Clearing the Tracks
Amtrak's Roundabout Journey to Success
Otis White's Urban Notebook from Governing.com
Posted December 28, 2006
That ground-shaking sensation you just felt wasn't an earthquake. It was Amtrak waking up. That's right: After exploring every possible avenue of failure, America's passenger train network is trying success - and succeeding!
OK, let's not get carried away. Like every other transportation mode, Amtrak is heavily subsidized. Its books are a mess, its decisions politicized, and labor relations dismal (most of its unionized employees have been without a contract for seven years). Worse, it clings to the belief that long, slow train trips are part of America's national heritage. Still, Amtrak is slowly but surely getting on track.
Best sign: Ridership is up on its state-supported rail corridors. (There are three big components of Amtrak ridership: its long-successful Boston-New York-Washington, D.C., corridor, its declining long-distance routes, and the new middle- and short-distance routes that state governments are creating in partnership with Amtrak.) Example: the 82-mile Capitol Corridor route from Sacramento to Oakland, Calif., which was started 15 years ago with three daily round-trip trains and 273,000 riders a year. Today, the San Francisco Chronicle reported recently, the Capitol Corridor has 16 round-trip trains a day and 1.3 million riders. That makes it the third most heavily used passenger rail route in the country, the Chronicle said, behind the Northeastern corridor and Southern California's Pacific Surfliner.
More important, Amtrak's leaders seem to understand that the future lies with these intercity routes. "The stars may be aligning" for rail travel, Amtrak's new president told the New York Times recently.
He's right, and it's important to know why. To begin, the United States has long flirted with disaster by putting its transportation eggs in two baskets, highway and air travel, and ignoring rail. There are many reasons for this foolish dependency (the highway and airport lobbies were effective, train travel was seen as old-fashioned, and Amtrak's greatest loyalists were long-distance train buffs), but the bill is coming due as our highways and airports break down due to overuse. Thankfully, while Congress dawdled, the states rushed in to create routes aimed at business passengers and commuters (hence, California's Capitol Corridor and Surfliner routes).
But it's more than just the failure of the other modes that's causing a renaissance in rail. Train travel is inherently more efficient for travelers on middle-distance trips (from 100 to 500 miles long). Even for shorter routes, there are advantages. Take that Sacramento-to-Oakland run. How long would it take you to drive 80 miles through some of the worst traffic in North America? You can take the Capitol Corridor and be there in less than two hours. And not frazzled. You can work, read or sleep the whole way. "It's clean, they provide outlets for your laptop, they have special seating at tables for people who are working, and they have food," one frequent passenger told the Chronicle. "It's a nice ride. You feel safe and secure. It isn't your normal public transportation."
Even in less-congested parts of the country, train travel between cities less than 500 miles apart makes sense. Take the Amtrak route from St. Louis to Chicago. At five hours and 40 minutes, the 300-mile trip by train is about as fast as driving but not as fast as flying, even figuring in security clearances and cab rides on both ends. (It's about an hour-and-20-minute flight.) But, again, you can work comfortably the entire way. Result: Even with slow trains, ridership is up nearly 50 percent on the St. Louis-to-Chicago route since Illinois added new trains in November.
Now, imagine that route with the kind of high-speed trains that are common in Europe. Suddenly, train travel would have all the advantages for middle-distance travel: comfort, productivity and speed. And we'd have picked up a valuable third option for transportation, relieving highways and airports.
What has stood in the way until now was Amtrak. But with a new business model (mid-range routes created in partnership with states), better management and a more sympathetic Congress, we could soon clear the tracks of the last great obstacle to sensible rail transportation.