Bye Bye Amtrak?
February 2, 2002 10:14 PM   Subscribe

Bye Bye Amtrak? "If Congress and the Administration do not appropriate adequate funds for FY '03, Amtrak may be forced to discontinue all long-distance train service effective October 1." Rail advocacy groups have differing reactions.
posted by mrbula (28 comments total)
Perhaps the anti-smoking zealots who pestered them to adopt faddish PC restrictions will now be so kind to buy up enough tickets to compensate for lost revenue.
posted by RavinDave at 11:07 PM on February 2, 2002

I love traveling by train, but the US is just too damn big and we're in too damn much of a hurry for train travel to work. And the train is too damn expensive. I recently looked into taking Amtrak from San Francisco to DC (I was scared to fly home for the holidays). The best deal I could find on Amtrak's web site: eight days, $5000. Sure, it would have been cheaper if I'd wanted to sleep in a chair for eight days, but it still would've been several times more expensive than flying.
posted by kirkaracha at 11:11 PM on February 2, 2002

Perhaps the anti-smoking zealots who pestered them to adopt faddish PC restrictions will now be so kind to buy up enough tickets to compensate for lost revenue.

What? Any links?
posted by BlueTrain at 11:37 PM on February 2, 2002

Forget comparing Amtrak to flying; it's slower than driving. And, of course, way more expensive.
posted by kindall at 12:55 AM on February 3, 2002

More expensive than driving? You have figures on that? Is the expense wear-and-tear done to your car by a long drive included in that figure? Any risk assessment?
posted by raysmj at 1:44 AM on February 3, 2002

Amtrak is all the speed of driving, at the cost of flying. It's true.

I'm debating taking a two day trip to texas for SXSW, but I'd have to extend my stay by a couple days to accomodate the infrequent train schedule between Austin and LA/SF.
posted by mathowie at 2:10 AM on February 3, 2002

Take the bus.
posted by pracowity at 3:27 AM on February 3, 2002

Amtrak Special Policies: "Smoking is prohibited on all short- and medium-distance trains and on certain overnight trains. On other long-distance trains, cigarette smoking is permitted only in a designated portion of the Lounge car or in a separate smoking room. Pipes and cigars are prohibited. The Amtrak smoking policy is subject to change."
posted by Carol Anne at 5:36 AM on February 3, 2002

Unfortunately from my experience there are not any alternatives to flying. Amtrak is MORE expensive than flying in many cases. Taking the car quickly becomes more expensive when you factor the cost of the unpaid time you spend driving (to be conservative, I price my time at $10 an hour). My last experience with Greyhound was that the staff was almost universally rude and late in spite of my best efforts to be polite and stay out of their way. As much as I feel that we need a good rail system, I don't make enough money to justify paying for it.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:08 AM on February 3, 2002

Convential rail passenger service is hopeless, really, except for the BosWash conurbation. But High Speed Rail could really work, at least many places east of the Mississippi and along the West Coast. Virtually every European country has some type of high speed passenger rail, many of them reaching speeds in excess of 150mph, with possible speeds of over 300 mph possible.
posted by dhartung at 9:55 AM on February 3, 2002

I'm surprised that the best price you could find was $5000, kirkaracha. I, too, was not thrilled about flying home for the holidays and did take Amtrak because it was CHEAPER than flying. While a plane ticket home to LA from Boston would have cost me in the neighborhood of $500-$600, I got home on Amtrak in three days for $327. Yes, I did sleep in a chair, but for that amount of time and considering the money I saved, it was worth it, and I would do it again, if I had the same amount of time off that I did over the holidays.
posted by BurnedEve at 10:03 AM on February 3, 2002

"The federal government this year will spend $33 billion on highways, $13 billion on aviation, but only $570 million on intercity passenger rail. Moreover, the federal government offers 80% matches to encourage states to focus their investments on highways and aviation. Federal matches to support state investments for intercity passenger rail are virtually non-existent."

-from mrbula's link

We just spent an additional $15 billion on airlines in the wake of Spetember 11th.

