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Traveling by Train in North America

By Xpat in Culture
Wed Aug 16, 2006 at 12:00:00 PM EST
Tags: amtrak, trains, viarail, upstate new york, montreal (all tags)

We left Quebec City at 6 AM on our way to New York City via Montreal. It was my first train ride. I've been traveling by plane in the US for 30 years, and have seen the food go from reasonable to horrible, airline employees go from happy to surly, airport security go from somewhat inconvenient to completely ridiculous and the overall experience of plane travel go from enjoyable to barely endurable. That's really what airline travel has become, a barely endurable way to get from point A to point B. It is my hope that train travel will be a "eureka" experience.

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The first thing I noticed this morning was that we arrived at the station 20 minutes prior to departure rather than two hours early. We checked our bags and boarded. There were no lines, no security checks, no one taking their shoes off or putting their laptops in a plastic bin to be X-rayed. So far so very, very good.

After we boarded I noticed the seats. There were no seat-belts and the seats were larger and much more comfortable than anything other than first class on a flight. In general, there was a lot more room. The windows were enormous.

We pulled away from the station, slowly at first but it was so smooth. I don't know what I was expecting but we just glided out of the station and pretty soon we were moving past the back of businesses and apartments. Trains run through the less upscale parts of a city and the large windows afford a better than necessary view of the seedy underbelly as it were.

Our trip to Montreal was on the south shore of the St Lawrence, rural of course, farms and small towns. There seems to be more time to think on a train. Well OK, there _is_ more time to think. The overall travel time from Quebec City to Montreal was almost the same as by car, about 3 hours. It's tempting to just sit and gaze out the window at the ever changing scenery. But the train had wireless Internet so that settled it for me. Speaking of laptops, cellphones and other 'approved electronic devices', if you need to make a call, you just do it. We travel right next to the main road so there are relatively few areas not covered by cellular service.

Oh yeah, the train couldn't have had more than 20% occupancy which is why I'm writing this. Granted the average traveller may well be in more of a hurry than I am, but surfing, replying to email and writing this essay are all activities that I would normally engage in anyway, so the train ride really can't be considered a major inconvenience.

I should mention that the leg from Quebec City to Montreal is on the Canadian National Railroad's Viarail Canada. Viarail calls trains 'a more humane way to travel'. It was a modern, well appointed train, while the leg from Montreal to New York was on an older Amtrak train. The seats were a bit closer together, the legroom not quite as ample, the windows were a bit smaller, but from what I'd guess it was about %65-70 full. If that were the first train I'd ridden I'd still be impressed.

Back in my previous, unenlightened life, I vaguely remember political discussions about cutting the subsidy off for Amtrak and letting 'market forces' put unprofitable routes out of business. Given the high price of gasoline these days I doubt if such discussions take place very often but here is yet another area where a government can act to subsidize an industry that is not profitable in order to improve the standard of living for it's citizens. In fact, given the lack of profitability of most railway routes, there is very little chance that a private company will ever invest in railroads. Unless the federal government continues to subsidize them, most routes will disappear.

There are high speed trains in some parts of the world, in countries that believe in public transportation. The US, apart from major cities like New York and Chicago, believes in public transportation more as a way to allow poor people to get to work in the city than as real options for travel. Bus lines typically operate at a loss and light rail is extremely limited in its breadth of coverage. There is also the small matter of the status quo. Automakers in the US wield extraordinary political power. The motivation for the federal government to invest in public transportation is simply not there.

The leg to New York is called the Adirondack and it has exceptionally nice scenery through the eastern half of upstate New York. The porter in Montreal called the left side of the train Lakeside, for Lake Champlain, and the right side Riverside, after the Hudson river from Albany into New York City.

The dining car opened at about 10:30. That's cool too. I'm discovering all the comforts of 19th century travel for the first time. As an aside, our micro-waved 'Sante Fe' chicken sandwich listed literally dozens of ingredients. It's better not knowing what they all are. Sometimes ignorance is bliss, sometimes it's just ignorance.

I don't think our speed in the Adirondack route has exceeded 50 km/h from Montreal to the US border. It's not exactly a 200 km/h Maglev. But speed isn't really the primary reason for this little experiment.

We stopped at the US border in Rouses Point, NY and were boarded by customs officials. I overheard one of the train employees saying we would have about a 45 minute delay. It's an hour now and counting. All non US or Canadian citizens were directed to the dining car for a little extraordinary rendition, or something. I'm a US citizen, my wife is Canadian, we live in Canada and each time I return to the states I'm a little more uncomfortable with security. Each time US residents seem a little more paranoid. Maybe I'm imagining things. We were finally on the way after about an hour and 15 minutes.

I'm fairly opposed to nationalism no matter what country is screaming it at the top of their lungs but so far this train ride is starting to feel like a stereotype. It's the fast, modern, friendly Canadian railway versus the slow, older, inefficient US system. As we hurtle through upstate New York at 20 mph, the engineer has informed us that 'some signals ahead are red and the law requires the slow speed'. At this rate we won't have to worry about rush hour in New York City.

The signal lights must have turned green up ahead because we've doubled our speed. Going slow, even when you're not in a hurry, is frustrating. This is much more what I thought a train ride would be. But, no sooner did we get going though then we are stopping in Plattsburgh to wait for the nicotine addicts to relieve themselves. How it is that tobacco and for that matter, alcohol, are still legal is beyond my puny eggshell mind to grasp. Hopefully there will be a liquor store within a mile or so of our hotel. I'll need a drink by then.

