By Borden Black
Remember when you used to dress up to travel. I have fond recollections of standing at the railroad station with my mom. I had on white gloves, shiny patent leather shoes and a hatbox. The train pulled up…snorting steam and stewards jumped out to get your bags. Once on board there was a linen topped table with steaming hot food.
Train travel isn’t what it used to be and even the vestiges of civility that are left could soon disappear. The new leadership at Amtrak is taking actions, in rapid succession, that signal the end of the national passenger rail network.
CEO Richard Anderson, who was previously the President of Delta Airlines, took the reins at Amtrak in January of 2018. In just the last two months, he has: cut or eliminated discounts for seniors and veterans, eliminated charter and special trains, restricted the movements of private cars and increased rates for their travel, cut hot food services on some routes, removed parlor cars and business class on some routes and removed agents from many stations.
These moves are likely to reduce the number passengers willing to take the train resulting in route cutbacks and eliminations.
In remarks to the California Rail Summit, Anderson opined that because long-distance trains cost $750 million a year to operate, corridors are better. “There is some room for experience travel” he added but he did not elaborate. Those in attendance were left with the distinct impression that cross country trains are on the chopping block.
Insistence that only the North East Corridor makes money ignores an accounting system at Amtrak that allocates some costs for the Corridor to long distance trains and does not account for passengers’ intermediate travel destinations on those long distance routes.
Although still requiring tax payer dollars, Amtrak has, during the last decade, been increasing ridership and decreasing subsidy requirements.
Yes, Amtrak takes longer to go from point A to point B than airlines and trains are frequently delayed but there are benefits.
Surveys show millennials are embracing train travel because it allows use of cell phones and computers, is more energy efficient and is a unique way to experience the country.
Although it dates to the 1800’s, passenger trains, unlike the horse and buggy, are still a viable mode of transportation. They serve communities that have no access to airports and people who are can’t afford or are unable to fly or drive.
The railroads are the least affected by weather conditions and are an important form of transport in the event of crisis. For instance, following 9-11 only Amtrak was still moving passengers.
Train seats are typically more spacious and comfortable than those in automobiles and airplanes. While trains are guarded and security personnel are present, long security lines and intensive baggage searches are not as much in evidence.
The time to take advantage of those pluses may be drawing to a close however and Amtrak could cease being “America’s Railroad.”