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TRAINS OF THOUGHT
By Joe Brancatelli
May 5, 2011 -- Unless you got one of those cheesy spam E-mails from Amtrak, the chances are probably less than zero that you know Saturday is National Train Day.
And that's too bad because I continue to think our lives as frequent flyers would be a hell of a lot better if we could sprinkle more trains into the mix. But rail travel in this country is a mess, a victim of 19th-century thinking in a 21st-century world. We spend far too much time waxing nostalgic about the glories of the 20th Century Limited and far too little time thinking about where rail travel can replace short-haul flights or onerous local car commutes.
These are not good days to be a train advocate. A recent story in The Washington Post excoriated China's foray into national high-speed rail. That's important because President Obama held up China as a model and hung his pitch for $50 billion in federal money for high-speed rail on China's progress. He also likened a new run at the rails as the modern equivalent of the country's commitment to building a transcontinental railroad. But a recent op-ed piece in The New York Times shattered that historical precedent, too.
To be honest, as much as I am a train fan, I don't think much of Amtrak's forays into long-haul train travel as a replacement for medium- or long-haul flying. In a column published more than 25 years ago, Martin Deutsch had very nice things to say about a 25-hour New York-Miami roundtrip on the Silver Star. About three years ago, I had a much less felicitous run on the Silver Meteor and I detailed that roundtrip to Charleston in a column I jokingly called South by Southeast. And it wasn't the first time I'd tried to replace an inconvenient flight with a train. Back in 2004, I wrote a column called Stranger on a Train about a half-disastrous ride on The Cardinal.
That's part of the problem with trains in this country. Forty years after government-owned Amtrak was created in haste and panic to replace privately owned long-haul passenger rail lines, there remains an insane and financially disastrous fixation with long-haul trains. Late in 2001, Amtrak said that its five-year trek to self-sufficiency had failed. That admission automatically triggered a government-mandated liquidation plan. "Amtrak has pretty much run out of options," Department of Transportation Inspector General Kenneth Mead said at the time.
But Amtrak and its long-haul fantasies never seem to die. The DOT wanted Amtrak to drop many of its worst-performing routes in 2004 because "for several trains, it would literally be cheaper ... to buy each passenger a plane ticket to the next destination." In July, 2005, the Transportation Department said subsidies on long-haul trains such as the Sunset Limited reached $366 a passenger. By the fall, the Government Accountability Office was ripping the mismanagement at Amtrak. And by 2009, the subsidy on money-losing trains like the Sunset Limited had ballooned to $462 a rider.
The management errors, endless subsidies and political infighting has all but derailed Obama's dreams of high-speed rail. Earlier this year, the Republicans in the House crafted a deficit-cutting proposal that would totally defund Amtrak. But that was nothing new from the Republicans. President Reagan tried to do it during his administration. And President George W. Bush proposed killing Amtrak in 2005.
To be honest, I'm not particularly against the idea. As I said in a column bluntly titled Die, Amtrak, Die, the idea of the federal government owning the railroad service while private industry owned the infrastructure is bizarre. Even with long-term funding guarantees, as I pointed out in 2007 column called Amtrak Agonistes, the present system simply isn't workable.
Besides, why should Amtrak's long-haul mentality be inextricably tied to the perception of rail service in this country? We know the right kinds of train service--in shorter-haul markets and as inter-modal feeder services to other types of transportation---can and does work.
As far back as 2002, for example, I was reporting that trains were outpacing the East Coast Air Shuttles on routes between Boston and Washington. Chris Barnett, a California kid who knew the glory days of the California Corridor air shuttles, saw the logic of the trains, too. His 2006 column called Shuttle Diplomacy explained the case for Amtrak's Acela with startling financial clarity. By 2008, Delta Air Lines and US Airways, who inherited the old Eastern and Pan Am Shuttles, had downsized the equipment and added first-class cabins. Even that, however, wasn't slowing the advance of Acela.
Why aren't we pursuing a better-focused train policy and promoting Acela-like services in the right markets? Well, there are right-wingers who are opposed to funding mass transit as a matter of faith. There are the rail fanatics who will accept nothing but money-gushing trains between East and West coasts and every unsupportable niche in between. There are the left-wingers who simply can't believe that one size of mass transit won't fit all. There are the internationalists who want to know why we don't have a rail network just like's Europe's. And there are those who can't fathom a nation where trains, planes and automobiles all work together in a relatively seamless fashion.
Me? I am none of those. I can't imagine taking a train (or expecting taxpayers to underwrite a train) from coast to coast. I don't think America needs or can afford a "national rail network." But I can't understand why our high-traffic corridors--in the East, Texas, Florida, the Carolinas and parts of the Midwest--don't replace costly and inefficient planes with much more efficient railroad networks. With short-haul flights purged from commercial aviation, we'll be able to stretch of air-traffic assets much further. And we'd be freed from the tinny, tiny regional-jet prisons that pass for short-hop flying.
As I've said dozens of times, I love trains. I watch dozens, both Amtrak and commuter, pass by my office window every day. I've used trains all my life and am more than willing to dig deeper to help fund the right kinds of rail service.
I don't know how many more National Train Days I'll live to see. I hate to think that on the National Train Day of 2021 or 2041 we won't be any further down the track than we are now.
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ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
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