Publisher's Note — February 21, 2013, 11:13 am

Working on the Railroad

Uncle Sam? Not much

This column originally ran in the Providence Journal on February 20, 2013.

I’ve been reading a lot lately about massive government investments in high-speed rail — in England, that is. It seems that David Cameron’s Conservatives agree with their Labour predecessors that despite the huge public expenditure — estimates range from $52 to $72 billion — there’s something to be gained from shortening the time it takes to get from London to various points north.

Such bipartisan, non-ideological cooperation would be unthinkable in Washington, where politicians are content to let Amtrak creak along on a starvation budget, appropriating just enough money for members of Congress to claim credit for keeping the train station open in Dogpatch. But I don’t live in Dogpatch — I live in the great metropolis of New York City — and I remain flabbergasted at the poor quality of train service in the Northeast Corridor, as well as the political indifference shown by politicians who “serve” the region.

Amtrak P370 nearing arrival  in  St. Joseph, twenty-three  minutes late. ©© amtrak_russ (Flickr).

Amtrak P370 nearing arrival in St. Joseph, twenty-three minutes late.
©© amtrak_russ (Flickr).

I once wrote a piece lamenting a trip I made to Utica on the Lake Shore Limited, but by now I’ve all but given up on the possibility of America’s long-distance trains being restored to their former glory. The trip my family took, in December 1966, on the Santa Fe’s elegant Super Chief is among my happiest memories — especially riding with my father in the domed observation car through darkened Joliet, with fires from the city’s steel and coke plants burning brightly, and eating a jelly omelet in the first-class dining car. But the generation of railroad men and passengers who cared for such things is long gone. I went to school near Chicago with the sons of two railroad presidents — John Reed of the Santa Fe and Worthington Smith of the Milwaukee Road — and I can say with assurance that businessmen of such admirable integrity don’t get to the top of corporations anymore.

Nevertheless, I don’t think it’s too much to ask for decent, European-style train service in what is not only the most densely populated section of the United States but likely also the richest stretch of urban geography in the world. I take the chronically mediocre, supposedly high-speed Acela fairly often to Boston, Providence, and Washington; no one needs to tell me how much faster and better it could be. But to refresh my knowledge, I recently made a round-trip to New Haven, just to remind myself of what we’ve lost and of the potential benefits if we take trains seriously again.

New York’s acoustic-tile-ceilinged, fluorescent-lit Penn Station remains what has to be the worst, most dispiriting major transportation terminal in the world, though my latest visit, post–rush hour on a Thursday morning two weeks ago, was relatively painless. My ticket seller was cordial and patient in explaining the differences between a $76 round-trip on the Northeast Regional and a $140 round-trip on the Acela, and I learned from my ticket folder that May 12 is National Train Day.

Waiting under the train board for the track to be announced (there’s no space for benches), I was tempted to jump on the glamorous-sounding Silver Star to Miami, scheduled to leave at 11:02, two minutes after my Northeast Regional #172, but I stuck with my plan. Despite the ugliness of Penn Station, I was happy to be spared the airport security drill and even happier when my train lurched into motion exactly on time. The café car was staffed by a kindly soul, and my $4.75 fruit and granola yogurt parfait along with my $2 coffee made for an adequate meal. As we looped east, then north through Queens, over the spectacular Hell Gate Bridge, then across Randall’s Island and past the New York Post printing plant, I started to think that maybe “regular” Amtrak wasn’t so bad, even when it bumps along at fifty to sixty miles per hour.

On the advice of my editor, I had invented an itinerary, including a quick tour of the Yale University Art Gallery, so I began to watch the clock very closely. Only if the train was on schedule would I be able to see some paintings and catch the returning Acela to New York to make a 4 p.m. appointment. The train arrived right on time at the hollowed-out wreck known as Bridgeport, then four minutes early, at 12:34, at New Haven (which is Paris by comparison to Bridgeport), whose handsome beaux-arts, Cass Gilbert–designed Union Station puts New York City’s hideous 1960s’ terminal to shame. Ten minutes later I was admiring Eakins’s Taking the Count, after marveling in front of Van Gogh’s Café de Nuit, Trumbull’s Washington at Trenton, and Bonnard’s Place Pigalle at Night.

A great university gets the art, the romance, and the train station it deserves. Why not the trains and speed to match?

Returning to Amtrak blandness on the frigid westbound platform, I was pleased to observe a crew preemptively de-icing the eastbound platform with liquid calcium chloride, in anticipation of the coming blizzard. Still, what’s the point of the Acela and the extra $32? It couldn’t be my $8 “Tuscan Panini,” which turned into a soggy mess after microwaving. True, I skipped Bridgeport in a bit of class-conscious scheduling. But my front-end-of-the train coach car made a squeaking sound every time we jerked a little and at 2:10 a last call was announced in the café because of a “scheduled break,” even though we weren’t due into New York for another half an hour. Shabbiness thy name is Amtrak.

