Off the Rails


Second Thoughts OFF THE RAILS BY CHRISTOPHER CLAUSEN If you live in central Pennsylvania and have reason to visit the Big Apple now and then, you're almost certainly famihai with Amtrak's two...

...Second Thoughts OFF THE RAILS BY CHRISTOPHER CLAUSEN If you live in central Pennsylvania and have reason to visit the Big Apple now and then, you're almost certainly famihai with Amtrak's two daily services from Pittsburgh, the Three Rivers and the Pennsylvanian You could drive, of course, but the trip takes about five houi s on some of the worst and most congested highways in the country If you fly, the eccentricities of airline schedules aie likely to take you west before you go east, at a prohibitive cost in time and money For years there has been talk of a privately funded high-speed train between Pittsbuigh in the western part of the state and Philadelphia in the east that would again make central Pennsylvania as accessible as it was half a century ago, but nothing ever comes of it Instead more and more of the old roadbeds get turned into jogging trails From the Amtrak stop nearest to where I live, a 40-minute drive away, the existing trains will deliver you to Manhattan's Penn Station in about five and a half hours—slower than before World War II, but with acceptable comfort Provided, that is you hit one of their good days The cars, mostly built in the 1940s and 50s, are a little run down but have w ide aisles and an amount of legroom airline passengeis dream about You can get up and walk around without worrying about the seatbelt sign You can also see the counti yside There are good reasons to take the tram besides a lack of alternatives, and until late 1995 it was possible to tiavel between New York and Chicago in some style, with a true dining car and a choice of sleepers That train was called the Broadway Limited Its only serious problem, from the passenger's point of view, was that Conrail owns much of the track and makes passenger trains wait on sidings whenever a freight oi coal train wants to creep by Then Amtrak changed the name, took off the dining and sleeping cars, but left the coaches, perhaps on the defeatist theory that nobody who could afford expen-sive accommodations would be taking the tram anyway (In four trips to and from Chicago over the past decade, I found the sleepers always full and the dining car well populated ) Last August management reversed itself and stated that it planned to restore the service, along with four other long-distance lines Other lines are being abandoned, however, in a continuation of the latest round of cutbacks The causes given are financial, and while one might quarrel with Amtrak management's judgment now and then, nobody can doubt the reality of the problems it faces For reasons that are utterly mysterious, Americans—especially members of Congress—regard automobile travel as free enterprise and lail travel as big government Amtrak costs a tiny fraction of what the Fedeial government cheerfully spends on the Interstate highway system Its total appropriation for fiscal 1997 is a measly $200 million In the one pait of the country where it had the opportunity to become a competitive form of everyday travel, the Boston-Washington corridor, its cost-effectiveness is manifest Envuonmentally, trains are supenoi to either cars or airplanes They are also safer and more fuel-effi-cient None of these undisputed facts cuts any ice From year to year Congiess reduces Amtrak's appropriation, then complains when service declines in members' states The system's piesident, Thomas Downs, complains in turn that the rail network he presides over has shrunk virtually every year since Amtrak was cre-atedin 1971 The primary reason people give for not using it, he declared in Senate testimony in September, is that it doesn't go where they need to get Every time it raises ticket prices to offset part of its deficit, ndership declines measurably Its financial health is further drained by antiquated tort and union rules over which it has no conti ol This depressing circle shows no signs of becoming less vicious And Amtrak, too, often adds to its problems Lewistown, Pennsylvania still has a station, but it is a once-proud wreck built at the turn of the century and barely maintained at all As is true now at a great many Amtrak stops, you can no longei check luggage or even buy a ticket A Spartan waiting room is open before each tiam, but only because retired volunteers from the community look after it At least it hasn't been turned into a third-rate restaurant like so many other stations Yet One day this past summer I dialed 1-800 USA-RAIL to find out whether the afternoon train to New York was expected to be on time In many years of calling Amtrak, I have never once been answered by a human being Either you get a busy signal or a recorded voice announces that 'At the present time all of our representatives are busy," warns that it may be a long time, ordei s you to have a pencil and papei ready, and urges you not to hang up After that you are bombarded with a succession of advertisements punctuated ev ery minute or two by a request to keep holding and the increasingly dubious claim, "Your call is important to us " Eventually someone asks hopefully whether you want to make a reservation In my experience Amtrak representatives" are almost always courteous and usually intelligent If all you want is information, they do their best In this case a young woman assured me