28 November 2005

Living With The Train, and Amtrak Economics

We live half a mile from a major rail line.
We have a love/hate relationship with the tracks.......
I love watching the big machinery, love hearing the whistle blow late at night as it crosses the intersection West of us.

Big Bubba works a stone's throw on the other side of the tracks, and has been late for work more than once because of the intersection being covered.

I waited 45 minutes in the wee hours one night for the crossing to clear so I could make my way to my bed. (I was too stubborn to drive a mile south to an overpass.)
The law is that a train cannot cover a crossing for more than 15 minutes. This does not include time in switching.......so if a train is back-and-forthing, the 15 minute rule is inapplicable.
On more than one occasion I have made a cell phone call about being delayed by the train, resulting in traffic citations being given to the railroad. The railroad is getting better about not covering the intersection.

But the topic I really wanted to discuss here is Amtrak. When Big Bubba was 4 years old, he went through a phase, probably common to all kids, where he was fascinated with trains.
He would ask us to slow down and intentionally be stopped by a train in order to be able to watch it pass.

I had to make a trip to California to attend a course to renew my Flight Instructor Certificate. I decided this would be a good time to take the family along for a little vacation. I thought Big Bubba would be thrilled to ride the train, so I decided I would check on Amtrak to compare their rates with the airlines.

The trip to L.A. would take 3 days........two nights on the train. Included in the cost of our 1st class tickets was a bedroom and three meals a day. Considering room/board/entertainment were included in the fare, we decided to take the train. We have very fond memories of this trip, but two things surprised me:
I was surprised at how poorly we slept. The train is the main transport link to a lot of towns out West, and it stops every 45 minutes or so in towns like Hutchinson, Kansas.
I was also surprised at the food.
They have REAL chefs on those trains, and they know how to make great food and present it well!
We got off that train feeling we shouldn't eat for days.

Amtrak uses the tracks near us. The train passes twice a day in each direction, and with the exception of holidays when students are using it to return home, it is always empty. Not surprisingly, Amtrak is losing money by the trainload. We can drive our car to a major city serviced by the line for half the price of a single-fare ticket.........why would the three of us ever take Amtrak?

My question then, is this: Would it not be better to have a standby rate for the train? If you allowed people to get on the train for almost nothing, space available, you'd certainly have more riders, and seeing the train with actual people occupying the seats might make others think taking the train wouldn't be such a downer.

My idea is they could start the fare ridiculously low, then increase the price until they started seeing resistance. They'd establish ridership, and in the process get some cars off our highways.

Some that started using the train under these circumstances might very well realize the value of the service, and continue using it even with a higher fare.

The present situation is quickly leading to bankruptcy.
Amtrak is under the microscope, and federal funding is shaky.
Would it not be a good idea to try something dramatically different?
I'd hate to see the service go away.


Purple Tabby said...

It certainly would be a shame if Amtrak bit the dust.

Riding the trains in Europe is such a treat. France and Britain have some super fast trains that make distance travel feasible. England also has some less-fancy types that are still very comfortable. Italy and Spain had some rickety trains that went out to the rural areas but they were still fun.

The trick to sleeping in them seemed to be the ability to hook your toes into the edge of the bunk to minimize the head-bumping action at the other end.

It’s been a while but as I recall they aren’t cheap to ride; of course many locals don’t have cars so saving that money (car, insurance, maintenance and $6/gallon gas) might make the train ticket seem more reasonable.

I love riding the trains. The compartment seating, the train stations (big and small), the announcements made in at least four languages ::: sigh::: so romantic and reminiscent of WWII movies.

It is curious why Amtrak hasn’t cashed in on the fun on the Railways. It looks like they could at least compete with bus lines.

Greybeard, you should write them with your idea.

A marketing campaign could be great fun to produce. I mean, when you fly, what do you ever see of the country? Nada. The inside of one airplane is pretty much like the other. "Ride the trains and see the country while spending quality time with the family. Gourmet meals, clean bunks. Plus a kick in the butt to big oil companies.”

Well, I’m sure a professional could come up with something nice.

Mike said...

hell, i didn't even think about the Amtrak running close to your house.

Our station is about 5 mins away. Is there a 'getoff' there by you or would I have to go all the way to Carbondale?

TwoDogs said...

Greybeard, Great Blog about the Haunted Bridge in Avon. Pretty much as I remember it. As far as Planes, Trains and Automobiles - Is this just an angle to get a cheaper fare for us?? Standby - I have not done anything standby or 40 plus years. I'll bet you haven't either. I am a little bit like you. though, fiscally conservative (others call me cheap - I am not cheap - I just like to get what I pay for), and if standby gets the job done - I'm all for it. I guess if we get bumped in Tulsa, we still could find a lake to fish. We probably wouldn't get to see Tom , though. By the way, I quessed who Greybead was early on. And every blog that I have seen posted from Greybeard has been right on! You and the 'Sis' have a great talent for this....