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I'd Love to Love Amtrak — But It's Hard

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TOBY TALBOT/AP

When I was small enough to find the entire experience extremely exciting, my parents took my brother and me on the Autotrain — from somewhere in northern Virginia right on down to my grandparentsí house in northern Florida. It promised to be romantic and glamorous — rather like those soft-focus, murder-on-a-train movies starring Marlene Dietrich. And for my brother and me, it was. We enjoyed nearly every moment of the entire 36-hour journey. Meanwhile, my parents, who had to endure a day and a half in a small compartment with two Coke-fueled kids, emerged in not such good shape.

And therein may lie the future — or lack thereof — of Amtrak.

When we disembarked in Florida, my grandmother took one look at my parentsí haggard faces and swept my brother and me off to spoil us rotten, while my grandfather, chuckling, led my parents off to find a dark, quiet, childproof room. Itís very possible that my brother and I were holy terrors — although my sense is that we were actually pretty well behaved. No, it was mostly the inherent problem of long-distance train travel for people other than kids or crazy romantics: too slow, confining and expensive compared with the alternatives. My parents still blanch visibly whenever the trip comes up.

Amtrak, the company that brought us the aforementioned adventure, celebrates its 30th birthday this week. How is the celebration shaping up? Letís just say thereís very little optimism lingering around corporate headquarters these days. At this birthday looms, you see, Amtrak is in one heck of a bind.

A Giant in Trouble

On May 1, 1971, the first Amtrak train left New York's Penn station. And from that moment on, the company never stopped losing money, expanding its fleet to include 260 trains serving 512 stations scattered across all but five states. Granted, since its inception, Amtrak has raked in more than $24 billion in federal subsidies, which sounds like an awful lot of money but which is actually just enough to keep the companyís hopes alive without committing absolutely to its salvation. It's divided between trains making long journeys, such as our Florida jaunt, and those making relatively short hauls, such as the much-traveled tracks between New York and Washington. D.C. And as every frustrated Northeast Corridor traveler knows, when itís often cheaper to fly from between those cities than it is to take even an unreserved Amtrak train, something is very seriously amiss.

In March, just a few years after pledging to achieve financial independence by 2003, Amtrak asked for another $30 billion commitment for federal subsidies in order to close what they call Americaís "rail investment gap." Seemingly unanswerable questions continue to plague the company: Is America just too big for a national rail system? Should Amtrak be confined to a few regional services? Will Americans miss Amtrak if the whole thing just withered up and died?

Meanwhile, back on board the nationís trains, ticket prices keep rising and the number of seats appears to keep shrinking. And those of us looking to get between points A and B in the fastest and cheapest way possible are stuck with an unenviable choice: Spend around $150 to (maybe) get a seat on a N.Y.-D.C. Amtrak train, or spend slightly less to fly. Standing in the aisle of an oversold unreserved train this winter, I (belatedly) began to wonder if underneath all this frustration, someone is trying to tell me something. Something that probably sounds a lot like, "Buy a car, dummy."

Riding the Rails Again

The pity is, it can be done right. Years after the Florida trip, I ventured back onto a sleeper train for a totally different experience: My boyfriend and I booked ourselves onto the Coast Starlight, for a two-day jaunt from San Francisco to Seattle.

The ride was lovely — a 36-hour orgy of quite tasty food served in an old-fashioned dining car, a movie car where we watched a couple of new releases, and a wonderful porter to who turned down our beds and brought wine to our cabin. There was also a sightseeing car, encased in glass windows, where we watched the Cascade mountain range slide by.

It was, for the most part, magical. Sure, I found things to grouse about: Even ensconced in the legendarily comforting to-and-fro motion of the train, I didnít sleep for even a second (Ed, however, slept for 10 hours a night). And when we got off the train in Seattle, we both stood there for a few long minutes, inhaling hungrily. The air on a passenger train is, as you might have guessed, not exactly daisy-fresh after a day and a half of incessant inhaling and exhaling.

Anyway, we had a wonderful time. And thatís precisely my point, and the point I hope everyone at Amtrak, and everyone whoís trying to help Amtrak, will latch on to. As everyone whoís ever backpacked through Europe knows, rail travel can be everything we expect: Exciting, punctual, even a little bit romantic. At the heart of Amtrak are the beginnings of a great rail system, and whether it's a matter of tough love (i.e. less federal funding) or not-so-tough love (as much money as they can spend), I hope someone will figure out exactly what the company needs to finally realize that tantalizing promise of greatness.

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