Amtrak goes off the rails for some passengers

Paul Matthew/Shutterstock

The complimentary amenity kits on Amtrak’s Empire Builder service from Chicago to Portland and Seattle and Coast Starlight from Los Angeles to Seattle vanished forever last month.

You’ll still be able to buy the kits, which include an inflatable pillow, earplugs, blanket and eye shade. But it’ll cost $8.

Amtrak’s move is the latest in a line of low-key reductions, including removing pillows from its coach sections and cutting the “free” glass of wine in dining cars.

But don’t look for your fare to drop by $8.

“All these changes are necessary in order to reduce costs, increase revenues and preserve passenger rail service across our country,” says Amtrak spokeswoman Kimberly Woods.

In other words, just as the legacy airlines unbundled their airfares in 2009 when they started charging passengers for the first checked bag, these cuts are going to help shore up the troubled national rail carrier’s bottom line. Amtrak lost about $73 million on food and beverage service alone last year.

Rail passengers have mixed feelings about these measures, but the most problematic — and overlooked — part of this story is that Amtrak is acting more like an airline every day. And not in a good way.

Some rail passengers agree that the cuts, while painful, are necessary.

“I think cuts are good for the passengers who are on the moneymaking routes,” says regular rail rider Neil Gussman, who works for a non-profit organization in Philadelphia. “Amtrak is a constant target for budget-cutters, yet it keeps tens of thousands of people off the most crowded roads in America.”

Others say they’ll miss the old train. Dianna Kersey likens the amenity cuts to the end of airline deregulation, when, save for a few exceptions, civility all but disappeared from air travel.

Kersey, who works for a technology company in Chicago and commutes by train to Great Falls, Mont., says she’ll notice the absence of the amenity kits on the Empire Builder, the attendants who offered her champagne and chocolates, and the afternoon wine tastings.

“These are things you never get while flying, and it made all the difference in the world to me,” she says.

But are these deletions a symptom of a shift at Amtrak of something even worse? Is Amtrak abandoning its heritage of dignified and civil travel in favor of making a quick buck, like an “ultra” low-cost airline? It may be too early to say that, but the warning lights seem to have flickered to life.

“It’s as if I’m watching one of those infomercials in reverse, and the spokesperson is saying, ‘But wait — there’s less!'” says Dave Kaminer, a communications consultant from Rye Brook, N.Y., who regularly catches Amtrak’s Auto Train from Lorton, Va., to Sanford, Fla.

He’s worried about two things that have escaped the same media attention as when, say, an airline adds a new fee. (That’s because travel journalists like me don’t believe in the existence of Amtrak.) Last April, the Auto Train began offering something called “Priority Vehicle Offloading” that, for a $50 fee, allowed your car to be the first off the train. Amtrak touted the new option as a service that “will help passengers get to their destination sooner.”

Before priority offloading, it was first-come, first-serve for the cars, and Kaminer usually managed to roll off the train quickly when he arrived in Florida.

Worse, he’ll pay more for the trip than ever. That’s because the lowest available fare isn’t being published when Auto Train tickets become available, he alleges. Kaminer sent me screenshots of the higher fares. A one-way Auto Train ticket to Florida that cost $265 last year is pricing at $411 for next spring.

Kaminer complained to Amtrak about the higher fares, to which Amtrak responded with a form letter that apologized for the “inconvenience” of the higher prices and pointed out that “Amtrak fares are not static and may increase or change based upon many factors.”

“Something is amiss,” Kaminer says.

Perhaps. If Amtrak’s little-noticed cuts are nothing more than cosmetic service reductions, which, by most appearances, they are, then riding the train will continue to be an experience apart from the indignity of most domestic air travel.

But if more fare tricks and “priority” disembarkation moves are in the rail carrier’s future, the experiences may become all but indistinguishable from flying — except that the plane gets you there a little faster.

Is Amtrak turning into a low-cost airline on rails?

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How to keep the train dignified

• Ride the profitable routes. Amtrak’s well-used Northeast corridor trains have escaped most of the cuts, because they make money. That’s where you’ll find the best service and amenities, generally speaking.

• Tell Amtrak what you think. Customer feedback is the best way to let the national rail carrier know how it can improve. Contact amtrak.com/contact-us

• Let Congress know. Congress funds Amtrak to the tune of $1.39 billion this year. If your congressional representative hears from you, it could make a difference. You might prevent Amtrak from becoming a Spirit Air on rails. Here’s how: house.gov/representatives/find/

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I”d be curious to know who are Amtrak’s long distance passengers and why are they on Amtrak instead of an airplane. Presumably they see value in being on the train

  • LFH0

    If you look at Amtrak’s network, there’s really three readily-defined classifications of service: northeast corridor, day trains, and long-distance trains. Each classification tends to be dominated by one cohort, though there is overlap . . . unfortunately, I don’t think Amtrak always recognizes that in its planning (once I was on the Adirondack, returning to New York from a business meeting in Saratoga Springs, and the conductor has the gall to announce that no one was allowed to work on business matters while in the cafe/lounge because this was a recreational, not business, train!). The northeast corridor is dominated by people for whom time is money, and even if the train trip itself takes a little longer than flying, overall productivity (being able to work enroute) is better. The day trains carry many people for whom driving might have been the first choice, but the train is a reasonable option (moreover, flying these shorter distances is relatively expensive).