that accoid-mg to her computer the ti ain was on time My wife drove me to Lewistown One of the ancients who keep the station going was waiting outside the ruined building Obviously lonely, he approached us eagerly with the information that a freight train had jumped the track and damaged a tunnel the night before, and therefore no trains at all were running on this line today Amtrak would be sending a bus instead He had no idea when it would arrive A working pay phone survives outside the station Again I dialed 1-800 USA-RAIL, waited through the succession of recordings, and asked the agent who finally answered what was going on This time the computer showed that indeed no trams were running today The bus, however, was on its way, it had reached Al-toona, the next stop up the line, about half an hour late She thought it would probably take us to Harnsburg, where there were other trains to New York, but she wasn't sure By this time eight or 10 other prospective passengers were waiting at the station Some of them had lots of luggage One woman had two small daughters and three large suitcases Her mother had driven her to the station after what had apparently been a long family visit, now she and the children were on their way home to her husband in New York Another two or three passengers were students Several more were in their 70s and 80s By now it was late on a sultry afternoon and everybody waited outside for the bus The waiting room was too hot, besides, people wanted to see the bus when it came Anhourpassed One of the little girls began screaming Hei mother took this behavior in stride, but the child's grandmother became progressively more impatient "Why don't I drive you to New York7" she eventually asked her daughter "It wouldn't take any longer" The daughter refused, the bus would soon be along Another hour passed This time the boyfriend of one of the students dialed 1-800 USA-RAIL The news had not changed much Buses would be there soon, the Amtrak agent was sure Sorry for the inconvenience Shortly afterward a coal train passed on the supposedly unusable line Everybody wondered if the problem had been fixed By the time the third hour had passed, few passengers were still waiting The student and her boyfriend had disappeared The woman with the little girls had finally allowed her mother to drive hei Several old people remained, perhaps they had nowhere else to go, or no way of getting there After peering at the road again, I dialed the telephone one last time At length a weary voice explained that buses had been ordered, but Amtrak had no idea where they were or when they would arrive It was all a mystery to 1-800 USA-RAIL Whether or not a bus ever arrived I can't tell you, because at this point I gave up and went home When Amtrak cut back or eliminated nearly 20 per cent of its routes in 1995 the savings proved to be disappointing In November 1996 an additional 42 cities, including Las Vegas, were scheduled to lose all passenger train service, although Amtrak promised that service to 131 cities would actually increase Meanwhile powerful Senators were threatening Amtrak with more budget cuts if it failed to maintain unprofitable lines in their home states An article of faith in some circles has it that gasoline taxes are much too low in the United States Invariably the higher level of taxation in Western Europe and Japan is cited, as if it proved the point Raising the tax, the argument runs, would stop Americans from wasting so much fossil fuel People who want to raise the gas tax again always ignore the enormous size of this country and the virtual disappearance of reliable public transportaion over long distances Travelers in Japan or Germany, or even England, still have the option of decent tram service between large cities as well as bus and subway service within metropolitan areas Americans who can't afford to fly, or who live in places with little or no airline service, have only two choices drive or stay home This situation is not only the fault of shortsighted Federal, state and local governments In the 1950s, before there was an Interstate highway system, the commercial railroads that then covered the whole country began abandoning passenger service because they thought freight was more profitable By contrast European railway systems, most of which had been nationalized, began developing high-speed trains that could compete effectively with airlines even between cities hundreds of miles apart To be sure, in the early 1960s the Europeans also began closing lines and building superhighways, but the most important services have survived Unlike American trains, they have gotten faster and more comfortable than they were 40 years ago The new railway under the English Channel is only the latest example In the United States, most people either long ago lost or never acquired the habit of taking the tram If Amtrak offered transportation that was faster than driving, and no less reliable, they would start thinking about it again Look at the Metrolmer Outside the Northeastern corridor, Amtrak mainly caters to old people who have lots of time, young people who have little money, and railroad enthusiasts who would rather travel by train than any other way If my recent experiences are typical and Congress keeps cutting, the first two groups are likely to find other options, while the third group will soon be extinct...

Vol. 79 • October 1996 • No. 7

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