Our route takes us down the western side of Lake Champlain which seems to stretch forever, supporting an endless number of pleasure boats. In the distance to the east we can make out the Appalachians. It's quite a nice view and one that we'd miss if we were on highway 87 a few miles to the west. In the distance to the west we can see the Adirondacks. Upstate New York is beautiful there's no doubt about that.

The man made scenery visible from the railroad is quite unlike that seen from the highway. One has the impression of glancing into a private, uncared for place. There are abandoned buildings, backyards, rusted out old schoolbuses and forgotten toys. It's as if you are looking into human nature rather than looking at the facade that people show to the roadway. it will be interesting to see the City from this perspective.

It's 6 PM and the dining car has run out of food. I would have had a cup of coffee for dinner but they've run out of plastic lids as well. Perhaps Amtrak was surprised at the level of occupancy. It's a long ride though and due to the signal light problems, it's running an hour and a half late. They've been running it hard for the last few hours and maybe they've made up some time but when these old trains try to make up time, they shake hard enough to make reading difficult. The dining car is due to reopen once we leave Albany so maybe another Sante Fe chicken sandwich is in my future. The guy sitting ahead of us called a friend a few stops ago and got the number of a Dominos near the station in Albany. He had to run around the station a bit but he made his connection. The smell of fresh, hot pizza when you're hungry is it's own unique kind of pain.

There are two restrooms at the front of my car. The door on one is jammed and won't open and the other has been occupied for about half an hour now. I fear the worst. If I really need to I can go to another car. I think we still have 4 stops before Penn Station and we are already 5 minutes late. According to the schedule we are now two hours and ten minutes behind. An attendant just opened the locked restroom door and carefully looked inside. No one was in there, which is a good thing.

We made it to New York 2 1/2 hours behind schedule. It was long dark by the time we arrived so the trip into the city wasn't as colorful as I'd hoped. According to the porter that we eventually located, there were only 2 porters in the entire Penn Station at 9 PM on a Friday night. He also told us that the train from Florida was 6 hours late, so we should feel fortunate. I didn't feel so much fortunate as exhausted. That was a long day that started at 5:30 AM as we left the house for the train station in Quebec City. But the total cost of our one way trip was under $200 and the electric train didn't spew an ounce of greenhouse gas into the sky.

We got to our return trip on time a week later and sat in the same two seats. That was a mistake as the smell of the restrooms was already noticeable at the time of departure. As the day wore on, the entire car took on the odor of a portable toilet. The train shook it's way north out of the city and was actually only about 10 minutes behind schedule when we arrived at the Canadian border.

Of course, as luck would have it, 2 days prior to our trip, British authorities arrested alleged terrorists planning to destroy aircraft flying between Britain and the US. We were boarded by US border patrol officers on the US side of the border who delayed us for an hour as they searched for suspects trying to flee. There are any number of witty remarks I could make at this point about speeding away on Amtrak. Alas, no suspects were taken into custody. So we proceeded across the border where the Canadian border patrol, not to be outdone, kept us for an hour and a half and actually removed some unfortunate person from the train.

We arrived in Montreal 2 1/2 hours late in stench that was by now suffocating. I fell to my knees and kissed the concrete, Canadian soil. Travel in Canada, whether by air or by train is reasonable but if you are unfortunate enough to have to pass through the US, it's advisable to think long and hard about the necessity of the voyage.

Amtrak had me at hello but by the time the journey was done, government subsidy, and a substantial one, will have to find it's way to my pocket before I do that again.


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Traveling by Train in North America | 125 comments (101 topical, 24 editorial, 0 hidden)
i am glad to see this wonderful story back. (2.50 / 1) (#6)
by agavero on Wed Aug 16, 2006 at 11:07:24 AM EST

thanks for resubmitting it.
"Our knowledge is a little island in a great ocean of nonknowledge." Isaac Bashevis Singer
Thanks for the suggestions (none / 1) (#9)
by Xpat on Wed Aug 16, 2006 at 12:15:49 PM EST

I'm glad you liked it despite all of it's flaws :-)

[ Parent ]
well, growing up in a "train" family (none / 0) (#10)
by agavero on Wed Aug 16, 2006 at 12:43:54 PM EST

made trains a part of my life and i enjoy stories about them and experiences people have had with them. i am unfamiliar with the amtrack tho. where i live used to be the train capital of Canada, but trains have become rare except the via rail and grain hoppers now.
"Our knowledge is a little island in a great ocean of nonknowledge." Isaac Bashevis Singer
[ Parent ]
Lionel trains? (none / 0) (#69)
by newb4b0 on Sat Aug 19, 2006 at 12:22:48 AM EST

http://www.netmoneychat.com| NetMoneyChat Forums. No Registration necessary. Ya'll.
[ Parent ]

Amtrak bastards (2.80 / 5) (#7)
by The Diary Section on Wed Aug 16, 2006 at 11:20:45 AM EST

I booked online, paid online, then they lost their booking computers and made me pay on the day. They did not refund my pay on the day ticket in person, I had to write a series of letters to them because they wouldn't answer emails then get onto the credit card company. Then Amtrak got pissy about refunding across state borders or something because I didn't have a US address. Of course I don't, I was visiting which was the only reason I was on the train in the first place. Bah. Next time I think I'll try out this driving on the wrong side of the road bollocks  and if I hit someone, they can blame Amtrak.
Spend 10 minutes in the company of an American and you end up feeling like a Keats or a Shelley: Thin, brilliant, suave, and desperate for industrial-scale quantities of opium.
West of Chicago, dude. (2.66 / 3) (#21)
by Apuleius on Wed Aug 16, 2006 at 11:10:43 PM EST

East of Chicago the rail lines are old, and have low clearances. To the west, no such problem, which is why Amtrak uses 2 level superliner cars on those routes. Among other benefits, it means the toilet tanks don't overfill, and the ride is much more of a pleasure. (What is not so fun is it usually means boarding or detraining at some ungodly hour at your starting point or destination.)

