Reader's Replies

Here's your chance to join the fray and be heard.  You can respond to my columns and share your own opinions and insight.

  • Ed from Seattle discusses more Amtrak issues with David, who takes the opportunity to write a lot more about Amtrak solutions!
  • Paul from somewhere in Internet land talks about Amtrak's longdistance service and their unwillingness to disclose actual ridership data.

Reader's Replies :  Other readers share their opinions and experiences.  You can too.  If you'd like to add your own commentary, please send me a note.



Ed from Seattle writes : You won't find it possible to fit the European standards to the U. S. for the one reason that this country is so sprawled.  Take a look at the map and you will find that the distance, say, between Bologna and Basel is about the same as Portland and San Francisco. The difference: not much in between over here.

Then, of course, you have the example of Southwest Airlines.  As you know (if you believe their ads), what has become the team to beat started with the simple premise that connecting Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio with frequent, cheap (and reliable) service would prove a market. Even if Amtrak (or some successor) took the same approach, there aren't enough markets to cannibalize.

I live in the Portland/Seattle area, too. I wouldn't dream of taking the Horizon shuttle. Sea-Tac is impossible and expensive (did I repeat myself, there?). I drive between the two areas at least once a week -- including the option of flying out of PDX instead of SEA. I would welcome frequent and fast train service.  But, the entire infrastructure would have to be created. I doubt anyone is going to put up that kind of money. If you have any doubt, look at the ridiculous parrying over "light rail" for "Sound Transit" (another misnomer), and which will have the trains stopping a mile short of the airport.

Sorry, but I don't have any solutions, either.

David replies :  I felt quite unhappy with the article I wrote on Amtrak.  I am told that my articles should run 750-1250 words, and the Amtrak article was already over the upper limit, but still was very very short and not nearly in enough detail to adequately cover what is actually a very complicated subject.

For example, I was advocating better frequency of trains. This is a great idea in theory, but there is a massive problem. The tracks are becoming too congested with freight trains, a problem which is aggravated by the slow speed of the freight trains compared to passenger trains. The railroad companies that actually own the track make their money from the freight trains, and of course don't want to mess up their freight operations just to allow Amtrak services to use their lines.

Let's talk about comparing the US to Europe. I both agree and disagree. While there are lots of other towns and cities in Europe in between the major cities, most of the trains do not stop at these smaller towns! Their 'intercity express' services are just that - they travel between major cities and ignore the smaller towns.  For select city pairs in the US (ie major urban centers within about 300 miles of each other) there is no need for minor towns along the way - the whole concept of fast service requires the trains to be nonstop.

You also mention what could be a 'golden triangle' of railroading - Dallas - Houston - San Antonio (and, for that matter, Austin also on the return leg between San Antonio and Dallas). This triangle is brilliantly suited for train service - three (or four or five depending on if you count Ft Worth and Austin, even Waco) major cities all in close proximity to each other such that any one city is less than 250 miles away from any of the other cities. If this was Europe, you'd see high speed trains zipping around and around this large loop, in both directions, almost continuously from early in the morning until late at night. Instead, Amtrak offer one train a day between Dallas and San Antonio, and it takes the train 9hrs 40 minutes to make the journey!

I do totally agree about the idiocy of the 'Sound Transit' scheme in Seattle, stopping just short of the airport. That is just frighteningly stupid, and of course, this is before we start to talk about the costs involved in their various projects. How about the commuter trains from Tacoma up to Seattle. I can't remember the numbers, but I think they are costing something like $20 per pax in extra costs over and above the recovered ticket prices. I love trains, absolutely, but I also hate excessive taxes!

However, SEA-PDX is an ideal city pair for expanded Amtrak service, because it would not require a huge amount of money to improve the service. The fast trains do the journey in 3.5 hours from city center to city center on existing track configured the way it is at present, and if I was to take the train, I'd probably choose to drive from where I live in Redmond down to Tukwila and join the train there, reducing the train journey time even more. Extending the service from three trains a day to six or twelve or whatever would only require the purchase of additional trainsets, nothing else. And the trainsets do not need to be mammoth 12 carriage trainsets - the could be small two or four carriage sets - a single double carriage consist still holds more pax than an MD80.

I have another idea as well. One of the other problems is that there are no decent parking facilities near most central city train stations, including the King St station in Seattle. At Seatac, for all its faults, there are tens of acres of parking lots for miles around in every direction. At King St station - there are a few nearby expensive city parking lots, all in a bad neighborhood that I wouldn't feel comfortable leaving my car unattended for several days. I'm all in favor of trains with their city to city center service, but for me, living in the Seattle area, what I want is to be able to drive to the train station and leave my car in secure parking nearby, then take the train on to the city center destination at the other end. The ideal answer for people in both Seattle and Portland is to have the Tukwila and Vancouver (WA) stops (with cheap land nearby) add large parking facilities.

Let's extend the idea even more. How about allowing these trains to include car transporters - that way, you can take your own car with you instead of needing to hire a rental car at the other end. Wouldn't that be brilliantly convenient - leave your luggage in your car, have your own comfortable familiar car when at your destination - even save on the parking costs that you'd otherwise incur if leaving the car behind! To allow this without slowing down the train timetables, you'd add extra facilities (again in Tukwila and Vancouver, not Seattle city center and Portland city center) where passengers could arrive earlier than the train and load their cars onto the wagons, then when the train arrives, the extra wagons are merely coupled on (or uncoupled off) the train.

Amtrak needs two things. Imagination and money. I don't know, but I guess it probably already has imagination. But it does not have the money. Everything comes back to this single issue - money. Amtrak needs to be allowed to grow itself to a sustainable size; only then can it hope to trade profitably.

Paul from somewhere in Internet land writes :  I think Amtrak's long-distance service is outdated and a big money-waster. The relatively few raifans and vacationers who seek train travel are not nearly enough to support even the skeleton system that exists today. Few others, unless they have a strong phobia about air travel, would choose rail over air travel to get, for example, from NY to Miami or Los Angeles, Chicago to New Orleans, or even Chicago to Omaha.

Also, long distance service has deteriorated badly. Fifty years ago the Broadway Limited or 20th Century Limited would go from NYC to Chicago in 15 hours, with no lateness except in the most dire unpreventable circumstances. Today the fastest scheduled time for that route is about 18-1/2 hours, and trains often arrive 2-3 hours late. In fact, I used to spend a lot of time at the 30th St. Station in Philadelphia. According to the arrival-departure board, long distance trains were usually late northeast bound and often late even from NYC to Philadelphia.

I last tested the Metroliner before the advent of Acela, and I have not tested Acela. On several Metroliner round trips between New York and Washington, I found the trains quite full beween NY and Philadelphia but
sparsely occupied between Philly and Washington, in both directions. As a then-editor of Conde Nast Traveler, I asked Amtrak for statistics on Metroliner riders for a month. I was readily given the overall ridership each day. When I then asked for a stop-by-stop breakdown, I was told that such information was confidential. I thought of suing under the Freedom of Information Act, and probably I should have, but I became occupied with other matters and let this one drop.

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Copyright 2002 by David M Rowell.