I recently rode Amtrak for the first time, and I must admit that the United States can do better in the area of rail travel.
Raised in a fairly nostalgic home environment, my childhood VHS entertainment featured a steady stream of old films like Young Tom Edison, Where the Red Fern Grows, North by Northwest, and of course a pile of Westerns based on eras when trains were the form of public transportation.
Some of the best action movies in history have, in fact, involved suspenseful train scenes. Think of the Mission Impossible series, Money Train, From Russia with Love, and Skyfall.
Trains have always represented adventure, suspense, and independence in my mind.
My desire to travel by train as a kid went largely unfulfilled, though, as passenger train service had essentially died in the southern U.S. three decades before I was born.
Before giving my full experience on America’s passenger train monopoly, though, I must admit that European rail had spoiled my expectations. I’ve traveled on nearly every form of European train, from sleeper cars, to German first class, to ex-communist-bloc clunkers with no plumbing (See image to the right). So, I fully expected that Amtrak wouldn’t come near Western European standards.
After my last Greyhound bus experience, which included a ten-hour delay because of a station shooting in Richmond, having to pay $160 in Nashville (more than my entire round-trip ticket) to retrieve my truck after the employees impounded it (Greyhound’s website contained no warning that parking was not available at the station), I had promised myself never again to pay a cent to that poorly-run, antiquated hound .
Moving to Washington, DC, I was unwilling to pay the extra airfare for all the luggage and the bicycle that I was taking.
So, willing to hitchhike from Birmingham to Washington, D.C. before resorting to Greyhound, I decided to check Amtrak prices.
The price wasn’t bad, $160 one-way with two free suitcases with an extra $20 for the third. Taking along bikes are free with Amtrak, which was the deal-seller since the much cheaper Megabus does not have room for them.
I arrived at the Birmingham station three hours before departure, hoping to shed my heavy, unwieldy luggage quickly. However, there were no Amtrak employees in sight, and the window remained unmanned.
After about an hour, I finally spotted one employee among the fifty or so passengers who were waiting in a filthy waiting room the size of a dentist office. I asked him where I should check in my luggage. He pointed down a hall that looked like it led to a time portal back to the 1950s and said to wait for the announcement to check them in. I walked down the hall, which ended at a locked storage room door.
I walked back into the sweatbox where the other passengers were quietly awaiting the time of their deliverance. The employee was gone.
I managed to maneuver the 200 lbs. of luggage into a corner that wouldn’t have been available if the bathrooms I was blocking had not been out of order.
No announcement ever came, and my fellow passengers and I headed up to the tracks ten minutes before boarding time. The controller naturally told me I needed tags for my luggage, and I told him there was no employee at the window to do that.
“Well, it’s too late now,” he said glumly.
He told me they would have to be shipped the following day. I told him that was fine, but he promptly changed his mind.
The train itself was something a passenger could expect in El Salvador, Somalia, Bosnia, or the United States (if said rider had survived Greyhound). The carpet was stained down the aisles with every dark tint imaginable, the seats were stained where they weren’t ripped, and the windows looked like they hadn’t felt window cleaner in a year.
The pace of travel was especially abysmal. On a bad day of traffic, it takes a law-abiding driver two hours to get from Birmingham to Atlanta. It took the relatively empty Amtrak train nearly eight hours; and since Anniston, Alabama closed its station long ago—that’s eight hours with no stops.
Part of that is because unlike in other civilized countries, Amtrak has to stop for freight trains—often for thirty minutes at a time.
The pace and number of passengers picked up considerably once the train got north of Charlotte.
Sleep on the 22-hour ride was virtually impossible, as the staff had the temperature turned down to what felt like 45 degrees.
Amtrak’s food service is actually quite good, although it can be a bit pricey. A full dinner runs $16 – $24 and breakfast $7 – $12. Although if one wants to go continental, it’s cheaper.
Amtrak’s employees, at least from my lone experience, appear to match, and even exceed, any flight crew of any major airline in customer service and work ethic. Despite the obvious shortage of staff and the poor infrastructure, the negative aspects of the government-owned company never appeared to dampen the employees’ spirits. They consisted of the friendliest, most hospitable, and most helpful transportation employees I’ve ever encountered. One of the controllers immediately took me to a better seat after the debacle with my luggage. Also, despite overhearing them complain among themselves of having to work 70 – 80-hour weeks, they were always eager to help and make customers’ journey as pleasant as possible.
Other than freezing all night, the trip was largely pleasant. The WIFI which Amtrak wisely undersells was surprisingly reliable.
I read on the way to DC that more than 80% of Amtrak trains are late. Mine arrived about two and a half hours behind schedule.
Amtrak is not a dying entity as many make it out to be—at least not yet. It suffers from a lack of interest on the part of American politicians. Their constituents have grown up without easy train access and don’t realize the convenience they’re missing. Furthermore, trains have always been a lower, middle-class means of transportation in Western countries, and most politicians come from the upper middle class if they are not outright wealthy. They naturally have little interest in allocating their own tax dollars toward a means of transportation that they will never use.
The federal government, despite pouring tens of billions of dollars every year into roads, cannot seem to do little more than slow down the roads’ rate of deterioration. Airlines have attempted to fill the void of good roads, good bus lines, and a good, affordable train system. The result has been smaller seats and less comfort, and as a recent case with Delta showed, very poor customer service.
Despite only getting 2.2% of federal transportation subsidies in 2017, Amtrak has managed to survive as a national embarrassment with a small, overworked, though over-paid staff, dirty cars, and infrequent and slow service. The claim that Amtrak exists only because of plump government subsidies, as anti-Amtrak advocates would have budget-conscious Americans believe, is simply not true. There is a continuing demand for passenger rail service in the U.S.
The government’s treatment of Amtrak is like parents’ pouring thousands of dollars into clothes for their daughter and then telling everyone that their son just doesn’t have the sense of fashion like little Suzie—while failing to mention that little Johnny has to make do with his $50 gift card he receives at Christmas.
The following are a few excellent pieces on some of the problems with Amtrak and proposals to improve passenger train service in the U.S. My personal two cents is that the government should treat rail transportation the same way it treats air and highway travel. Privatize and heavily subsidize!