    And that leaves the long distance trains. People who are in a hurry are not generally on the train (very few people are in business attire, though you may see some suits on the overnight trains between the east coast and Chicago). People who are looking to save money are certainly not going to be found in the sleeping cars, though they might be found in the coaches. Between large cities, flying is almost always less expensive than a coach ticket on Amtrak, so many of the people seeking cheaper fares are going between smaller locales. Usually (but not always) buses are a bit less expensive, so the least affluent are not usually found on an Amtrak train. However, periodically Amtrak does run some sales, with limited tickets, at very low prices.

    I think somewhere between 30 and 40 percent of the passengers are on board solely to ride a train and see the country; these passengers are in the sleeping cars. About an equal number are on board because they need to go someplace, and have decided that seeing the country is something important, and have eschewed flying in favor of the train; some of these passengers are in the sleeping cars, but most are in coach. Maybe 15 percent are riding out of “necessity.” That is, people how cannot, or will not, fly (e.g., medical or health condition, religion, aversion to air system security measures); people going to small places where there is no bus or air service; and people for whom trains are themselves the attraction (i.e., rail enthusiasts). Perhaps 10 percent are riding because, overall, Amtrak provided the best value. I put myself in either the necessity group (I do not fly, and I like trains) or the value group (I like bus and sea travel, and will readily travel by either if a better value).

    The people riding the train for the purpose of seeing the country are the ones that Amtrak risks losing on account of cheapening the first class amenities. They’re paying big bucks (really, take a look at sleeping car fares!), and they’re going to see Amtrak as a poor competitor against the cruise lines. They’ll spend their money elsewhere if Amtrak cannot get its act together. The people going someplace are somewhat price sensitive, and they’ll put up with a few bumps so long as they have a reasonable trip with respect to fares and service. Amtrak will always have the necessity passengers, regardless of how service is provided. Nonetheless, I think the public policy arguments for subsidy are strongest for these passengers, even though these passengers are the least likely to stop riding in the face of increased fares (i.e., this is where the “fairness” are best applied). The value passengers will abandon ship quickly if fares are raised much higher than the competition (e.g., Megabus).

  • joaneisenstodt

    Just home from a biz trip on Amtrak both NEC and inland in PA. It was mostly fine and comfortable and on Acela in first, the food was outstanding – baked salmon with a quinoa/kale salad. Service was good – I need Red Caps for mobility and at DC’s Union Station and in Harrisburg and my transfer in Phila. at 30th St., all went smoothly with nice people.

    Most of my biz trips are by plane and I’d much prefer going by train – it’s the routes and time that are too much. It’s far more civilized and easy and comfortable. I think I’d rather pay more for Amtrak to ensure they live than to pay for the nickel and diming on airlines. Oh and Amtrak’s CEO makes around $350,000. The airlines’ CEOs? UA’s dropped last year to (OH NO .. poverty!) $8.1 million. There’s something wrong with it all.

  • jim6555

    There are currently about 60 flights per day providing non-stop service between the three NYC airports and the two Chicago airports. Assuming that each flight carries an average of 150 people, that’s 9,000 passengers. Assuming that each train would make 3 or 4 intermediate stops with some passengers traveling only between intermediate cities, I can see market of 12,000 or more passengers daily. It is doubtful that any other US or European route over 500 miles long has that many potential travelers.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Problem is that those cities don’t exist in a void. Trains, like every other form of transportation, requires a network. Otherwise, it seems an overly expensive an investment to just link a few choice cities.

  • sirwired

    Even if none of those passengers are in transit somewhere else (unlikely, as Chicago is a hub for the three largest airlines) do the math: Using a generously-low $100B in construction costs / 12,000 passengers per day / 365 days-per-year / 100 years, and you STILL end up with a cost of $228/person, and that’s just construction costs! ($456 round trip) It doesn’t count a penny in operational costs (rolling stock, maintenance, payroll, energy, etc.) All for something that doesn’t deliver much of an advantage (if any) over flying.

    Still think that rail link makes sense?

  • Lindabator

    But they make the money up ON the cruise – booze, gift shop purchases, shore excursions, photos….AMTRAK would not be able to do that level of business.

  • LFH0

    Maybe Amtrak should try. Every tourist railroad has a car in which gifts and the like are sold. Passengers transiting Chicago have several hours during which “shore excursions” could be sold. A photographer on the train is easy enough to arrange. Even though Amtrak is selling transportation, rather than a “tour,” the same is true for the Queen Mary 2 on its non-stop crossings between Brooklyn and Southampton . . . and Cunard’s passengers spend money on on-board purchases. What’s stopping Amtrak besides inertia?

  • Joe Farrell

    I wish the cabin attendants I had were as good – if I did not go find the guy at 930p we never would have had the bedroom made up as a bedroom – everyone in our sleeper had the same issue. Happened 2x on the Starlight and 1x on the Chief – on the chief the next morning there was a senior Amtrak customer person came onboard in ABQ and saw that at 11a all the bedrooms were stlll made up in sleeping configuration and she went off on the warpath.

    Amtrak could really be a great long distance alternative if they simply raised their game a little bit . . .

  • Joe Farrell

    Try it sometime – its nice way to get from LA or Oakland to Seattle or to Kansas City / Chicago . . . Chicago is too far honestly – I can deal with 1 night on the train but 2 gets old. . .

