On liking Amtrak, or not | Bleader

On liking Amtrak, or not



  • Robert Couse-Baker
I was pondering why Amtrak sucks so badly this morning on the Megabus between Indianapolis and Chicago. The musing was inspired by an instance, just this very morning, of Amtrak sucking, and quite badly, though that particular lesson has always proved slippery to me: long-distance train travel always seems like such a great idea, though one whose execution never looks the way you want it to. You buy tickets with high hopes, and somehow you never adjust your expectations no matter how often those hopes are dashed. Or, as Trains magazine editor Jim Wrinn told the Washington Post last year, "There's this promise of a really nice ride and experience, but it's really not there." Or, as my boyfriend put it this morning—well, I can't remember, because it was so early in the morning that the train was scheduled to arrive, and so early in the morning when it failed to show. His observation was pithy, anyway, and similar to Wrinn's. I ended up taking the Megabus out of duress when really it should've been the only option; Megabus is nothing if not reliable.

Noting troubles like this, last year the Post asked if Americans could "fall in 'like'" with Amtrak again—if we could reconnect with the romantic ideal of train travel despite the company's shortcomings ("The causes are legion, the delays legendary"). What would it take? I was surprised to learn that one reason for Amtrak's endless delays is that its trains don't travel on tracks that the company owns—that they're a lesser priority on those tracks than freight trains:

"First of all, they never have enough funding," said Andy Kunz, president of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association, a nonprofit that advocates a national high-speed rail network. "Problem two is that they basically are borrowing track space from the freight railroads. They play second fiddle to freight. Freight is never on schedule. It's big and bulky and slow."

For the traveler languidly watching the landscape scroll by, it may come as a surprise to know that Amtrak doesn't own most of the track under its wheels. Although it does command stretches along the Northeast Corridor and in Michigan, most of the rails are controlled by freight train companies, such as CSX Corp., and state entities.

When not on its own turf, Amtrak has to share the track with the host company. Confronted with a freight train, Amtrak may have to reduce speed or stop and pull onto a side track to let the train pass. If only a single track is available, the traffic grows even knottier. "When you only have one lane of passenger train, that already causes conflict," Kunz said. "It's never-ending problems and potential delays."

So, there's that. There are some other problems, too, as the article notes—funding not the least of them—but it seems like for all but the most freewheeling travelers, the issue is this: the case for traveling via an enterprise that offers, on the evidence, no guarantee of getting you there on time is a pretty tough one to make. I just checked the schedule for the train I was supposed to get on this morning. It was scheduled to have arrived in Chicago, as I recall, around 10 AM. I took the bus and made it to work a while ago. The train's still not here.