Saturday, August 09, 2008

Amtrak has a long way to go to meet the demand for passenger train travel

I haven’t read Amtrak myself since 2006 when I went to Philadelphia for the COPA trial, but I notice with some interest the Friday Aug. 8 Wall Street Journal story on p A2 by Christopher Conkey, “All Aboard: Too Many for Amtrak: Surge in Ridership Leads to Crowding of Intercity Trains.” The link is here.

In fact, I have fond memories of the Amtrak trains. In August 1964 I took my first trip on my own for a weekend to New York, staying overnight in the old New Yorker on 34th St for $9 a night then, meeting college friends for off-off-broadway shows, and then going to see a movie called “The Mark” at the Roxy. In those days, what went on in Greenwich Village was a matter or rumors for the naive. (When they cleaned up the City for the Fair, it got so bad, they say, that everybody went to Boston). Oh, then, Sunday we trudged the New York World’s Fair in Flushing, which ten years later would look like a set for an end-of-world horror movie. But I do have memories of the old electric locomotives on the Pennsylvania Soon the Metroliner would come into being, and Union Station in Washington would get a facelift.

The WSJ article mentions that, in late June 2008, Amtrak suspended New York to Boston service to replace a drawbridge over the Thames River in Connecticut. I found a blog that says service resumed June 28, here.
I took that portion once, in 1975, when I lived in New York. I got the royal tour of the South Bronx, safely, and then followed the Coast.

I recall other little details. The Amtrak trains used to stop in North Philadelphia as well as 30th Street Station. I remember the “Trenton Makes, the World Takes” sign over the Delaware River (crossed by George Washington Christmas 1776), as well as the Trenton clock tower. Princeton had a nice, little used whistle stop. Metro Park seemed like a nuisance on thru trains. The article talks about the Baltimore tunnel. True, the trains slow down. One of my screenplays (“Baltimore Is Missing”) starts with the protagonists on a trains from Washington, and finding that they are in a parallel universe when they come out of the tunnel, to be manipulated by the “powers that be.”

WSJ points out the Amtrak does not have the passenger cars in stock to meet demand, and must spend billions to fix infrastructure problems with bridges, tunnels (the kind that kids like), and particularly the risk of power outages along the catenaries. And, oh yes, it would cost billions to get the travel time between New York and Washington to less than two hours. There can be similar areas of traffic in Texas, California, and a few routes in the Midwest, but it is hard to imagine regular cross country service here matching Europe’s. Maybe Russia could provide a good comparison.

As a boy, I lamented the disappearance of passenger trains. I remember once, perhaps Christmas 1949, taking a night B&O train (with a steam engine) from Washington to Cleveland. The B&O would drop passenger trains in the 50s.

My most recent trip to Europe took place in 2001, and riding the trains there is fun. France probably has the most high-speed trains. Britain’s trains look older, but it seems that they really move. I seem to remember going north from London to Liverpool and clipping at 120 mph, and on the return, riding from Birmingham back to London took very little time at something like 130 mph. I was surprised that Bilbao, Spain isn’t on the main rail line (San Sebastian/Donesta is the stop, and you have to take the Basque shuttle or else a tour bus), which is strange for a bizarre, spectacular and magical city of 2 million or so (with the Guggenheim). Taking a night train “East” from Berlin to Cracow, Poland to go see Auschwitz the next day is a sobering experience.

The investment that Europeans made in train transportation may account for some of the higher value of the Euro during hard times. When you also consider Europe’s investment in nuclear power, it just seems that Europe is not as vulnerable to oil price speculation as we are. Sometimes, it helps to have more people and higher population density to pay for infrastructure investment. It may not matter so much if it is publicly or privately owned (by shares) as that it simply works.

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