  • Joe Farrell

    The problem with a service that presents a 6-8p departure from NYC with an 8a arrival in Chicago is that places like Buffalo, Pittsburgh. Cleveland, etc places that you speak about as intermediate points – require midnight and 2-3a departures – if given the choice of sleeping 4 hours on the train or sleeping 6 hours in my bed and then taking a 6a flight? Decision is made -

  • Joe Farrell

    What makes sense is an overnight train in each direction – leave OAK @ 9 arrive Union Station 7a. Leave LA same time – extend BART to Jack London Station so there can be some intermodal transfers – train to train – add nice shower facilities in both locations for sleeper passengers or for payment -

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    It’s a money pit !!!
    Increase fares/food/drinks/everything or close it down. You can’t have it both ways.

  • Marcin Jeske

    I am fascinated by how often “when you get to your destination, then what?” comes up as an argument against trains, especially when the main alternate is air travel.

    “Taking a plane to LA would not eliminate the need for a car… ” comes to mind.

    The “then what?” problem was solved centuries ago when sailing ships moved people from port to port. You use the local transport available: walking, hired vehicles, rental vehicles. While we may not have rickshaws and horses for hire in US cities anymore… there are taxicabs, public transit, rental cars all available.

    Not only do airplanes have the exact same “local transport” issue as trains, but with the exception of the massive rental car concentration at most airports… city rail stations usually have better access to local transport. Train stations are often the hub of local public transit, while only select US airports have direct rail connections (SEA, PDX, and SFO are the only ones on the west coast), and a few more airports have shuttle buses.

    As for LA…. it may be subtle, but LA is actually one of the biggest transit cities in the US, having a rail network larger than almost all American cities, and a dense network of buses.

  • Marcin Jeske

    It’s really not a problem that can be solved one piece at a time… long distance train systems serve a different need than local transit, and they are an important option that feeds into the overall transit network.

    Just as we didn’t have to pave every city street before we build interstate highways, just as some small airports as good enough.

  • Marcin Jeske

    Well, you LA to OAK gets the day train now, because quite logically, that segment has higher population than the night segment goes from Sacramento up through low population Northern CA to arrive in the morning in Oregon (Eugene, Salem and Portland).

    Honestly, looking at the entire route of the Coast Starlight, putting the overnight segment in Northern California is the right call (Sorry Shasta). However, I think a revived, shorter California Starlight, from Sacramento to LA, maybe even San Diego, would draw enough increased ridership to make it worth it.

    Of course, even running one Amtrak train each direction in that corridor ends up with massive delays because the rail infrastructure is optimized for freight and heavily congested.

    Seems it might be time to build a dedicated passenger rail line, maybe one with a straighter path, so that we could run even faster trains… heck, why not make it high-speed… it could go through the Central Valley and connect those cities to LA fast. I wonder if we will ever get around to doing something like that.

  • bodega3

    The LA to OAK Starlight has been a morning train for decades.

  • bodega3

    We do things bass ackwards here in CA! We have SMART being built that will only go from the northbay to Larkspur. They sold off the right of ways and now have been paying millions to buy them back. Stopping the train at Larkspur is stupid! This means connecting to the ferry or a bus to get to SF, with no spurs to the main line. All this had taken decades, so to complete the job to the east bay or SF will not happen in this lifetime.

  • Marcin Jeske

    How much do airports cost? Sydney is planning to build a new one for $10 billion.Denver International cost $5 billion. A 737 can cost up to $90 million for about 200 passengers.

    Siemens Valero train sets were recently bought by Eurostar for about $80 million for each 1000 passenger train. Train station can be much less expensive than airports.

    Let’s compare a hypothetical NYC-Chicago route with 50 737 flights per day (10,000 passenger) vs. 10 Valero trips.

    But don’t forget, with the train, we are serving all he markets in between (Cleveland, Buffalo, Albany, and could easily connect in Detroit).

    $100s of billion for the route, is pretty ridiculous, and could only balloon so because of the kind of planning disfunction that would never be allowed for highway and airport construction. But building new Interstate infrastructure for cars along the route is also very expensive. And building airport capacity, for all those cities, and smaller ones along the way, would quickly escalate costs.

    Four hour train travel vs. two hour flight means you need 2.5 planes for every train. Which means we have to spend more than twice as much on planes as on trains… and operating costs of planes are higher.

    Either we keep building more expensive, expansive airports and tangle up our travel network in hubs and delays… or we build alternatives for more efficient travel.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I think you missed my point. I have no issue with high speed rail as long as it makes sense in the locale. No philosophical bent either way. In fact, I live 2 blocks from the Caltrain stop. Great thing.

    High speed rail would have many of the same benefits and drawbacks of air travel. Thus, what is the benefit from this huge expenditure of funds? Its been a huge debacle to the point where even the original advocates no longer support it.

    Moreover high speed rail is often sold as a means of reducing the number of cars on the road. In a place like LA that would be untrue. Part of the problem is that public transportation takes forever, at least in LA. Consider real data. I will be in downtown Los Angeles, reasonable close to Union Station, this Saturday for five days. Among other places, I will travel to visit a client, my best friend, and my Alma Mater. The travel times:

    To the client

    2 hours by public transportation.
    47 minutes by car

    To my Alma Mater

    1 hour by public transportation
    19 minutes by car

    To my best friends house

    1 hours by public transportation
    27 minutes by car

    These are real travel destinations for this upcoming week. Public transportation, at least to my destinations (Pasadena, San Gabriel, Santa Ana) means at least doubling the commute.

