Train in Vain
Europe and Asia have figured it out, so why is the American rail system still so unspeakably awful? GOOD hops aboard a transcontinental train to find out.
Ask around onboard almost any Amtrak train, and you’ll get a pretty short list of reasons why people ride the rails. In the café car, chugging along one of the country’s oldest routes, I counted four types of passengers. There are thrifty ones looking to save a few bucks on plane tickets. There are those who are scared of flying, a group that has no doubt grown in recent years. There are the zealots—without exception, older men—who describe themselves with charming lack of inhibition as “rail junkies,” “railroad nuts,” “train buffs,” or, my personal favorite, “railfans.” The rest—indeed the majority—say they’re here for “the experience.” Good thing for Amtrak, that romantic notion of the rails is alive and well. Naturally, it’s something the beleaguered rail company promotes to death. The experience is an important sell; nobody ever mentions reliability or practicality.“If you got somewhere to be, you’ve got to fly,” one conductor tells me early enough in my trip to set the tone for what’s to come. We’ve been waiting for a freight train up ahead for about 20 minutes, the first of what will be many delays. I’ll soon learn that once you’re out of the Northeast, where Amtrak owns most of the tracks on which its trains run—as opposed to just borrowing them from freight companies—you get used to hearing “freight up ahead” crackle through the loudspeaker. “But if you got time,” he goes on, “if you got no rush about you, this is the way to go.”
With no rush about me, here I was, on a trip from New York to San Francisco that runs exactly 3,397 miles, rolling through 11 states, on two legendary rail routes—the Lake Shore Limited (from New York to Chicago) and the California Zephyr (from Chicago to just outside San Francisco). This could take exactly 77 hours and 15 minutes, if the trains keep to schedule. Most likely, they won’t.
The American passenger rail—once a model around the globe—is now something of an oddball novelty, a political boondoggle to some, a colossal transit failure to others. The author James Howard Kunstler likes to say that American trains “would be the laughing stock of Bulgaria.” The numbers show just how far this once-great system has fallen. In 1960, U.S. rail travelers logged 17.1 billion passenger miles (the movement of one passenger one mile), the standard measure of a system’s reach; by 2000, that number had fallen to 5.5 billion, just one percent of the total travel between U.S. cities that year. (Of course, over this same period, airlines’ passenger miles increased 16 times; even intercity buses’ service nearly doubled.) Most of this decrease was seen in the 1960s, as highways and air travel took precedent both in travel plans and in government subsidies. Since its ill-fated formation as a quasi-public, for-profit corporation in 1971, Amtrak has seen only meager growth and loses billions of dollars annually.
The reasons for Amtrak’s bad reputation are totally damning—its service is neither practical nor reliable. Impractical because most of the time, it’s cheaper and faster to drive or fly. Unreliable because more often than not, the trains are really, really late. There are stories of 12-hour delays on routes that would take six hours to drive; of breakdowns in the desert; of five-hour unexplained standstills in upstate New York. Then there’s the mother of all Amtrak horror stories: a California Zephyr that stopped dead on its tracks for two full days, victim of both an “act of God” (as corporate legalese wisely defines a landslide on the tracks) and gross staffing negligence.
But this isn’t typical of the entire mode of transportation—just of American trains. In Europe, reliable high-speed routes are now being connected across the continent: the French TGV regularly hits 200 mph; the Eurostar zooms the 300 miles from Paris to London in just 2 hours and 15 minutes; in Japan, the Shinkansen has been zipping along at 130 mph since 1964—1964!—and the island nation’s most popular long-distance intercity route serves 385,000 passengers daily. In test runs, French trains have hit top speeds of more than 350 miles per hour. America’s trophy system, the high-speed Acela (launched in 1999, it was designed to handle the sharp turns of the Northeastern corridor at high speeds), peaks at 150 mph for two short lengths of track, which total a meager 18 miles. Even the requirements for calling a train high-speed are different in Europe, where a train must surpass 124 mph to earn the distinction; in the United States, the cutoff is 36 mph slower.
Regardless of the definition, to most Americans accustomed to slow regional rail service, the Acela seems downright speedy. It now carries about 3 million passengers a year, accounting for a large percentage of the modest gains in ridership that Amtrak has seen over the past half decade. But of course, Acela—with its relative success—is the exception.
My adventure starts off well enough. At exactly 3:45 p.m., a whistle’s toot and an “All Aboard!” signal our departure. Right on time, the doors slide shut and the Lake Shore Limited, shiny and silver and sleek, is rolling out of New York’s Penn Station, the country’s busiest rail hub. Inside, things look promising. The coach car is comfortable and commodious in a way you always wish a plane would be. The overhead storage is roomy enough for all but the most monstrous luggage, and the seats are as wide as those in business class on an international flight. It feels, for a while, like a perfectly reasonable way to get from city to city.
