Tag Archives: Amtrak

Can I Rail Against American Rail?

Logic and American public policy all too often have zero connection to one other. The distance between what government ought to be doing, especially about infrastructure–and what government is, or more accurately, isn’t doing–is especially obvious when it comes to rail.


Anyone who has ventured onto the nation’s highways can appreciate the benefits of shifting freight delivery to rail from the huge number of long-haul trucks that clog those highways. But those benefits aren’t limited to safer and easier driving for motorists, or even to less wear and tear on roadways that taxpayers must maintain at significant cost. Trains pose far less threat to the environment:

In absolute terms, the picture is clear. Worldwide, road users account for about 71% of transport CO2 emissions, with railway companies making up less than 1.8%, next to 12.3% for aviation and 14.3% for shipping, according to the International Energy Agency and International Union of Railways.

When it comes to passenger travel, the picture is cloudier because the United States simply does not prioritize travel by rail, and a traveler’s ability to make an informed choice–to decide how to get from point A to point B–is thwarted by the fact that all too often, no trains run between those points. Even when passenger trains are available, they are often old and the tracks poorly maintained, thanks to years of underfunding Amtrak. (To the extent that there is an exception, it is in the heavily populated Northeast Corridor, where the Acela is extremely popular.)

My husband is a train buff who follows news about Amtrack; he recently shared an item that illustrates America’s neglect of the country’s rail infrastructure.

When Amtrak was last reauthorized by Congress, the criteria for the board of directors was changed to bring a broader swath of members to the board from outside of the Northeast Corridor.

Today’s board members, all appointees from the Obama administration, are all continuing service after the expiration of their appointed terms. Amtrak’s by-laws allows board members to continue to serve until a new board member has been nominated by the White House and confirmed by the United States Senate.

At this moment, every board position from the chairman down to the most recent appointee are all out-of-term and waiting to leave when their successor has been confirmed by the senate.

As of now, the Biden White House has not nominated any new members to the board after being in office for 15 months.

Given Joe Biden’s long support for– and personal use of– train travel, this is especially annoying.

My husband and I have traveled extensively on trains in Europe and Asia. They are plentiful and up-to-date (bathroom facilities in each sleeper car, excellent dining options. wifi, etc.). In Europe, destinations are closer to each other, but in China, we were on trains that took days transversing lengthy, often unpopulated, landscapes.

Our last train trip in the U.S. was from San Francisco to Chicago (Indiana has refused to participate financially in rail, so options from Chicago to Indianapolis are scant. That leg required MegaBus…)

We had booked the best sleeper on the train. To say it was a disappointment would be a distinct understatement. The cars were at least 40 years old, and tired. When the seats in the compartment were turned down to make beds, you couldn’t open the door to the bathroom. Needless to say, there was no Wifi. Thanks to delayed maintenance of tracks, we hit a place where they’d washed out (I no longer remember where). We sat for several hours while Amtrak figured out how to re-route us onto tracks owned by carriers operating freight trains. Ultimately, we were 19 hours late getting into Chicago.

That trip was a nightmare, but we were on vacation–we didn’t have to be anywhere at any particular time, so we were annoyed, but not terribly inconvenienced. Obviously, however, “service” like that will never generate the sort of robust business and personal travel we routinely saw in  Europe, where businesspeople filled one train–with Wifi, and various other amenities–that ran every twenty minutes from Madrid to a city in southern Spain, roughly the distance between Indianapolis and Pittsburgh.

Multiple studies show that rail travel is environmentally superior to both air and automobile travel. It is indisputably more pleasant–and frequently takes less time than air travel when going through security and travel to and from the airport is factored in.

We won’t have the benefits that rail travel can provide so long as Amtrak is underfunded and its board consists entirely of holdovers. Rail needs to be a much higher priority.




Planes, Trains and Buses–The Rest of the Story

Maybe I’m just not cut out for travel.