    And at $2.70/mile in a place like Los Angeles, taxis are not economical beyond very short distances.

  • Marcin Jeske

    I think my comments above got a bit confused… I was referring to the current setup of the Coast Starlight as inherited from pre-Amtrak days (so yes, decades, and actually, almost a century, as both constituent routes, the SP Coast Daylight and SP Cascade began in 1922 and 1927, respectively).

    I said that it makes sense that they kept that general timetable, with the daytime segments between LA and the Bay Area (like the original Coast Daylight), and the nighttime segments between the Bay Area and Portland (like the Cascade).

    I was responding to Joe Farrell’s desire for a night train between LA and the Bay Area, which I called California Starlight, but I guess historically should be called the SP Lark, leaving in the evening and arriving in the morning. Since it would terminate in the Bay Area, it could even go into San Francisco proper… turn around, do a daylight run back. I think that route could support it.

    Finally, I pointed out that as we start adding trains, we get into capacity constraints… and talking about new tracks, and escalate to building California HSR.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I must respectfully disagree

    The trains only make sense if there is a market. So that has to be analyzed.

    The train in California will cost about 67.6 billion dollars to duplicate what we already have in air traffic. That’s far more than the airports that you mention. And we haven’t even added the cost of the stations.

    The California project is expect to carry no more than 30 million riders annually. in 2030. LAX currently transitions 66 million passengers. And of course, airports have that little advantage of overseas flights

    The fundamental problem is that trains are limited to the physical infrastructure. I’m from the Caribbean. We had a tiny little airport that could only accommodate prop planes. Built a newer, better one, and now it accommodates much larger planes from all over the Western Hemisphere. No such equivalent expansion is possible for trains.

    And yes, at each airport we have a car rental network. Is that realistic at each train stop?

  • bodega3

    They ‘kept’ it as it is a connection for the trains coming into LA. However, many times, client have had to overnight (meaning all day and the night) in LA to be put on the next morning’s Starlight.
    I assume you are pro HSR in CA? What are the spur plans? I live in an area that all this train travel doesn’t work for us. It is faster to drive.

  • Marcin Jeske

    That high speed rail has been a debacle in the US is true… it has gotten bogged down in the most bizarre ways possible. I think that’s more due to political dysfunction then the specifics of the project itself.

    It boggles my mind how laying steel rails on a concrete bed in a straight line can cost that much… and I see massive cost inflation at every turn, from over-engineering to placate interest groups (the on-off plans to put elevated tracks in parts of the Central Valley) to huge litigation with everyone who feels they have leverage.

    High speed rail will reduce the number of cars between cities, just like airline travel does. As to within the city…. you need to look at better public transit, because while both air and train will deliver carless passengers to your city… if they can’t get around where they want to go… they will tend to rent a car (as I presume you plan to).

    While I did say LA has a massive rail network…. it is also a massive metro… and not all of it as well served.

    Pasadena is served by the Gold Line, which between the vagaries of traffic, parking, and walking distance should be a wash.

    San Gabriel, I will grant you, is a loss… only served by buses, and on an anemic schedule. (Really, a bus line that runs every 40 minutes shouldn’t be considered mass transit, but rather rural intercity.) Crazy thing is, there is a rail line running right through it.

    Santa Ana is getting into intercity territory… the Pacific Surfliner or Orange County Line gets you there in an hour, but you have to coordinate with the scheduled times (every hour or so)…. weak, I agree. Though a LA-Anaheim Shinkansen would help out there :).

    So, yeah, two out of three destination are a clear win for the car. I can’t argue with that… and I admit I would think about my destinations very carefully before going carless on an LA trip. The one time I have gone completely carless there, I had a friend with a car for a few of the farther destinations.

    I imagine people walking into the model T car dealership in LA a century ago and saying the same thing…. how do you expect me to get anywhere in a car on these muddy roads when I can get there by electric railroad three times faster. But those roads got paved (at great expense) and those highways got built (at even greater expense).

    It requires a well-designed network, whatever the transport form… whether roads or rails or wings. When you arrive at LAX, you see a whole bunch or very nice roads built right up to the terminal… but nary a rail in sight. Transit buses are hidden away at distant stops accessible mainly by shuttle bus.

    Imagine building an airport where the only access was by rail. That would be pretty ridiculous… why is it any less ridiculous that a major world airport doesn’t connect to one of the country’s largest metro rail systems.

  • Marcin Jeske

    The thing is, we are not trying to replace the air infrastructure, but supplement it. There have been untold billions spent on LAX, and significant parts of its capacity are used to fly people to San Diego, the Bay Area, Las Vegas, and the Central Valley.

    Of those 66 million in 2013, about 6 million fly to cities on the planned HSR route. At a world gateway airport, with flights to every corner of the world, 10% of capacity is taken up by flights that spend more time on the ground than in the air (~1 hour flights, with taxi and boarding probably close to 1 hour). That ratio is probably worse at other area airports (20% at Long Beach). LAX is currently spending $4 billion for expansion on top of untold billions before… not to mention local politics has essentially frozen any further expansion….