I suspect Amtrak will be allowed to die, it's most travelled routes sold off to private interests, who will then lobby for additional federal funding. In 10 years we might have a private passenger rail system, but if we do it will cost a lot more in federal dollars than we are paying now.

After our experiences traveling by rail in Europe, I believe a high speed system in the midwest could be productive for regional business travel. A Chicago to St. Louis train in a little over two hours would be extremely productive compared to flying if one figured in the travel time to the airport, and the ensuing waiting around for flights.
posted by dglynn at 10:23 AM on February 3, 2002

I ride Amtrak to work nearly every day (Capitol Corridor: Emeryville to Santa Clara) and it's *great*. For the long-haul runs though, there is simply no point. Rather than spend billions annually to make up for losses on those runs, why not invest on runs that could work?

Research and planning is almost complete on a San francisco-Los angeles bullet-train, with a 3.5 hour transit. Given airport hassles and teh beauty (and more importantly, space on a train, I'd happily take it in this case.

Spend billions on national infrastructure, not maintaining broken dreams.
posted by kfury at 10:51 AM on February 3, 2002

My bad. The SF-LA route would be under 2.5 hours.
posted by kfury at 10:54 AM on February 3, 2002

BurnedEve: I wasn't going to sleep in a chair for eight days, so I checked prices with beds. On the San Francisco-to-Chica
posted by kirkaracha at 11:10 AM on February 3, 2002

( looked OK in preview, but now preview is eating my comments as if they were pancakes.)
posted by kirkaracha at 11:20 AM on February 3, 2002

kirkaracha: What you're talking about is akin to a cruise, not airplane travel. (Just akin, not identical.)
posted by raysmj at 11:30 AM on February 3, 2002

Amtrak is not just about passengers. Consider the effect of this on farming communities. It's not like they can send a trainload of wheat off to market on a coach ticket.
posted by Sqwerty at 1:36 PM on February 3, 2002

It's rare that Europe is better than the US but the following remark by BurnedEve really got me thinking:

<<I got home on Amtrak in three days for $327.>>

Three days!? $327!? AFAIR, LA to Boston is something like 3500 miles. Assuming 72 hours, that runs at an average of 48mph. I'd imagine you had one or two changes which would have taken a few hours out of your journey, but even assuming a far shorter journey time of 62 hours, that's still a piss poor 56mph.

But forgetting trains for a minute.. I'm always surprised by how crazily expensive internal flights are in the US. I can fly from London to Stockholm or Rome for $20 if I so wish. Dallas to LA for $20? No way. You can't even do LA to SF for that.
posted by wackybrit at 1:46 PM on February 3, 2002

Ten years ago I had to travel 1500 miles on somewhat short notice (< week) for a family funeral. travelling by train was the cheapest way to go at that time, cheaper even than greyhound, if you had to leave right away, but could spend a couple of days getting to your destination. yes, i slept in a chair. i also got to have a delicious breakfast at 7:00 a.m. in the pennsylvania mountains, while deer grazed next to bubbling streams outside the window. Long-distance trains--like the empire builder from chicago to seattle--should be run as a tourist experience. if it's a cruise, go ahead and run it that way. chicago to minneapolis or st. louis ought to be high-speed rail in order to compete with air travel. downtown minneapolis to chicago/union station in two hours a train sounds awfully good compared to a 45 minute sardine-can flight northwest to chicago/midway plus 1 1/2 hours of ground transport and security hassles.
posted by gimonca at 2:00 PM on February 3, 2002

Amtrak is not just about passengers. Consider the effect of this on farming communities. It's not like they can send a trainload of wheat off to market on a coach ticket.

Actually, Amtrak is just about passengers. Your farmers don't use it--they send their grain over other carriers.
posted by rodii at 4:03 PM on February 3, 2002

the one time I took a long distance train was Xmas 9 years ago - from Tacoma, WA to Glendale, CA. at the time, it was a comparable price with flying, and I had time to kill. (month-long holiday break)

I loved it, but the train down was 12 hrs late, and back was not quite so, but still late.

the last time I looked (a couple years back), it just didn't compare, price-wise, to flying. which was a pity, because I hate flying. (gimonica - your tale makes me wonder if they raised prices just my train trip - or if airfare dropped a whole bunch in there someplace.)

my kingdom for a bullet train!

