtrak asserts that no mass transportation system in this country is really self-sufficient:
Highways, airports, and air traffic control all require large expenditures to build and maintain, although some of those taxpayer dollars are gained for other modes under the guise of user fees and highway fuel and road taxes.
But this still doesn’t address the popularity issue. Why does train service have such an image problem in this country? Any ideas?
saveamtrak.org: if you get past the site design, there’s some good content here
Railfan: apparently Mecca for train afficionados
amtraktrains.com: the unofficial Amtrak site
Crew Ten: a great little site by an Amtrak crew
National Association of Railroad Passengers: a lobbying group working to save passenger rail service
(The image at the top of the post was taken from the excellent Wikipedia article on Amtrak.)