    Would it not be nice to free up 10 percent of the capacity for those oversea flights you point out are only possible with planes… or the cross continental flights that will not be replaceable by trains in our lifetimes.

    No one is trying to put trains on an island where all the traffic is from off-island… we are talking about the densest parts of California… where the limited airport infrastructure should be devoted as much as possible to what it serves best: long distance and overseas flights. HSR can focus on what it does best, serving the shorter trips, and feeding passengers into the airports (giving those folks from Fresno a much better experience than) and giving LA and SF metro residents more options to get to where they need to go.

    As to expanding train infrastructure, France does exactly that routinely… TGV trains go from the high-speed network onto the traditional network to serve cities lacking high speed lines.

    If you insist on comparing California to Caribbean islands… let me ask this… do you spend billions on airport on each and every island, no matter the population, to build airport that can take an occasional weekly A380… or do you invest in one airport which can have daily A380 flights and link your islands by high-speed ferry?

    As for car rental… when it is a train stop on a high-frequency rail line serving 30 million passengers a year, heck yes it is realistic to have rental cars. You will find rental counters at most stops along the Northeast Corridor… and beyond, rental locations tend to cluster near major NJ Transit and LIRR stations.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Most islands that you’ve ever heard of will have an airport :-)

    As far as the 30 million passengers, that will be in 16+ years. That is a fraction of that is served by air.

    The question about supplementing the air system comes down to is it worth the cost? Like I said, I’m agnostic towards the concept. My only concern is whether any particular application makes sense.

    The train stop question needs more analysis. It’s not how many people are on the train, but rather how many people disembark at a given location. The train can carry 30 million people, but if only 1000 exit at say, Lancaster, then no, it will not have car rental facilities.

  • Marcin Jeske

    I think there can be multiple motivations for why they kept it… but I think it is clear that a daytime train going through the populated coastal areas North of LA to SB, SLO, Salinas, and San Jose to Oakland is clearly more useful than doing those stops overnight…

    I’ve seen how thrilled people were getting on the Coast Starlight at Dunsmuir, CA in the exact middle of the night… even worse for those boarding at Chemult, OR, where the common delays means you are waiting by the tracks in a shed in the middle of the night in freezing temps.

    Given both population and the travel options (Dunsmuir residents have a long way to drive to a decent airport.) it makes perfect sense….

    BTW, regardless of the fact that Amtrak offers to book it that way, I think the concept of “connecting” via LA is a non-starter when you have one daily train on each route and weakest link is a train notorious for being late. Anyone traveling on the Starlight should plan at least a one-day buffer to stay in the city before continuing on any form of transport. That goes for connecting in Portland or Seattle on the Empire Builder as well.

    The exception being connections to the Surfliner in SoCal or the Cascades in the PNW, because those run several time a day. bodega3, I wouldn’t want to tell you how to do your job, but booking a same-day connection involving the Coast Starlight is asking for trouble.

    I have long been of the opinion that Amtrak should not even offer such tickets until the fix the route. On the other hand, I did arrive in LA once on time… and the crew was so proud that they wouldn’t get off the intercom for the entire half hour into Union Station… and were practically ready to get t-shirts printed.

  • Marcin Jeske

    Ok, I am writing way too much… but yes, to answer your question, yes, I am pro HSR in CA. Frankly, I would be almost as happy with functional regular speed rail at a decent frequency. California has slowly retained and built up a couple of good corridors (the Central Valley, Santa Barbara to San Diego on the Surfliner, significant rail in the Bay Area and LA), but it is all disconnected and fractured.

    The “backbone” is the anemic, once-daily Starlight, which I love as a train trip (gorgeous views, fun people) but is absolutely abysmal as a connector. It like building all the local highways around West Coast cities, but leaving I-5 a dirt road. It is not fit for the purpose of modern transportation.

    But because there is no rail capacity for regular hourly service along the route… you have to build new rail. If you are building new rail, you might as well find the best route, make it nice and straight, maybe connect cities that lacked a connection before…

    If you have a brand new modern rail line built to modern standards, it is not that big of a step to make it HSR… and clearly there are people who won’t support it until you make it compete with SFO/LAX flights because obviously travel between the endpoints is the most important function of a rail line… (sarcasm)

    I think for whatever wacky reasons, there is not enough support to build a normal passenger rail line… and making HSR makes it more useful and gets the needed support… I think the opponents would be just as much against it … they hate the idea of spending money on trains they don’t need, hate the idea of trains going through where they can see them.

    Will the projected be bloated and wasteful… yeah, probably. We should fight the waste rather than kill the project. Will it be any more wasteful than if this was a new $100 billion highway linking Los Angeles and San Francisco in one fell swoop….. I doubt it. Will it be any more wasteful then the combined waste of all the hundred of projects that have built the disfunctional web of highways that currently meander all over the LA basin, struggle through the mountain passes, and dribble down into the Bay Area.

    I have seen how well HSR works in Japan, in France, in Spain, in Norway, in Germany, in Spain, in Italy, and how well just normal modern rail works throughout Europe, in various densities, from tiny EMUs which carry low volumes of people between mountain villages to high capacity Shinkansen which bring a 1000 people hundreds of miles in such an efficient manner that the US routine of getting to the airport, going through check-in, security, concourses, boarding, taxi, tray-tables, lines for the bathroom, stow for landing, circle the airport, wait for gate…. makes all that look like starting a fire with two rocks.

