Amtrak is a disaster. A squeaking, rumbling, stopping-for-no-good-reason failure of a national rail service. How do I know? Suffice it to say I've spent a good deal of time over the last ten years either on Amtrak trains or desperately trying to avoid the Amtrak experience. At best, my train trips have been tolerable. At worst, they've given me the kind of heartburn that only comes from four hours of pent-up rage.
As a young professional with no car, a neurotic fear of flying and plenty of reasons to travel up and down the eastern seaboard, I'm exactly the kind of customer that should love taking the train. Amtrak wants me. They really do. But they're not getting me.
One big reason is price. If the train is going to compete with ferries, planes and automobiles, it should be in some sense better: faster, more convenient, tasty food. Or at least cheaper. But once I realized that for the price of my standing room only train ticket I could have flown back and forth from New York to Washington not once, but twice, I got a bit peeved. Recently, I was on my way to Wilmington, Delaware to meet my parents. I had painstakingly concocted a route by which I could totally bypass Amtrak: New Jersey Transit to Trenton, then switch to the local SEPTA train, which would take me to Philadelphia and eventually Wilmington all for the low, low price of $16. For the same ride (minus, of course, the inconvenience of transferring) on Amtrak's unreserved Northeast Direct line I'd pay $57.
If Amtrak were even half as budget conscious as I am, we'd have a train system that worked. Unfortunately, the entire company is in shambles. Monday, the Amtrak board of directors begged Transportation Secretary Norman Minetta for another $200 million in "rescue" funds. The White House seemed uninterested in bailing out the ailing rail system and many GOP leaders, including House Speaker Dennis Hastert, said they'd like to eliminate Amtrak's rail monopoly.
But the Amtrak bigwigs came to Washington armed with an offer that couldn't be refused: Give us the money, newly appointed president David Gunn told the country, or we're shutting down service on the crowded Northeast Direct trains starting this Wednesday.
By late Monday it was evident that immediate crisis will be avoided: panicked lawmakers from New Jersey and New York, horrified by visions of stranded commuters pounding on their doors say they've extracted a promise from President Bush that Amtrak will get its money. There will be no shutdown.
And that's a real shame. Because there's nothing Amtrak needs more than a good swift kick in the corporate butt. An unprecedented commuter crisis? Fantastic: the news media will be crawling all over that story, and Amtrak will have nowhere to go. Americans will finally get the message: yes, folks, this is your national rail system, incapable of maintaining train service even on one of its only profitable routes. Isn't it pathetic? Aren't you proud?
It all seems a little like extortion. Oh, they'll keep running the New Orleans to Los Angeles trains and the Coast Starlight from L.A. to Seattle and losing buckets of money, but the Boston to Washington route? The railroad's chief source of income? That they want to close down.
Which might not be a bad thing. A shutdown wouldn't be nice for the people who couldn't make it to their offices, but we could always just take the $200 million that Amtrak wants and hand it out to these commuters. Take a paid vacation, on Uncle Sam. It's June. We could all use a couple weeks off.
Then Amtrak should be forced to take a good hard look at its operations rather than just pocketing still more of the taxpayers' money and figure out if it is still a viable business. (My hunch is the answer to that question is no; not many viable businesses ask the government for $1.2 billion in funding while providing very few people with very little service.) Amtrak's defenders argue that airlines and highways get massive subsidies each year, far more than Amtrak receives. Yes, and highways and airlines, while far from perfect, happen to work: They get people and goods from one place to another.
Amtrak doesn't. It has had 31 years to get its act together, during which it has hogged the rails with trains that seemingly get slower by the year. Even the most unmotivated 31-year-old knows there's a time when asking parents for huge allowances for no particular reason becomes totally unacceptable. Or, to put Amtrak's conundrum in a different, perhaps less emotional light, consider this: if you had a car that only ran when it felt like it but required a huge and nearly constant outlay of cash, would you keep it? Let's hope that Washington finally has the sense to call in the tow truck and put Amtrak (and its erstwhile passengers) out of our collective misery.