Some of you will remember my blog detailing the wild and woolly start of our trip to the West Coast–the mad dash to catch the plane, the belated realization that we’d left our car at the airport but we were returning by train…

That was NOTHING compared to the return.

My husband has long wanted to take a train trip across the Western U.S. We are big train buffs, and whenever we are in Europe or Asia, trains are our primary means of travel. Almost without fail, those trains have been modern, immaculate, fast and reliable.

Amtrak, unfortunately, cannot claim to be any of those things.

We boarded in Emeryville (just outside San Francisco) on Friday morning for a trip that was scheduled to arrive in Chicago at 3 pm Sunday. We had made (nonrefundable) reservations on a Megabus to Indianapolis for 6:00 p.m.–giving us three hours. Plenty of time.

Our first disappointment was the “top of the line” sleeper; not only were the cars 40+ years old and tired, but the design of the sleeper was baffling—when the lower bed was out, there was no room to walk and no way to use the washbasin. The upper bunk was much higher than necessary—nice for the person on the bottom, but making it impossible for the person on top to sit up. There were none of the clever storage solutions we’ve found on European trains—virtually no place to put even the most common items–and the tiny bathroom/shower left a lot to be desired.

And there was no Wifi. Fortunately, my techie son had explained how to tether our phones to our devices, but we burned through our data plan and then some.

As we went across the country, the scenery was magnificent, and the other passengers we met were interesting and pleasant. (I should note that the train appeared full–people really like trains!) But we steadily lost time; due to the condition of track, there were many places where the train had to slow down.

As we entered Nebraska  it became obvious we’d be well behind schedule. Before we even reached Omaha we were three hours late, so we made new Megabus reservations for six p.m.(couldn’t change the existing ones, thanks to that company’s requirement that changes be made five days in advance). (Did I mention that these tickets are non-refundable?)

Then we got to Omaha, where we were told that storms in Iowa the day before had washed out rail, and we were being re-routed onto a freight line’s track. Despite the fact that Amtrak obviously knew about this problem well before we left Emeryville–and well before they allowed other passengers to board in Denver without informing them of the problem–this was the first time anyone mentioned the fact that the previous day’s train was still stranded in Iowa.

The new route involved waiting for a new crew; we sat in Omaha for six hours. Although  announcements were few and far between–and, in our car, thanks to an antiquated PA system, basically inaudible–we were finally told that the estimated time of arrival in Chicago would be somewhere between 1:00 and 3:00 a.m. Monday. Yesterday.

Another nonrefundable ticket purchase from Megabus, this time playing it safe: 6:00 a.m. And given the schedule, no sleep.

The train finally arrived at Chicago’s Union Station. At 6:02 a.m. We waited 40 minutes for the checked luggage to appear (and when it did, it had evidently been dragged through a large pile of dirt.) No one was working in the baggage claim area, so there was no one to ask about the reason for the delay-or the dirt.

Our final non-refundable Megabus tickets got us on the 9:30 a.m. bus to Indianapolis.

The bus ride was uneventful until we hit the bridge repairs on I65, which brought traffic on that incredibly busy interstate to a virtual halt for over a half-hour. By which time, I was ready to throw myself off the damn bridge and end it all.

We finally got home at 2:30 in the afternoon. Dirty, sweaty, tempers frayed. We’d had no sleep and nothing to eat since Sunday afternoon. Amazingly, we’re still married….

So what have I learned, other than I’m an old broad who should just stay home and tend my (nonexistent) garden?

One of my father’s favorite sayings was: things worth doing are worth doing right. Other countries seem to get this; in the U.S., however, lawmakers seem averse to the concept of infrastructure maintenance. Our bridges are dangerously substandard, our rail beds deteriorating, our trains far past their prime. But rather than fixing our embarrassing rail system, Congress continues to degrade its ability to provide service by cutting Amtrak’s budget.

We sure seem to have plenty of money for weapons, though.