There is a time and a place for everything, and it's called college. (The South Park chef)
The Capitol Limited... (3.00 / 2) (#32)
by claes on Thu Aug 17, 2006 at 03:50:19 PM EST

Washington DC to Chicago, uses the 2-level Superliner cars now too.

Not that it doesn't get behind a freight once in a while.

For some reason, westbound is usually on time, eastbound is late.

[ Parent ]

Lies, all lies! (2.78 / 14) (#22)
by jd on Thu Aug 17, 2006 at 12:44:46 AM EST

There are no trains in North America. There are some snails on wheels that pull giant aluminium jelly roll tins, which are politely refered to as Amtrak, but rail technology in the US is barely on par with Stevenson's Rocket (and that's without putting in the coal).

In Britain, you stand back from the platform - the vaccuum pressure from the trains blasting past can easily rip you off your feet. And if it's a goods train carrying grit or linestone, expect fragments of the load to blast past your head at bullet velocities.

British trains are considered the slugs of Europe, with trains in Germany and France that consider 175mph mere cruising. I don't think the bullet train is the fastest out there any more, but I think it still does twice the speed of German trains.

I will believe the United States has developed train technology the day Americans would rather go by rail than fry in traffic jams. When the jams are quicker, when burning gasoline by the truckload is cheaper, when 3 hour delays at airports is considered executive luxury, you know that no viable ground-based rapid mass transit system exists.

The problem here... (3.00 / 4) (#26)
by rusty on Thu Aug 17, 2006 at 11:41:50 AM EST

...is that you can only get from point A to point B by train if points A and B are both large cities. I'm going to visit friends in Massachusetts this weekend, and I'd gladly go by train, but that would only get me 40 or 50 miles north of my destination. There's no such thing here anymore as the whistle-stop local train.

I would rather go by train than fry in the traffic jams, but what choice do I have?

Not the real rusty
[ Parent ]

Yes, but... (3.00 / 2) (#60)
by SvnLyrBrto on Fri Aug 18, 2006 at 03:06:59 PM EST

When you make the choice to live out on the middle of godforsaken nowhere, don't you also choose to go without the conveniences of civilization?  And I fail to see why progress should be allowed to be held up because some people want to play at being Luddites.

I know that sounds rather mean, but *IS* there a nicer way to say it?  It's a pretty harsh truth, after all.

As much as I do bitch about BART and MUNI; the fact is that they *ARE* a viable replacement for most driving, and a superior replacement most of the time that I leave the house.  I think it's been about three weeks, now, since I've even MOVED my car!  (Ought to at least drive it around the block a couple times this weekend, I think...) And I really just can't fathom the possibility of developing some notion to live anywhere where transit is *LESS* well-developed than it is here.

Death to Amtrack, I say, and bring on the Shinkansen!

In fact... speaking of the Shinkansen... my next home, after San Francisco is likely to have transit that's very much exponentially superior to what we have even here.  Yes, I'm planning to do the English-teacher thing.  I have all of my stuff together to apply for JET this november, and depending on how that works out (Wether they accept me and where in Japan they'd want to send me.), to NOVA, AEON, and GEOS too...  the idea being to get placed in one of my top three choices....  Tokyo or suburbs thereof (obviously, Osaka, or Sapporo.


Imagine all the people...
[ Parent ]

But it didn't used to be this way (none / 1) (#62)
by rusty on Fri Aug 18, 2006 at 05:39:29 PM EST

In England, and in earlier America, every little godforsaken town had a train station. Out west, the towns became towns because that was where the railroad put the station. It's not like it's never been done before. We've lost the mass transit we used to have.

So no, I don't want to have to move to one of the few remaining places where we actually have mass transit. I want the transit to come to where the rest of the people are.

Not the real rusty
[ Parent ]

but that's a service few want (2.50 / 2) (#65)
by Delirium on Fri Aug 18, 2006 at 09:35:39 PM EST

The small stations have been shut down because nobody was riding the train there, not the other way around. Everyone in small towns has a car, and so that's a cost already paid for. The train, then, is providing a redundant and more expensive service.

[ Parent ]
Cars fucked us (none / 0) (#66)
by rusty on Fri Aug 18, 2006 at 09:48:23 PM EST

Now we have a whole infrastructure built around cars and we're screwed until gas costs $12 or $15 a gallon.

So, shouldn't be too much longer then. :-)

Incidentally, I looked into it, and it's perfectly possible for me to travel from here to NY or DC on a train. To NY, it's about the same price as the cheapest possible airline ticket. Takes about 6 hours, as opposed to a total of 4 or 5 on a plane (when you include all the getting to the airport 2 hours early and everything else). And extra bonus: No anal probes at security!

I'm totally going by train next time.

Not the real rusty
[ Parent ]

6 hours my foot (none / 0) (#67)
by Delirium on Fri Aug 18, 2006 at 10:11:48 PM EST

Amtrak trains never run on time. It's not uncommon for trains scheduled for 12 hours to take over 20...

[ Parent ]
Amtrak Lateness (3.00 / 2) (#117)
by Kadin2048 on Tue Aug 29, 2006 at 09:14:16 AM EST

I have a theory regarding Amtrak: the more frequently the itinerary runs, the less likely any given train of that schedule will run late.

E.g., if you take a train where there is only one running per day between those two stations, chances are it's going to run late. If you take one where there's a different train every two hours between the same points, it's usually on time.