My Acela did arrive on time (one of 85.4 percent to do so in the past twelve months), but so what? While the train briefly hits 150 mph north of New York, it averages somewhere in the seventies between Manhattan and Boston because the tracks can’t handle anything faster. The telling comparison is not with the Northeast Regional but with Metro North’s New Haven Line commuter train out of gorgeous Grand Central, which takes the more direct route through upper Manhattan to New Haven. The 10:03 Acela takes one hour and twenty-seven minutes to reach New Haven, for $70. The off-peak 10:07 Metro North takes just thirty-three minutes longer and costs $22. Shocked? Not enough. In 1963, the year New York’s magnificent old Penn Station was demolished, the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad ran its fastest train, from New York’s Grand Central to New Haven, in one hour and twenty minutes, seven minutes faster than the present-day Acela.

President Obama has acknowledged the menace of global warming, so why did his 2009 stimulus package contain only $8 billion for railroad infrastructure improvements, including high-speed rail? According to the World Land Trust carbon dioxide transit calculator, a medium “petrol”-run automobile produces .03 tons of CO2 over the roughly eighty-mile journey from New York to New Haven, while a train will produce one third that amount per person. Obama says we need more middle-class jobs, so why not put tens of thousands of people to work — for $15 an hour instead of the meager $9 minimum wage proposed by the President — upgrading the tracks and roadbeds?

In a flight of fancy, Amtrak announced in December that beginning in 2017 it intends to replace the Acela with new, faster trains. But to build tracks and new tunnels in the Northeast Corridor that would truly justify the purchase of more modern equipment — imagine Philadelphia to Boston in two and a half hours and New York to Washington in ninety-four minutes — would cost $151 billion and take until 2040, according to Amtrak’s estimate. So far, the Administration has proposed spending only $47 billion for a “National High Performance Rail System” over the next six years.

Monet did wonderful renderings of Paris’s St. Lazare train station. When I next visit Yale to see his Camille on the Beach at Trouville, I might make the journey in a car instead of on Amtrak. It’s cheaper and it might save time.

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  • Strelnikov

    The conservatives hate Amtrak because they can’t make “real” money off it….I know I can make money off shipping every Republican to Siberia to do slave labor work.

  • Jeremy

    A lot of this rings true for me as a long time Amtrak rider – Virginia up to New Jersey and back while in college and mostly Boston to NY now – both Acela and regular, as well as the true Amtrak steerage class on un-electrified track south of DC where freight rails have all the right of way so you get to stop every fifteen minutes or so. My overall assessment mostly mirrors the author’s; in the Northeast it is mostly reliable, not as bad as people make it out to be, even though there is obviously enormous room for improvement whether in comparison to Europe or just to logic generally (why have a 150 mph train without tracks that can’t handle it?) I also agree that as long as Obama was pretty much making up things to spend money on back in 2009, the mere $8 billion for high speed rail was a preposterous mistake.

    I think the unfortunate truth is that we are stuck with a national rail system but a federal political system. Those are not synonymous. A national political system – say proportional representation – would allocate resources where it makes sense to allocate them on the basis of where they do the most good; as the author says, in terms of rail the Northeast is the sensible place because of population density and metro centers with serviceable public transit that makes rail more viable for intercity travel.Our federal system, weighted as it is towards the dictates of states with almost no people and politicians serving geographic rather than class based constituencies, is incapable of that sort of allocation. So Amtrak, though it can and does make money in the Northeast, is forever branded a failed government enterprise because it is forced to run empty trains in other parts of the country between places no one lives or wants to go and where cars are an absolute necessity because there is no public transit, all so the august Senator Whomever from the Great State of Where’s That? can point to how he brings home the government bacon while simultaneously complaining that the government does everything wrong. At the same time, even though it makes sense to take such limited resources as we have to invest in places where rail is viable and would make money, the Northeast corridor is saddled with its “fair” share of investment that leaves it with rails that can’t even handle the trains.

    While it is perhaps a too-simple liberal meme by now to point out that blue states pay for the federal government while red states benefit from it, I think it is a fair point here that the blue states of the Northeast (and west, where high speed rail also makes some sense) will not get the modern train system they could certainly use and could certainly pay for.

    • WoodyinNYC

      Amtrak “forced to run empty trains in other parts of the country between places no one lives or wants to go.” Ah, yes, Jeremy, the view of FlyoverLand, as seen from a Northeast Corridor train window.

      First, there are virtually no “empty” trains anywhere. Yes, the Empire Builder west of St Paul seems to thin down a bit with every post-midnight stop. Both Fargo and Grand Forks serve barely 20,000 each last year. But wait until you get to Williston, where almost 55,000 roughnecks and others from the booming oil patch used the station in the daylight.