And why shouldn’t it? To begin with, the United States has a lot of ground to cover. Compared with France, Japan, or even all of Western Europe, the United States is enormous. So despite having the largest rail network of any country in the world—with about 130,000 miles of track, it’s more than twice the size of Russia’s, which is the second largest—in terms of passenger miles, the United States ranks below not only France and Japan, but also below under-developed countries such as Egypt, Pakistan, and Indonesia.
Still, for all its limitations, America’s interest in the rail may be regaining traction. There are tentative plans for a magnet-powered “maglev” train to run from southern California to Las Vegas, which has been without an Amtrak route since budget cuts in 1997. And in 2008 the state of California will vote on a measure that would pay for a high-speed rail linking San Diego and Sacramento, although the vote has already been delayed twice. Other states are also beginning to talk about funding high-speed rail projects, though the cost, which often involves appropriating land for new, non-freight-owned track, can be prohibitive. In 2006, Pennsylvania launched a train that hits speeds more than 100 miles per hour between Philadelphia and Harrisburg, the only high-speed rail line outside the Northeast. But when you’re on any of the majority of routes that don’t have a high-speed option, Amtrak seems to have a long way to go.
“Amtrak faces an interesting challenge—to capture the nostalgic romance of the rails while offering a service fit for the 21st century.”
Casey Danton, a skinny Northwestern student who takes the seat next to me in Syracuse, New York, knows Amtrak well. Because his uncle has worked for the company since the 1980s, Casey’s never paid for a ticket. (Which is a good thing, he tells me, “because I don’t like to fly.”) “Some things have gotten better, but a lot has gotten worse,” he says. “The cars have gotten nicer. They used to smell like smoke. But the delays seem worse. When I’m going east [of Syracuse] it’s all right, but west there’s usually problems.”
James McCommons, a train expert who is currently writing a history of the American passenger rail, agrees. “There have been some upgrades here and there, but Amtrak is really bare bones even compared to what it was back in the seventies,” he says. “I remember the toilets used to flush straight onto the tracks, so that’s better now. But I also remember being able to watch them actually cook the steaks—the old cars had the kitchens right on the end. Now … it’s not as bad as airline food, but it’s not quite like it was.”
Increasingly, though, rail improvement seems inevitable. “In the near future,” says George Chilson, president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, “road and air congestion, worldwide competition for oil, and growing environmental con-cerns will make four-dollar-a-gallon gas seem cheap, today’s traffic jams modest, and affordable flights a distant memory.”
Chilson, along with a growing number of transportation wonks, energy experts, and politicians, sees the railroads as a priority for America, as a solution to congestion and rising gas prices. Per passenger mile, an Amtrak train uses about half the energy of an airplane, and can carry twice the number of people. It’s also the passenger-carrying equivalent of 16 lanes of highway. With ridership on Acela trains on the rise, it may only be a matter of time before America has no choice but to truly catch up to the rest of the rail-traveling world.
When we pull into the stunning Great Hall at Chicago’s Union Station only an hour and 45 minutes behind schedule, my heart leaps a little bit. Around the perimeter of this Beaux Arts masterpiece, natural light shines against the Corinthian columns that rise from the pink marble floor. It’s one of those rooms you remember. And around noon on a Sunday, it’s practically empty. The bustle is all next door, in the modern new annex decked out with posters and banners and brochures that promote the nostalgic ideal that the Great Hall once embodied. Amtrak faces an interesting challenge—to capture the nostalgic romance of the rails while offering a service fit for the 21st century. Its posters and print material nod consciously to the Streamline Moderne style that defined the heyday of rail travel. And yet the very things that made the experience exactly that—an experience—don’t quite deliver like travelers want them to.
When you think of the glory days of rail travel in America, you’re picturing sometime between 1934—when the introduction of diesel engines cut long-haul-route travel times in half—and the mid-1950s. This was the romantic era of five-star chefs in dining cars that were the envy of Europe; the age of Cary Grant making time with Eva Marie Saint in a honeymoon sleeper cabin in the final scene of North by Northwest. Those days, private companies ran the rails, and competition for a burgeoning customer base kept the passenger experience grand.
There are moments when you can still feel that old glory. Somewhere near the eastern slope of the Colorado Rockies, I’m chatting with a family of five in the observation lounge, taking in the still and clear morning. To the north of us, the mountains are rugged, the tracks clinging to a massive sandstone face, wrapping along the escarpment toward the Continental Divide. The Zephyr’s lounge has pivoting cushioned seats and broad panoramic windows that stretch up the walls and curve overhead, yielding views that you would never get from the window of a plane. “We figured we’d make the train a part of our vacation,” the mother tells me. Firs give way to spruce and then to ponderosa pine. The journey feels, at this moment, important. But the moment passes. “We’ve got a freight up ahead.” The voice over the loudspeaker is unfazed and unapologetic. “We should be moving again in a half hour or so.”