I'm pointing out correlation here, not causation. Obviously, they run more trains on routes that are more highly-trafficed, meaning the equipment and track is better, etc. It's just a useful guide to determining how far off the beaten path you are getting when booking a train.

So if you have a choice of which stations you want to go into or out of, I've had much better luck avoiding lateness by going between major hubs. I take Amtrak frequently in the Northeast Corridor, and the regular Boston/NYC/DC trains (which run every few hours during the day) seem to rarely be very late, unless there are severe mitigating circumstances. Get off the main route though, and you'd better multiply the length of your trip by 2, just to be safe.

The difference in quality between Amtrak's main lines and the less-traveled routes is pretty screamingly obvious.

This is sort of the opposite of the airlines, where in my experience you're better off going through the smallest, most regional airport that you can possibly find a flight through, in order to avoid security lines endemic to the large hubs.

[ Parent ]

careful! (none / 1) (#76)
by mlc on Sat Aug 19, 2006 at 07:20:51 PM EST

Amtrak service between Maine and the rest of the country is pretty lame.

So the Berne Convention is the ultimate arbiter of truth and morality. Is this like Catholicism? -- Eight Star
[ Parent ]

JET program (none / 0) (#71)
by ZeroesAndOnes on Sat Aug 19, 2006 at 01:09:06 AM EST

You are very unlikely to get your choice of place.  As I understand it, all applicants are offered to all schools, which pick the people they want.  Your preference is only used as a tie-breaker should more than one school want you.

Good luck, and be prepared for more form-filling and timewasting than you thought possible, before you finally get to working in a school.

BTW I live less than 20 metres from a shinkansen track, and can only just hear it with my windows open.
0000 1001 1010 1101
[ Parent ]

So I've heard... (none / 0) (#77)
by SvnLyrBrto on Sat Aug 19, 2006 at 07:26:57 PM EST

Yeah, I've heard that JET can dump you into some pretty random places.  That's why I'm looking into the private schools too.  NOVA, in particular looks appealing to me, because they have a partnership of some kind (I haven't quite figured out how to discern the exact relationship between Japanese business partners yet... at least not with the information I have so far, anyway.) with an outfit that does English-language software localization.  If I hooked up with them, I'd have an in to go back to actually USING that CS degree, AND staying in Japan.

And really, I'm not one of those guys who has my heart set on living in Shibuya and ONLY Shibuya.  Chiba, Yokohama, or even Yokosuka would be acceptable alternatives to Tokyo itself; or Kobe or even Kyoto as alternatives to Osaka.  Tokyo and Osaka are my top choices because pretty much every time I've moved since leaving my parents, it's been to a progressively larger city; and every time, I couldn't imagine myself ever going back to the smaller one.  I think I'm just a complete and total "big city" kind of person.   And *DO* you get any more "big city" than Tokyo and Osaka?  Sapporo is on my list too, because I'm sure that I'd just adore the climate (Like San Francisco but a bit cooler, from what I've heard.), and I've heard horror stories about the summers in the Kanto and Kansai regions.


Imagine all the people...
[ Parent ]

HAHAHAHA (none / 1) (#120)
by BJH on Mon Sep 04, 2006 at 11:59:26 AM EST

Sapporo is on my list too, because I'm sure that I'd just adore the climate (Like San Francisco but a bit cooler, from what I've heard.)

You must be joking, right?

Average temperature: 8.5°C
Highest recorded temperature: 36.2°C (7 Aug 1994)
Lowest recorded temperature: -23.9°C (18 Jan 1945)

Average annual snowfall: 496cm
Most snowfall in a year: 668cm (1995/1996)
Most snowfall in a day: 169cm (13 Feb 1939)
Roses are red, violets are blue.
I'm schizophrenic, and so am I.
-- Oscar Levant

[ Parent ]

Fastest Train (none / 0) (#28)
by rlazur on Thu Aug 17, 2006 at 01:25:07 PM EST

The TGV has held the world record for quite some time claiming 515.3km/h as the fastest speed along one of its lines.  However, Japan has been developing a Maglev train that has exceeded that to around 581km/h on its test track (with 3 cars at that speed, 5 max).

As per the last comment, I wholeheartedly agree that there is very little rail competition to cars and airplanes thanks to the oil, auto, and infrastructure industries.

[ Parent ]

slow (none / 1) (#41)
by Eivind on Fri Aug 18, 2006 at 03:17:08 AM EST

Hamburg - Berlin. ICE.

150mph. Wireless internet for everyone. Free newspapers, magazines, coffee, tea, biscuits and fruit if you travel "plus" class, which costs about $10 extra, not 5 times the price like in airlines.

Spotless toilets. Hell, you can even take a *shower* underway if you feel like it, you need to pay for that privilege though.

No noise besides a very low "woooosh" sound. No checkins. No lines. You buy a ticket, you enter the train. End of story. Starts and ends in city-center, rather than half an hour from downtown which is more the norm for planes.

Takes *less* time than the plane, when you include the getting-to-and-from airport, the checkin atleast 1 hour prior to departure and the wait-for-luggage on arrival.

[ Parent ]

500 miles or less (none / 0) (#47)
by Xpat on Fri Aug 18, 2006 at 07:43:43 AM EST

In the US, if a 150 mph train were an option, it would be faster door to door than a plane for 500 mile trips or less, given check in times, transportation out to an airport etc. That means that almost all business related travel between cities in the Northeast corridor would be faster and more convenient than airlines if such an option were available.

If the amenities that Elvind refers to were also onboard, a business traveler would be crazy to take a plane.