    I don’t mean to too hard on air travel… train travel in the US is also pretty primitive, especially at those rail stations where Amtrak insists people board at “gates” and struggle from the rail bed up rickety flights of stairs, and trundle along after freight trains, stopping at obscure sidings waiting without power for uncertain time, getting to choose which train to take as long as it is the one train that runs each day.

    And having written way too much in these comments… I think I should sleep. Sorry for the length.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Laying steel is expensive because

    1. Political realities
    2. Land Purchase
    3. Right of way purchase
    4. Eminent domain proceedings
    5. Environmental impact studies
    etc.

    You point about LAX is spot on. Without an infrastructure, both intra and inter-city, HSR becomes less useful. That’s the problem. If and when larger, sprawling cities have that infrastructure, the HSR makes more sense.

    As far as going carless in LA, we both know that’s difficult, if not impossible. The transit numbers I presented are all accurate. They were run on google maps at the time of posting.

    That’s the fundamental issue. Public transportation in LA is terrible. Taking it is inefficient.

  • bodega3

    The Coast Starlight is also a day trip due to the views it affords. That is until you get out of Venture or into Venture and also the Oakland/Martinez area! With only one train in many areas, the times to catch a train for many locales are turnoffs. Who wants to catch a cross country train at 345am? As for overnighting in LA, keep in mind that is an all day affair heading north. The connecting SW train gets into the station in the morning (or should!). That adds to the cost of travel. From our area, for those who don’t drive, they already have to overnight in the Martinez area in both directions, so overnighting in LA all adds to the length of their trip. The high speed train works for some areas of central CA, but does nothing for my area. By the time I have to drive to the central valley I am already 1/2 the way to LA! Same with SMART in the North Bay. I am 1/2 way to SF by driving to a station, so I’ll just drive. For a weekend fun, we might try the train once to get to SF, but we rarely take the ferry now due to cost and time.

  • Marcin Jeske

    As an Amtrak long distance passenger, I have taken the transcontinental routes when I need to get somewhere and have a few days to spare for a relaxing trip.

    It’s like a cruise but on land: dinner seatings, read a book in the lounge, chat with your neighbors, watch America roll by. The western trains pass some spectacular scenery. For those who work on laptops, hours of uninterrupted time is better then the scraps of time you get on airplanes. Trains have ample space, tables and power outlets available rather than trying to pry your laptop out on your tray table.

    Now, as LFH0 points out, people going between major city pairs like me are less common, as flights between major airports are usually competitively priced. You get college kids, retirees, foreigners (who think taking a long-distance train is a perfectly reasonable thing to do). One nice thing is Amtrak fares are fairly predictable… while there are cheaper fares if you book ahead, you don’t get the vast price differences of airlines. So, a last minute booking will generally be vastly cheaper on Amtrak.

    A large portion of travelers are going between major cities and minor stops, which often do not have nearby commercial airports or whose airports have really high fares or infrequent service. For them Amtrak is the only choice, or at least a better choice than buses or driving.

    Finally, there are those who can’t fly, but must travel…

    Medical: I’ve met people coming back from surgeries (“in the big city”), people who fear flying, people who have problems with pressurization, dry air, claustrophobia, those with mobility issues (outside major stations, you can literally walk a few steps from your car into a lower-level seating area… stay in your seat for the entire trip, and walk a few steps to a waiting car at the other end… no airline can offer that).

    Religion or Philosophy: the Amish, Mennonites, and similar groups whose religion forbids use of more modern technology (I don’t know how they feel about Acela). Hippies, New Agers, and environmentalists who think air travel is more damaging to the Earth. Rail enthusiasts.

    People with awkward names or looks that get hassled by the TSA, or who have some sort of restrictions on flying.

    Smokers… who can’t last more than a few hours without a smoke… Amtrak announces “smoke stops” where the train dwells long enough for a cigarette.

    Those transporting something airlines won’t take… whether that’s newborn babies, or pressurized containers, or huge amounts of oddly-shaped luggage. Bikes and other sports gear are much less of a hassle.

    For those who hate morning flights, Amtrak is a great option on specific routes like Chicago to WAS/PHL/NYC or Oregon to Bay Area, where you get on in the afternoon or evening and arrive in the morning with a full day ahead of you. I am fine with coach (which comfort-wise is like domestic business class) but for those who want a real bedroom when they travel, Amtrak is the only game in town unless they want to shell out on those LA-NYC first class sleeper flights, which as far as I know are the only domestic flights with beds.

  • Marcin Jeske

    The thing is, none of your five points are specific to rail… they apply equally to highway, pipeline, and other infrastructure projects. Even airports have those issues, except their ROW isn’t long and narrow but has to be a massive blob. For equal capacity, a highway ROW has to be much wider.

    Rail does have stricter grade and curve requirements (though HSR can handle more grade), but I can’t believe that fundamentally is costs more to dump ballast and set four rails on concrete than it does to pave four lanes for a highway.

    My point about LAX was that it does not integrate with *local* transit. Air travel and HSR are in the exact same boat… when you get to your destination, what are your options. It doesn’t matter if you arrive at LAX or Union Station – your points about using local transit are equally valid.