“For better or worse, the company has proven good at survival, if not great at delivering passengers happy and on time.”
Delays are a fact of life on Amtrak—a symptom of a system that’s been on life support since birth. By the 1960s—due largely to the boom in passenger air travel—private rail companies were struggling. By 1970, after a string of bankruptcies and mergers, only five companies were left standing, and their future seemed in doubt. The survival of the rail companies was seen as crucial to the nation’s economic stability: Trains were, and continue to be, the single largest mover of freight in the country. But money-losing passenger service was considered a major sore on the system. So in 1971, Congress and President Nixon relieved the rail companies of the burden of moving people, eventually forming the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, more commonly known as Amtrak (which is an only slightly less awkward moniker than Railpax, its original incarnation) to take on the losses associated with passenger rail. Though the company is entirely owned by the U.S. government, funded at the government’s discretion, and has its leadership appointed by the president and subject to Senate approval, it still has a mandate to achieve profitability and financial independence. In essence, it is a private company wholly owned and operated by government bureaucracy. Nixon’s aides figured Amtrak would only last a few years.
For better or worse, the company has proven good at survival, if not great at delivering passengers happy and on time. It now operates 425 locomotives pulling more than 2,000 train cars, employs nearly 20,000 people, and serves 46 states—Alaska, Hawaii, Wyoming, and South Dakota get skipped. But despite the recent increase in ridership and revenue, the company is still at the mercy of political crosswinds. In 2005, President Bush proposed cutting Amtrak’s entire $1.2-billion federal subsidy, arguing that it needed to become self-sufficient; presidential candidate Senator John McCain has been a vocal critic. Most important for me, Amtrak is also at the whim of the freight companies from whence it sprang. The company, too poor to own nearly any of the rails that it runs on, operates on borrowed infrastructure, using tracks owned by private freight companies who are legally bound to let Amtrak roll on their rails, but little else. Meaning that when a freight train needs to get by, Amtrak waits. Thus the delays, which begin to pile up.
Groans roll through the dining car as the train again eases to a halt. The Zephyr’s progress dominates conversation. Back-of-napkin arithmetic calculates average speeds (miles traveled since last meal divided by hours since last meal). Multiple tactics are employed to figure how far behind schedule we are—to the minute. Differing results are debated; rumors circulate about the causes of the various delays. “A Union Pacific [train] was stalled up in front of us there.” “I heard we hit a boulder and blew out the engine.” Eventually, the train pulls into Salt Lake City, six hours and 10 minutes behind schedule. Somebody had predicted it to within five minutes, but at five in the morning, he’s not up to celebrate the small, telling victory.
“There’s been some upgrades here and there, but Amtrak is really bare bones even compared to what it was back in the seventies.”
Later that day, as we slow in the high desert of Nevada, an announcement crackles through the speakers. It’s the “smoke break” announcement—“a good time to step outside, stretch your legs, get a breath of fresh air, have a cigarette.” These smoke breaks come every six to eight hours when the train is on schedule, and when they do, everyone spills out next to the train for a time-limited free-for-all of chitchat, solid ground, and uninhibited stretching and posing for photos.
A raspy-voiced woman in her 40s, one of the engineers, calls down from the cab and invites a few of us to come take a look. Without hesitation we clamber up. She tells us that they’re off duty, as her partner, a mustachioed, red-faced man with faded tattoos, nods. When engineers hit their driving quota, apparently, they’re done. It’s an unbendable rule. “They knew, though,” the woman says, speaking of Amtrak. “They should have had someone here.” So this could’ve been prevented? “Oh yeah,” the man says, “but leave it to them and they’ll fuck it up.” And so we wait, in the middle of nowhere, for new engineers.
After a couple of hours a truck pulls up with the new drivers. A conductor yells, “All aboard!” Everybody’s already onboard. I head straight for my “roomette,” a sleeper cabin into which I’ve upgraded for the home stretch from Salt Lake City to the Bay. It’s a utilitarian and comfortable space: two facing seats fold down into a flat mattress, another bunk hinges down from the wall above. My sleeping-car attendant, Michael, gives me a sense of what the rail might have been in its glory days—he’s from Oakland, and is an exceptional man. He sets up the bed and cracks some jokes about pulling into town late tonight and how his “old lady is going to have [his] hat.”
Out the window, I see the sun drop behind the foothills of the Sierras. We will get to San Francisco, eventually, just a little over eight hours late, at 2:30 a.m. The British teacher in the next roomette will miss his connection in Sacramento. I feel the train leveling off to its peak in the Sierras. It’s dark now, the dead of night, but my California Zephyr Route Guide tells me what it’s like: that as I twist through a breathtakingly beautiful mountain wilderness, and climb through the famous mile-high Donner Pass in the heart of the Sierra Nevadas—I won’t be thinking about where I’m going.
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