Tourism is a different type of travel entirely. I can see where airline travel would be necessary if someone had a week vacation and wanted to travel across the country. But is that really the usual case?

For me, even if I had a week, and the two surrounding weekends and wanted to go 1500 miles, I'd be happy to take a day of travel each way rather than a half day especially if I could relax, access the Internet and have clean restrooms.

[ Parent ]

math? (none / 0) (#92)
by CAIMLAS on Mon Aug 21, 2006 at 10:51:00 PM EST

Mind sharing your math on that?

Also, if it were true, I don't doubt there'd be much less concern over terrorists. For one, you can't do much to a train aside from crash it, and even then you're not going to take out much more than the train itself. At least that doesn't introduce the imagery of falling out of hte sky for people. Ground travel would still feel more natural.

And really, even still, railway travel would probably still be safer than both flying and driving...

Socialism and communism better explained by a psychologist than a political theorist.
[ Parent ]

math (none / 0) (#107)
by Xpat on Tue Aug 22, 2006 at 01:43:24 PM EST

Boston to Baltimore is 369 miles according to American Airlines and the gate to gate travel time is 1 hr 35 minutes. Actually getting to Logan Airport, in Boston, on a good day can take a while and most of your patience, but assuming it doesn't, you need to check in at least an hour prior to departure and it's going to take a good 20 minutes or so to deboard in Baltimore and find a taxi etc. So from the time you get to the airport til the time you leave the destination airport is very close to 3 hours. That assumes that you carried your bag aboard.

If the US had a modestly high speed train that ran on time and went 150 mph, you would cover 369 miles in about 2 hours and 25 minutes. Given the fact that you wouldn't need to check in more than 20 minutes or so before departure. the train depot to depot travel time is about 2 hours and 45 minutes.

Now, granted, on such a route there would be several stops etc. But my point was that even a modest high speed train would compete timewise with air travel for short (<500 mile) routes.

[ Parent ]

oh, re: vacation (none / 0) (#93)
by CAIMLAS on Mon Aug 21, 2006 at 10:59:44 PM EST

And I'm right there with you for the whole "train as vacation transportation". Aside from a vacation trip which involves leaving the country (the absense of such an event is an absurdity to most Old Worlders, I'm sure), or the situation you proposed, I can't see much of a need for airline transportation. Especially these days with the security headache - and doubly so if you've got children.

If I had the option to take my wife and (almost) 3 year old son on a train trip across the country (or half way, as the case would probably be) for a day and a half, or fly for about 2/3rds of a day (after airport nonsense and misc transportation concerns), I'd do it in a heartbeat. Especially if I could get a 'cabin' arrangement for a fairly marginal amount more.

If you think about it, it really wouldn't take all that much longer by train anyway (provided the train could go at least 70mph average). Flying cross-country is a full day event after the airport hastle (assuming a larger airport, which is pretty damn likely) and layovers. That might take, what, 2 and a half days by train? A lot less, if it's traveling "fast" - it's only 2800 miles from DC to San Francisco. Figure a 100 mph train, that's only a little over a day of travel (and you could sleep as much as you wanted in the interm, uninturrupted by switching trains - provided they pulled their shit together properly in the schedule design).

Socialism and communism better explained by a psychologist than a political theorist.
[ Parent ]

Trains are fine when your country is small (3.00 / 2) (#42)
by ckm on Fri Aug 18, 2006 at 03:50:05 AM EST

It's easy to complain about trains in the US and to compare them to European trains.  BUT, I can easily drive 400 miles in a day just visiting clients and not even get out of the metro-area I live in.  Not to mention the fact that going just 1/2 way across the country is 1500 miles.

Sure, if you are going 200-300 miles, trains are fine, but that also assumes that 200-300 miles is the distance you need to go to get anywhere in a country (which is pretty much true in European countries), but here, esp in the West, trains are impractical and unworkable.  

There's a reason why Kansas City had 300,000 passengers a day through it's train station in 1940 and it was abandoned (literaly) in the 1970's.  That's because flying is a MUCH faster way to get around when you have to cover 2000 miles.  I went to Kansas City for a 3 day business trip from San Francisco.  Even at TGV speeds, it would take 10-12 hours each way.  For me, it was a 4 hour flight.  There is no way that I could have done it by train, it would have been impractical.

Sure, trains work if you travel for pleasure and don't have a schedule, but I flew over 90,000 miles between February and June.  That's just not possible by train, I don't care how fast it is.

Oh, and I also lived in Europe for 17 years, but given the choice of a 15 hour train ride from Vienna to Amsterdam (did it many times), I'd rather drive or fly one of the new low-cost airlines.   But I always take the train from Paris to Dijon and the Eurostar is brilliant if the only place you have to go is on their route.  But if you want to go from London to Dijon, forget it, you're better off driving.


[ Parent ]

Sometimes cars are necessary (none / 1) (#48)
by Xpat on Fri Aug 18, 2006 at 08:55:30 AM EST

In your situation, visiting clients in your metro area, having personal transportation is essential. There's just no way that convenience can be duplicated by public transportation. Flying halfway across the country for a 3 day business trip is something that can only practically be done by plane.

But what would happen to highway traffic, airport congestion and national fuel consumption if the US adopted a tiered transportation strategy with high speed trains taking over for airlines for short (500 miles or less) trips?

I'm all for privatization where it makes sense but individual industries don't look at the big picture of a national transportation strategy when they try to optimize their quarterly profit.

[ Parent ]

It's cheaper to drive 500 miles (none / 1) (#54)
by ckm on Fri Aug 18, 2006 at 01:03:56 PM EST

If you take the train somewhere in the US, you will likely wind up having to rent a car, except perhaps for NYC, Boston and Chicago.  