(I watch Rick Steves on the trains in Europe - or did when I had a TV, with much jealousy.)
posted by epersonae at 5:13 PM on February 3, 2002

There are a lot of short routes that Amtrak could probably make some money if they offer better service. For example, currently there is only one train that runs between Louisville and Chicago. Getting to Chicago from Indianapolis by Amtrak requires boarding the train at 3 AM to get there at 8 AM. This is not bad compared to car travel, especially when you consider that bringing a car into downtown Chicago means paying out of the nose in parking. On the other hand a weekend stay, it would be much better if I could leave in the late evening.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:42 PM on February 3, 2002

If Amtrak is going to be so poorly funded, better to kill the non-profitable routes and concentrate on the viable ones. Moreover, if money was focused on developing true high-speed rail (Boston-NY in 3.75 minutes for 225 miles is 1.5 hours too long), some of the now-unviable routes would become viable. Perhaps regional consortiums can maintain some of the marginal routes as well. But, by and large, the country is too large and/or to sparsely populated to support European-style train routes. Sad, but true.
posted by ParisParamus at 8:36 PM on February 3, 2002

The link is down right now, but the second advocacy group listed is convinced that it's the long haul routes that are subsidizing the NEC, not the other way around. One of their documents shows the Empire Builder--the long haul ride from Chicago to Portland or Seattle--as the most profitable route Amtrak offers. They offer some fairly detailed and convincing evidence as well. That said, I don't agree with their suggestions for the NEC.
posted by mrbula at 9:57 PM on February 3, 2002

The United Rail point about long-distance subsidizing the NEC is made succinctly in this Usenet post from 2000. Basically, it depends on how you allocate systemwide costs, and Amtrak uses one 'official' formula, while United Rail chooses another method.

I believe the real problem is that we have two passenger rail systems masquerading as one. The long-distance service is classic "see America at see level" tourist-oriented -- ride the train for the sake of riding the train. The NEC is largely business commuting. The logical thing (at least using the cost-accounting as per Amtrak) is to eliminate the tourist routes and concentrate on the more profitable NEC. But Congress insists on a porkified version of Amtrak that serves as much of the nation as possible. I can't blame them; they've made similar decisions in favor of air and postal service, not to mention highway construction, even given the vastly different sources of investment. It's seen in almost the same light as a kind of utility, but railroads are definitely getting the short end of the stick.

I believe that separating the two services would make more sense in some ways, even more than Amtrak already does.
posted by dhartung at 10:35 PM on February 3, 2002

All I have to say is that as a New Yorker without a car Amtrak is a miracle and I would be very, very sad to see them go. Tjhey provide a wonderful service to everyone on the NE corridor. Train travel in casual, you can buy or bring food, you can get up and walk 1/8 a mile if you want. It is just great.

I can take a four hour train to Harrisburg, PA for $55 to see my folks, I can take a three hour train for $70 to DC to see my friends and a (longer) 4.5 hour train to Boston.

And the best part is it goes city-center to city-center. Flying anywhere from NYC is torture -- you take a $35+ dollar 40 minute cab ride to the airport, spend an hour+ getting on the plane, maybe 40 minutes in the plane on the ground, then (to DC) less than hour in the air, and then another hour and half getting off the plane, then a half hour more on the subway to get into town. Yuck! And that's assuming you are flying to National... Dulles or BWI means at least another 45 minutes.

And you can take the train at the last minute, which is key. I can decide to visit DC and be on the train in 20 minutes from Times Square (where I work.) If I take a cab to the train station I can buy my ticket with my cell phone and simply dip my card in a machine at the terminal to have it printed out.

I absolutely love the train, even after taking it ~100 times.
posted by n9 at 7:53 AM on February 4, 2002

Nothing and I do mean nothing beats sex on a long train journey to hopefully some exotic place. I have had loads (no pun intended) of fun on trains, they for them please.
posted by bittennails at 7:59 AM on February 4, 2002

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