    If the argument is that LA shouldn’t have HSR until it has better local transit, that’s like saying it shouldn’t have airports… we have solved that problem… rental cars. Budget and Hertz are at Union Station, Enterprise and Alamo are nearby and will probably do pickups. ZipCar too. HSR would have enough volume that I would expect most stations would have at least one rental location onsite or nearby, just like most airports do.

  • Marcin Jeske

    As to carless in LA, I think as with all travel, you have to know where you are going… for the areas of the city you need, the car is a better choice.

    Take NYC, which seems like the ur-example of an American transit utopia. On a trip to Manhattan, a car is crazy… the subway or taxis will get you everywhere you need to go much more efficiently. If you need to spend time moving around Brooklyn and Queens, a car starts being an option. Move further out along Long Island, you have pretty awesome Manhattan-bound rail service thanks to the LIRR, but that’s good for residents. If you need to travel around the area, you need a car.

    Same thing happens in San Francisco, where outside the well-connected MUNI-zone, you just long-distance BART and less robust local buses (well, San Jose Light Rail is getting better).

    LA from downtown south to Manhattan Beach, west to Santa Monica, and north to Hollywood has a fairly decent, interconnected web of rapid transit, which conveniently does not suffer from Manhattan’s North-South obsession. Outside of that, you mainly have radial lines that take you into the center optimizes for commuters.

    Basically, you are staying in Midtown, but your three destinations are on Long Island (transit-wise) … and even in NYC, you might need a car for that kind of trip.

    I do hope you enjoy your trip regardless. Maybe take advantage of having the car by driving back from Santa Ana on the Pacific Coast Highway to use up all that time you saved.

    Sigh, all this looking at LA maps makes me want to start planning my next trip there.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    No, the point is that the arguments for HSR between SF and LA are fallacious. The most common arguments put forth in support of the proposition were 1) People could live in SF/La and commute to the other city, and 2)it would reduce the number of cars in Los Angeles. Both position are specious.

    You could live in LA and commute to SF as SF has great public transportation. You could not do the reverse unless your work happens to be public transportation accessible. Renting a car daily would be prohibitively expensive and time consuming.

    The number of cars in LA would not be reduced. People who use the rail in lieu of flying would not change their rental car habits.

    I’m not seeing what the benefit to Los Angeles would be and moreover, the rest of California.

    As far as the price differential, it is what it is. I don’t have any particular expertise so I couldn’t opine.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    From what I understand, HSR would work extremely well in that part of the country. In that case, I would say go for it. Like I said, I don’t have a philosophical bent one way or the other. I only want what makes sense in a particular situation.

    As I mentioned before, and google maps confirmed, as does personal experience, it simply takes 2-3 times as long to get from point A to Point B utilizing Los Angeles public transportation, including the rails. That’s the huge drawback. If time is not a factor that’s great. But I have to go from Court A to Court B to Court C. Efficiency is critical, as it is for many people.

  • Marcin Jeske

    Yeah, the train frequency is a death spiral… to really be effective, not to mention not waste the infrastructure, long distance trains should run every at least every two hours, and local rail should be below the 15-minute mark. That allows riders the flexibility to schedule their travel for their needs, and gives a cushion for missed trains and other disruptions.

    People forget how vital frequency is when they say Amtrak runs enough trains for the demand. If west coast airports were connected by single daily A380 flights, a lot less people would fly. And as you say, a lot of people on the route who would otherwise take the train do not want to board at 2am.

    As cool as a train trip the Coast Starlight is, the delays and the single daily run really kill it. California needs passenger-dedicated North-South rails from the Bay Area to LA. As you have seen in your experience, the chronic lateness of the Starlight often leads to unplanned overnights anyway.

    I am guessing you are in Napa Valley somewhere given your geographical hints… which is out of the way of all the rail routes. Obviously, train routes will only work for those in proximity to stations, especially for local/commuter transit like SMART. I am glad to you have at least enabled the long-distance Amtrak trips, thorns and all.

    For HSR, with Phase 1 stations at Transbay and San Jose, both very well connected into regional transit, you can’t be halfway to LA unless you are coming from Oregon. You wouldn’t have to drive to the Central Valley. Phase 2 stations at Stockton and Sacramento give even more options and integrate well with existing Capitol Corridor and San Joaquin service.

    As for SMART, yeah… it is a pity they did not bite the bullet and bridge it across to San Francisco so that it could connect in to MUNI and BART (original plans for BART actually had a line going north, but Marin opted out). The ferry connection was the best they could do… especially given that the Presidio doesn’t have a rail connection to downtown anyway.

    The key thing to think about with cost and time is where you are going…. for some parts of SF, any cost and time you may save by taking a car will be quickly negated by finding and paying for parking.

  • Marcin Jeske

    I don’t know who made those pro-arguments. They are ridiculous. While it is true that both the Bay Area and LA are home of the famous 2-hour commutes… the 2.5 hour SF-LA trip promised on the ballot would result in 3+ hour commute, which is ridiculous even by SoCal standards. As to reducing cars, you are confusing the HSR with the commuter rail funding that was part of the package.

    HSR is not meant for commuters… although just as some may currently commute by air (under 2 hours), HSR would enable a few commuters from Palmdale and the Central Valley cities. Fundamentally, time and price-wise, HSR is not designed for commuters.