Los Angeles is 500 miles from here (SFO), and, although driving takes 50% longer (when you add in airport time), I'd still rather drive since I'll have a car to get around when I get there, and I don't need to spend another $200 on a rental car.  When you take into account all the hassles involved in daisy-chaining home->airport/train station->travel->airport/train station->rental company->hotel vs home->hotel, driving often makes more sense on short journeys (unless you don't value your time).

That same logic applies to MOST places you would go to by train in the US.  Note that this is not the case in Europe, where cities are typically compact (except London, OK) and have good, reliable public transportation.  Trains are not a means in of the themselves, they are just one component of a transportation chain you need to get from A to B and the US has a lot of other bits missing, for a lot of reasons (not just 'we don't spend governement money on transportation').

Sure, the US could have fantastic trains and public transportation, if Americans were willing to pay +/- 15-25% more in taxes like Europeans do, but they don't.   And why that is is a whole other story.


P.S. I think that jet taxis are the future of transport in the US.  Fast, effective and cheap point-to-point transportation, bypassing the broken hub-spoke airline system.

[ Parent ]

agreed, but... (none / 0) (#90)
by CAIMLAS on Mon Aug 21, 2006 at 10:48:19 PM EST

While the US isn't too well suited, as a whole for train transit, parts of it most certainly are.

I'm thinking of the sub-nation that is the NY/Boston/NJ/DC/Phily "whatever" urban area of the Northeast US (it has a name - I think - I just can't recall it right now). Also, having trains go throughout LA and into the suburbs (then, with parking lots and/or shuttle services to neighborhoods from those stations) would probably work. If the trains were well-run and there weren't any idiotic "security" measures like on airlines, such services would be more efficient than both driving and flying - and pepole could actually do things (read, work, whatever) while in transit still.

Yes, there are limited varieties of this now (NYPA Metro, Amtrak, etc.), but they're all severely disjointed and don't work well.

Another point about air travel: it is roughly 3 times faster for me to fly than to drive from Sioux Falls, SD to White Plains, NY. About 8 hours, once you factor in the suggested early-arrival time at the airport. Even longer if flying through CHicago and htere is the inevitable fuck-up (1 hour? 2 days? who knows). And then the irritation of standing around and wading through lines and the irritating people. Honestly, if it weren't for my personal dislike of driving (my eyes are easily tired and very light sensitive), I'd do it. If I could take a train and spend a full day traveling for 20% more or so than a plane ticket, I would.

Socialism and communism better explained by a psychologist than a political theorist.
[ Parent ]

TGV is slightly faster than Skinkansen, but... (none / 0) (#58)
by SvnLyrBrto on Fri Aug 18, 2006 at 02:34:38 PM EST

> I don't think the bullet train is the fastest out there any more,
> but I think it still does twice the speed of German trains.

The TGV has edged out the Shinkansen as the fastest train *service*, with an average speed on their fastest line that's slightly higher than the average speed of the fastest Shinkansen line.

Japan still, however, holds the record for the fastest actual *TRAIN*, though that's admittedly just a blip for the record books until it goes into everyday service. But as another poster mentioned, construction has already started on a new Tokyo/Osaka next-generation Shinkansen line which, using the new MAGLEV trains, will put pretty much that entire list, that I linked to, to shame.

> 3 hour delays at airports

And that's yet another area where the Shinkansen shines. A bullet train is declared overdue if it's more than fifteen SECONDS past schedule arriving at its destination. An operator that gets his train there a whole *minute* late had better have a DAMN good explanation, or else he's in jeopardy of losing his job. And throughout the ENTIRE lifetime of the system... including delays due to both human error and natural disasters (Remember, Japan is almost ludicrously plagued by earthquakes and typhoons.)... the Shinkansen are, on average, within SIX SECONDS of their posted schedule!

Like I said before, kind of makes one want to hint down an Amtrack type (Or, for that matter, an airline pilot...) and start stabbing!


Imagine all the people...
[ Parent ]

Somehow I beat the odds. (none / 1) (#78)
by HyperMediocrity on Sat Aug 19, 2006 at 08:11:55 PM EST

When I was in Japan a few years ago I had to sit on the Shinkansen for 3 hours, courtesy of a typhoon which tore the roof off of a hotel and dropped it on the power lines. Luckily we had entertainment in the form of two heavyset embodiments of the American Stereotype, who began to freak out about how the snack cart was almost empty and WE WERE ALL GOING TO STARVE!

[ Parent ]
Corrections (none / 1) (#79)
by Chancellor Martok on Sun Aug 20, 2006 at 03:28:50 AM EST

The Chuo (Tokyo-Osaka maglev) Shinkansen isn't under construction, it hasn't been approved yet and with its enourmous potential cost, it may not ever be approved. However, a test track has been built in Yamanashi prefecture that would be incorporated into the route should it be built.

Also, if you want to be picky, the page you linked to wasn't talking about average speeds. It was listing the fastest sections between two stations and is not representative of network-wide average speeds.

As for lateness, yeah it's true Shinkansen are usually smack bang on time and the record on average is mightily impressive, but when they're late they can still be very late - when I was in Japan in July we saw a few Shinkansen that were over 20 minutes late.

Just like in the USA though, Australia is unlikely to ever a decent high-speed rail service. Oh well.

