Nonstop to Nowhere
By A.D. Freudenheim

20 July 2003

The recent news that Congress has proposed slashing Amtrak’s budget by 1/3 was, if not exactly timely for Amtrak, certainly timely for me. A few weeks ago, I took Amtrak’s new-ish Acela service on a round-trip from New York to Washington, DC, my first experience with this allegedly-high-speed, express train. While on the train I had already been thinking about how service could be improved; reading Representative John Mica’s (R-FL) comment that an effective train service in the Northeast Corridor “not only has the potential for making money but could also dramatically change the travel patterns” gave me an additional nudge.[1]

How was the Acela? Well, it was fine – but that seems like marginal praise for a transportation system designed to get me from the U.S. financial capitol to the U.S. political capitol, a route that should be very well serviced indeed. The upsides of the Acela are fairly obvious: the service is better than the earlier “business” train, Amtrak’s Metroliner, and as with most trains, the fact that one goes from city center to city center is great. Airports are a hassle, and while traffic to DC’s National airport can be mild, getting to NYC’s LaGuardia airport can take 45 minutes or more, depending on the time of day. It took me all of 10 minutes to get to Penn Station by subway, and in Washington it took me another 10 minutes to go from Union Station to meetings in DC. This concentrates the majority of one’s travel time into one place – on the train itself – instead of large chunks of time spent waiting in or moving to/from other places: taxi to airport check-in to airport lounge to airplane to taxi again.

Once upon a time, the two airline shuttles, run by Delta and USAir(ways), operated much like a shuttle should – they were (relatively) cheap, and they flew hourly between New York, Washington, and Boston. If demand required at a given hour, another plane would be added, and both shuttle services were good about accommodating travelers whose plans changed: need an earlier or a later shuttle? No problem. Your ticket was open and always valid. The service was happily no-frills, providing more in the way of news – lots of free magazines and newspapers – than food or drink; but for a flight that consisted of no more than 40 minutes in the air, this was a fine approach to customer service.

In more recent years, the shuttles have changed, and become distinctly less shuttle-like. Tickets are now much more expensive, and fares change depending on the time of day you are traveling. (This may be practical in terms of adjusting to the marketplace, but is impractical – or, at least, not necessarily competitive – if you look at the volume of travel on this route.) Furthermore, in my experience nothing about the broader service aspects of the shuttle – sitting on the tarmac for an additional 20 minutes, for instance, or getting stuck traveling to or from the airports – has improved in this same period, even though the airlines have a voice in how the airports are managed, and in encouraging cities to fix their infrastructures to improve airport-related travel.

In fact, in a post-September 11th world, flying can be a nuisance. In light of all the built-in hassles, the Acela should be damn appealing, yet its downsides are very real. Although it is cheaper than the airline shuttle, it is still not competitive on price because of the overall combination of other factors: it isn’t fully “express” (at least, not according to my definition), and it isn’t always on time, both of which should be important considerations by Amtrak in making this service indispensable. The on-time record is almost absurd; there are few traffic control issues to worry about, and there should be no equipment issues either on these expensive, new trains. Amtrak should find it easy to run on time, even without Mussolini in the White House.

The first accusation is more important. The Acela misses the opportunity to be “express” - and to fully take advantage of the train’s speed – by adding too many stops; Amtrak should analyze where the peak traffic points are, and remove 3 or 4 of the smaller stops between New York and DC. To the committed NYC-DC traveler – the kind of person willing to spend $300 on a short trip like this – a 20 minute improvement in overall performance would actually be many times more valuable than the additional stops should be to Amtrak (and, heck, it’s not my fault if you live in Metropark, NJ). With other Amtrak and commuter train services available, the Acela should be left to race happily from endpoint to endpoint. In practical terms this would mean the whole trip would drop from just under 3 hours to 2.5 hours, which makes it more appealing – and more competitive – when compared with the airlines.

Perhaps the biggest problem Amtrak faces is that it has failed thoroughly to make its case, and to follow through on the five-year reform plan that Congress demanded in 1997 when it bailed Amtrak out. Those five years are up, and now Congress is on the hunt, looking (as Representative Mica apparently desires) at forcing the money-losing system to refocus on long-distance routes and to turn over the Northeast Corridor system that runs the Acela service to a consortium owned by the relevant states.[2] Maybe the biggest marker of how irrelevant Amtrak seems to be is that neither The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal have done their own reporting on the proposed budget cuts; the Journal ran a report by the Associated Press very similar to the one quoted above, while the Times has carried nothing at all on the subject.”[3]

I cannot judge whether the $1.8 billion allocation that Amtrak says it needs is either a realistic or an accurate number, or how severely the proposed $580 million will affect service. It does seem to me that Amtrak should not have such difficulties in making money (or at least breaking even) in a country filled with people on the move, and particularly one where both the cost and hassles of air travel have increased. That said, the Acela seems like the perfect example of exactly why the Amtrak systems are not really working: the whole notion of what an express service should be seems caught up in overly-bureaucratic decisions about where services are needed or of the impact of leaving someone (like the folks in Metropark, NJ) out of the loop. Or maybe it is just an overly-governmental definition of “express” - which, where government is concerned, is typically anything but that.

[1] “House Panel Gives Amtrak $580 Million,”
by Jim Abrams, Associated Press, 11 July 2003
[2] Ibid.
[3] “Amtrak’s Funds Are Slashed in Congressional
Panel Vote,” Associated Press report published by
The Wall Street Journal, 11 July 2003. The Times
did run an article on the Acela’s “quiet car”; see
“Sound, Fury, and Cellphone Users,” by Elizabeth Olson,
The New York Times, 15 July 2003.
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