    The arguments for (and I paraphrase from the 2008 ballot) were:
    – that HSR would link a string of cities from the Bay Area to LA with fast, inexpensive trips to relieve pressure on the highways and airports of the region.
    – that HSR would reduce dependance on foreign oil and reduce greenhouse gas pollution

    People also focus very much on the end-points and the one-seat ride concept (as if people never catch a connecting flight), while ignoring the 8 or so stops in between, which would revolutionize the travel options for the people of the Central Valley, who don’t have three or more major International Airports within driving distance. (Though, that’s mostly Bay Area airports, since both SJC and SFO would have HSR stations. regretfully, the only SoCal airport with a planned HSR station is Ontario, and that only in Phase 2.)

    Commuters come up because the Prop also included funding for electrification of Caltrain, BART and MUNI capex, increased frequency on Capitol Corridor and San Joaquin, and funding for increased frequency and new track in LA and San Diego.

    New/faster/frequent/reliable commuter rail will absolutely switch car trips into rail trips. Perhaps that should have been a separate Prop to avoid confusion…

    The benefit to LA and the entire corridor is an efficient alternative to expanding highways and building more, expanding airports and building new ones… oil will not always be as cheap as it is and there is no more room to expand the urban airports. Why not let the airports focus on flights across the country or across the sea?

    Why not free the millions of people every year who have no choice but to drive up and down I-5 to give them the option of spending those hours in more productive pursuits. A person behind the wheel on I-5 could instead be on a train, getting work done, spending time with family, reading a book, learning, whatever… and get to where they are going twice as fast…. giving them more time for whatever they need to do… that is good for people, and good for the economy.

  • Marcin Jeske

    I think we are arguing the same idea… the best transit option depends on where you are going.

    I once visited Seville, Spain… where the central city was so congested, that the fastest way to get around was to walk (faster than bus, much faster than cars, which couldn’t access large parts of the city). A bit outside the center, buses were ideal because they ran frequently and with priority. Beyond that, cars rules.

    I doubt LA has many trips possible where walking is best… but I guarantee that there are trips where transit is better than car, basically along the rapid transit lines, especially after taking into account daytime traffic, and an honest accounting of the very real time cost of finding parking in more urban areas. Which is remarkable in a city so designed around making cars convenient (and the cost of all that car infrastructure makes even CAHSR seem cheap).

    BTW, I noticed I was referencing a slightly optimistic LA transit map, as it included several planned and under construction projects… so I grant that the decent transit zone around downtown LA is even smaller than I outlined.

    But as I said, HSR has almost nothing to do with local transit (besides possible sharing of urban ROW and being bundled on the same ballot). Just think of it as an airport with really long, narrow runways that go all the way to the next airport in the chain.

  • bodega3

    It is 3 to 3 1/2 hours by car to I-5. We get to LA in 7 1/2 hours, so for us, the train wouldn’t be that much of a time savings, plus we have our own car for the trip. I don’t do the Transbay terminal in SF. Never will! It is a disgusting place and then you still are not at the train station, which means 3 connections for me to get to LA. I know where to park in SF for free, so that cost isn’t an issue. For us to use the train, or currently GG Transit, we have to drive to the main terminal in Santa Rosa, park and then get the bus. My last experience with GG Transit was that they ran late, I missed the first ferry I needed but had allowed extra time, so I hopped off in San Rafael, caught another bus that saved me time in getting to the ferry terminal and made the second ferry run to get to my meeting. I have driven into the city for other meetings in less time. Money wise it was pretty close in cost considering gas to SF. For me to use SMART, I will have to drive to a station, then get off in Larkspur and catch a ferry. For a leisurely day in SF, that would be fine, but to get to a meeting, I would be, again, 1/2 the way to SF just to get to the station. I use public transportation in Europe from major cities. I have used it from outlying areas and it isn’t as good, so my summation, is that for major metropolitan areas, people will probably jump on these train, but for outlying areas, unless you make it convenient, a lot of us will still drive. Two of my kids live in Europe and drive if they are not traveling from city centre to centre. You pick what works best for you.

  • Ron Phillips

    Joining this discussion late, but having just tried to book a vacation on Amtrak, after flying the last few years, I was taken aback by the sticker shock!

    I have never seen the train as some sort of luxury, to me it epitomized a few notches above taking a bus, a bunch of rungs below a plane. A plane gets me from Iowa to Az much faster, where I can see some people it might be a bit of a wash to hit their nearest hub and fly out.

    It’s always been price, because all things considered it was never about comfort or “service” such as it is. I’ve always considered the porters in coach to be on the rude side, and the staff in the club and dining cars to be just ‘okay’. I get the feeling they are tired of their jobs and resent customers. Not all, mind you, there have some people that I have really enjoyed their personalities!

    But now, pricing the train I’ve found that it’s very much on par with flying Allegiant. With the airlines, I’m airport to airport in under 4 hours (vs. 28 to 32 on the train).

    Train travel means accepting that you will arrive late to your destination, how much you are late depends on what your distance is.

    I love chilling on the train, but I consider that a perk of my personality rather than a perk of this mode of travel. It’s always essentially been a bus to me, with many the clientele reflective of that. Take away price and the train advantage goes completely away for me.