Chancellor Martok  in Sydney, Australia
"Castrate instead. That can surely rehabilitate. I did it volunatrily, and my grades went up!"  -- Sen

[ Parent ]

those countries are pretty small (none / 0) (#72)
by Delirium on Sat Aug 19, 2006 at 11:04:18 AM EST

The examples you use are of countries that are pretty small, where of course it's easy to put in good train service. The UK is about the size of Texas—less than 3% of the total size of the U.S. Germany is 50% larger, and France a bit over twice that large, coming in at a whopping 6% of the U.S. land area. The typical distances, even between countries, are quite small—London-Paris, for example, is a little under 500 miles. Compare Los Angeles-NYC, which is a bit under 2500 miles.

Now if Europe builds high-speed train service that can take you from London to Athens, or London to Istanbul, then I'll be impressed.

[ Parent ]

speaking of Texas (3.00 / 2) (#73)
by Xpat on Sat Aug 19, 2006 at 12:05:49 PM EST

High speed rail could run from Dallas to Houston (4 hrs by car), Houston to San Antonio (3 hrs) San Antonio to Austin (1 hr) and Austin back up to Dallas (5 hrs). Right now Southwest Airlines makes a killing on those routes and would fight any attempt at competition but that's an example of a route n the west that could work well and any reduction in traffic along I-35 would be a welcome change.

[ Parent ]
I agree on that (none / 1) (#74)
by Delirium on Sat Aug 19, 2006 at 12:38:25 PM EST

Although Texas is huge, it's got three major cities clustered in the eastern portion of the state, but just far enough to be a pain in the ass to drive to. High-speed passenger rail is actually part of the pie-in-the-sky Trans-Texas Corridor proposal—they propose building quarter-mile-wide transportation corridors consisting of about 20 highway lanes (6 passenger and 4 truck in each direction), separate freight and passenger rail, and new utility lines.

[ Parent ]
True though... (none / 0) (#80)
by bob6 on Mon Aug 21, 2006 at 05:40:14 AM EST

the travel described in the article is more or less the distance between Paris and Brussels... I'm pretty sure fast trains would be useful in certain areas of the US (east coast, California, etc.).

[ Parent ]
The UK is _far_ smaller than Texas! (none / 0) (#82)
by Kruador on Mon Aug 21, 2006 at 10:26:21 AM EST

Perhaps you were looking at Wikipedia when you checked the sizes of those countries? The European countries' pages show areas first in square kilometres, while the US states' pages show the area first in square miles. The UK is 244,820km2 while Texas is 695,622 km2 - the UK is therefore only one-third the size of Texas. The UK is between Wyoming and Minnesota in terms of area.

Now, in terms of population the UK is higher than any single US state. We often think we're packed in over here, but I note that our population density is actually lower than the top four US states by density (New Jersey, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut). This population density probably does make railways a bit more viable.

[ Parent ]

unfortunately (none / 0) (#94)
by CAIMLAS on Mon Aug 21, 2006 at 11:05:58 PM EST

Unfortunately, intercity public transit would be pretty useless unless it had a supplimental increase in public transit facilities endemic to the stop points available as well. Otherwise, it might take a marginal bite out of air traffic, but it won't touch vehicle traffic.

Socialism and communism better explained by a psychologist than a political theorist.
[ Parent ]

the free market of bullshit (3.00 / 31) (#23)
by rhiannon on Thu Aug 17, 2006 at 03:22:34 AM EST

The most common argument against amtrak is that it doesn't make money and should be cut loose from government funding in order for the free market to figure out the profitable and sustainable routes. The problem with this is that the transportation market is the single least free market in the USA. There have been trillions of dollars taken from non-users and diverted into the highway, air and sea systems. There is no way for amtrak to compete, for instance: the 'airline bailout' after 2001 and the big dig in boston have cost about 15 billion dollars each, which is more than the entire amtrak budget from 1971 to now(although it is getting close).

So if you want to play that game, I expect you to go after the big dogs first, the privatization of the highway system followed by the privatization of the airports and air traffic control system and the port authorities. Also a call to end tax breaks for energy companies would be appropriate.

Remember folks, socialism, it's good enough for your car, but not for you.

Pave America!

I continued to rebuff the advances... so many advances... of so many attractive women. -MC

(3) Cogent criticism of corporate welfare (3.00 / 3) (#25)
by LilDebbie on Thu Aug 17, 2006 at 10:17:17 AM EST

We need more of that.

My name is LilDebbie and I have a garden.
- hugin -

[ Parent ]
inertia (3.00 / 2) (#31)
by Xpat on Thu Aug 17, 2006 at 03:46:44 PM EST

Privatization of transportation infrastructure is a huge change and one that the US isn't going to make. Big oil and the automotive industry would oppose it but even if they didn't how would you privatize infrastructure? Impose a gasoline tax to help maintain highways? Isn't that already one source of highway funds? Force airlines to pay for aiport security? They already help pay for airport maintenance. Proponents of bond issuance to pay for new airports will cite ecomonic benefit for the city. If the federal government didn't support infrastructure what private industry would? Outside of wealthy communities roads would fall into disrepair.

Ironically that would probably help Amtrak.

Amtrak and the US rail system should get the same treatment as other forms of transportation. The budget disparity that you mention is telling. Arguing that since rail is not as widely used as say air travel is short sighted. The current attitude against increasing the size of non-security related government programs would make it a hard sell but it's hard for me to see a downside to investment by the government in rail.

[ Parent ]

Privatization of Amtrak (2.50 / 2) (#38)
by rlazur on Thu Aug 17, 2006 at 09:20:24 PM EST

The concept of a national railway system has been and will continue to be a failure.  Most rail companies generate their revenue by catching the commuter market for a region, not the tourist market.  There are some notable exceptions, but for the most part a national railway hasn't been feasible since the early 20th century for tourism.  Competing with airlines and interstates is going to fail for Amtrak even if all transportation industry subsidies were leveled on some routes, but on others private rail may be able to compete if given the right opportunity.