      Second, more service brings forth more users. Carbondale, Illinois, sits in the far southern part of the state near Nowhere. Out in the cornfields, or it is soy nowadays, it has 140,000 who board or alight there. They mostly take one of the two (2) daily trains, modestly subsidized by the State of Illinois, that leave and arrive during waking hours. (Amtrak’s City of New Orleans long distance train also passes thru, northbound and southbound, in the dead of night. Not many passengers from Carbondale take it).

      So even out in FlyoverLand, what is needed is more Amtrak, not less. Amtrak needs more and better locomotives, more and newer coaches and sleepers, diners, crew cars, and baggage cars. It needs more corridors like Carbondale-Champaign-Chicago on its busiest segments. It needs a night trains on every long distance route where it has a day train so it can stop in daylight where now it makes only midnight stops. It needs tens of millions, maybe hundreds of millions, in track upgrades on almost every long distance line to shave hours from its schedules. It needs to be able to extend service to new markets, the way it has in partnership with the State of Virginia to Lynchburg and Norfolk, and to Portland and beyond with the State of Maine.

      A grand total of a couple or three billion a year over just a few years would transform the regular Amtrak system, tapping into the enormous pent-up demand, soon doubling and tripling its total passenger count.

      High Speed Rail in California and the Northeast Corridor are worthy projects — that will take many years and many, many billions to complete. There’s no reason we can’t work to transform Amtrak for the rest of the nation for far less money and much less time. Either better Amtrak or HSR is a fake choice pushed hardest by those who hate both concepts. We can and should do both, better Amtrak and HSR.

      • Jeremy

        This isn’t about disdain for “flyover” America, other than the generalized proposition that politics should serve people and not geographic areas. But I think I didn’t make my point very well. So to start:

        http://subsidyscope.org/transportation/direct-expenditures/amtrak/table/

        “Empty” was the wrong word. What I meant to say was that Amtrak is forced to run unprofitable lines in areas where sparse population density and total lack of public transit makes rail a difficult proposition; every single Amtrak line outside the Northeast loses money, some over $100 per passenger, except for the Chicago area (which you mentioned) which about breaks even. Part of the reason for this is that Amtrak is government subsidized and thus falls victim to a political dynamic that spreads resources out thinly whether it makes to do so or not. I don’t doubt that the relatively modest cost of the basic improvements you outline could do a lot to attract new customers in areas like the Midwest. I only mean to say that:

        1. Galvanizing support for commonsense ideas like that is hard because Amtrak is associated in the public mind with heavily subsidized long distance routes that lose money and make no sense at present.

        2. Making improvements where they will do the most good – such as in the Carbondale-Chicago corridor you mention – is hard to do when Amtrak is to some extent politically hamstrung by the need to spread resources between many states whether it makes sense or not.

        • WoodyinNYC

          Thanks for the link to the Subsidyscope ranking. I knew the report got strong criticism, but I never saw the table.

          Here’s a link to a similar ranking, which does NOT include any guestimates for depreciation, but has more recent figures to rank farebox recovery.
          http://reasonrail.blogspot.com/2012/12/amtrak-routes-by-2012-cost-recovery.html#more

          Again you say, “heavily subsidized long distance routes that lose money and make no sense at present”. But they are used by many millions of our citizens every year, and the long distance trains make good sense to THEM.

          Some folks still want to talk bad about Amtrak, but it seems to be doing better every year. On-time performance has greatly improved. Half the passengers can now get Wi-Fi. Electronic ticketing has arrived. And every year another million passengers. Amtrak has momentum.

          In the near future, a number of those stimulus projects that Obama complained weren’t shovel-ready will start to come on line. Bi-level cars for the upgraded Midwestern routes will offer 30% more capacity and better interiors for the passengers. New electric engines on order for the NEC will drastically cut fuel costs and should improve reliability. The modest order for 130 sleepers, diners, crew cars, and baggage cars will speed up the conventional trains on the NEC while adding more “first class” revenues to help offset losses in coach class in the East Coast long distance trains.

          All the trend lines look good.

  • https://paul.kishimoto.name/ Paul Kishimoto

    Focusing on details of U.S. service and a “European-style” alternative avoids the deeper embarrassment of comparisons with Asian high-speed rail:

  • Christopher Thomas

    “According to the World Land Trust carbon dioxide transit calculator, a medium

    • http://www.facebook.com/chris.h.shepley Chris Shepley

      I was assuming his figure was based on the published avarage daily ridership on the route in question.

  • stover.p919

    Having Had A Love Affair With Trains My Entire Life, I Could ‘Brain’ The Republican Intransigents In Washington For Kinking Up Any Plans For Substantial R/R Infrastructure Spending. If Within Earshot Of A Railroad,—Any Railroad!— I Am Also Within Earshot Of Yet Another Of My Most Enduring Vagabond Fantasies. . . A Hobo-Like Adventure Which Can Never Get Started Until I Hear The Approaching Whistle Of A Train . . . .

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