Let me begin by pointing out that I'm a big fan of train travel. I've ridden trains up and down the Eastern Seaboard and across half of Europe. I've hung out in old rail yards, searched out hidden rail tunnels, and once went to a wedding in the O. Winston Link museum. Like my Walletpop colleague Beth Wechsler, I'm a fan of the romance of train travel and would really like to see it come back. Unfortunately, though, I don't think Amtrak is going to make it happen.
Recently, the House of Representatives passed a bill authorizing almost $15 billion to fund Amtrak for the next five years. In addition to covering general operating expenses, the money would be used, with matching grants, to extend rail service into states where it is lacking. The justification for this massive expenditure was the fact that rail, ideally, provides a low-cost travel alternative for consumers.
There's a problem, though. First off, Amtrak isn't really low-cost. According to the Amtrak website, a ticket from Union Station in Washington D.C. to Penn Station in New York City ranges from $98 to just over $200 dollars. By comparison, a bus ticket for the same run generally goes for under $30. While the bus takes a little longer, it offers clean, comfortable seats. Amtrak, on the other hand, always leaves me desperately wanting to shower.Granted, rail lines require more capital investment than bus lines. However, given that Amtrak holds a virtual monopoly on interstate rail travel in the United States, it seems a little surprising that it hasn't been able to make passenger trains into more of a profitable venture. Part of the problem might be the popularity of the car; after all, Eisenhower's interstate highway program spelled the end for train travel in the 1950's. Cheap gas and affordable cars put the nails in the coffin. Rail travel went from being romantic and high-class to being the refuge of people who were too cheap to spring for a plane ticket.
Now that gas has gotten a lot more expensive and that most air flights have transformed into high-altitude versions of cattle cars, it might be time for a resurgence of train travel. If passenger rail was opened up to free enterprise, it seems likely that private companies would quickly develop low-cost, high-speed transportation across the country. After all, as useful as buses are across short distances, a Greyhound trip from Boston to Miami sounds like a season in hell. With a bullet train, however, the trip could be fast, comfortable and relatively cheap. Californians also frequently wonder why there isn't a bullet train of their own, zipping from San Diego to Sacramento, with stops along the way in Los Angeles, Bakersfield, Oakland and San Francisco. There's a $10 billion bond proposal on the upcoming ballot, but the idea still seems like a pipe-dream, given the state's ugly financial deficit.
Having ridden trains in several other countries, I can easily imagine leaving my relaxing train seat to visit a well-stocked dining car for a beer and a sandwich. By comparison, on Amtrak, this vision usually has me peeling myself off a sticky seat in search of reheated pizza and a lukewarm soda.
Like me, Amtrak sees the possibilities of privately-owned high-speed rail service. The House of Representatives' bill includes a requirement for the Department of Transportation to seek private proposals for the development of a high-speed rail line that would run from Washington D.C. to New York City. Lobbying from Amtrak has kept the requirement out of the Senate's version of the funding bill, which means that, at least for the time being, Amtrak will keep its rail monopoly and the American people will have to look to buses for the low-cost, comfortable interstate transportation that they need!
Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. Deep in his heart, he's worried that riding on Amtrak will give him hepatitis.
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