Regional companies would need to identify their profitable routes, and expand upon that.  Track needs to be upgraded.  I would see regional companies cooperating with other local and regional companies to reduce cost and increase convenience.  Rail companies can also consolidate infrastructure by teaming up with freight rail companies.  Many cities have the advantage of a rail system close to their downtown areas rather than an airport far out in some suburb, and this also can be used to their advantage.

However I doubt the US government would go through with any smart plan.  They probably wouldn't even lift a finger to "bail out" Amtrak so that private regional companies start out on the right foot (such a plan cost Japan dearly, but put the JR companies on the right foot).  Instead I see them letting Amtrak die completely due to the lobbying efforts of the aforementioned industries or to continue propping it up as national history.

Yet another question is would the state and local governments have the balls to promote legislation beneficial to private rail transportation?  This is another obstacle that could be overcome by having the right connections regionally rather than nationally.

Personally, I'm more interested in intercity and metropolitan private rail.  It would be more interesting to follow a new private rail company as a joint-venture between retail, entertainment, real estate, and perhaps a freight company.  Just think about revitalizing freight track through urban cities with minimal expansion into the downtown areas for convenience.  That's why I'm more interested in watching the failure of COTA's and SMART's pet projects because they're going at it all wrong (Central Ohio Transportation Authority and Sonoma-Marin Area Regional Transit).  

This was a bit long, and should not be taken as some sort of silly "rebuttal" because I agree completely regarding the subsidies the air, auto, and energy companies receive in comparison to rail.  It's just my understanding that privatizing Amtrak IS a good idea, and that regional rail companies do have potential.  I would gladly support cutting back on air industry subsidies if there was a competent alternative available.

[ Parent ]

chicken or egg (3.00 / 3) (#61)
by rhiannon on Fri Aug 18, 2006 at 04:04:34 PM EST

who has the resources to create a competent alternative to air while air travel is so heavily supported by the feds? Only the feds.

The only people who could possibly create a regional rail network are the freight train groups, these are the same people who demanded the creation of amtrak and continually pressure the government to support amtrak because they don't want anything to do with it. It doesn't seem like you have studied this much, because amtrak already is hooked up with the freight train companies, I believe that only the NE corridor and some other tiny stretches are owned by amtrak, the rest of the network is owned by freight companies and amtrak has low priority trackage rights on those rails.

You talk about a intercity/metro private rail revitalizing an urban area, but that is some 1800's type shit, the freight/passenger systems already did that, then along came the federal highway system and the massive infusion of cash taken from taxes and the rail system basically imploded. Tractor-semitrailers killed the train star. There is no way to go from here to there now without the intervention of the government while they still subsidize oil/highways/air.

I believe the reason europe has such a successful train network is because they created a modern right-of-way, while ours is built up from the original tracks, which obviously can't support high speed traffic.

I pretty much agree with you, but I disagree with what it will take to get a sustainable rail system.

I continued to rebuff the advances... so many advances... of so many attractive women. -MC
[ Parent ]

Private vs. Public Transportation (none / 0) (#85)
by catch22 on Mon Aug 21, 2006 at 07:54:40 PM EST

Railways in the US are at a distinct disadvantage compared with cars due in large part to the huge subsidies given to the automobile transportation system (building roads, etc...) Our road system was created as a public system for very good reasons, not least of which is that toll collection on a large scale private road system would be unworkable and/or extremely expensive. Also, a private road system would likely have monopoly problems, as competition would be unlikely...how many competing road systems can you build between points A and B?

America made the conscious decision to favor automobile transportation over rail transportation. I believe the American government and associated industrial interests made this decision because the automobile allowed for the increased usage of America's vast unused spaces of land for economic gain. And no doubt America has become more powerful because of it.

But now we are seeing the more negative results of the decision to emphasize the automobile over the train. Sprawled suburban "communities" where one must often drive large distances to work, to buy food, to find recreation, all the while breathing in a toxic concoction of chemical pollution. Many who rely too much on their cars grow grossly overweight because they don't walk more than a small distance every day. People live farther and farther away from each other in increasing isolation, destroying any sense of community that they might have had. And above all, global warming is becoming increasingly accepted by a vast majority of scientists as a devastating problem caused largely by our addiction to cars.

Many of you reading this will respond that there are many people who need their cars, that they can't live without them. This is true. We need our cars because our communities have been designed around them. Industry and government decided to build our communities this way. In areas of the world where trains were emphasized, communities grew differently. One sees this in Europe above all. In European cities, people tend to live closer to train stations. Their workplaces are closer to home, and many more people use public transportation to commute. Food stores are often a short walk away from home. It is common for citizens to rarely use their cars. When a workable train infrastructure is in place, people tend to chose to build their lives around it.

I believe that the only way that trains will become a viable alternative will be if there is some form of public involvement. A major reason for this is that the road system is already publicly subsidized. Trains will be most useful for commuters who would otherwise be stuck in traffic jams, and for intercity travel between medium to larger sized cities spaced less than 600 miles apart. High speed rail could serve larger centers. Cross country rail will probably not be competitive with air travel, however, due to the size and population density of the US.

It is a fact that increased use of rail transportation will be an important factor in reducing America's dependence on foreign oil, as well as reducing its contribution to the serious problem of global warming. However, if this is to happen, then it will take leadership from the government.

[ Parent ]
But you CAN have both... (3.00 / 2) (#98)
by SvnLyrBrto on Tue Aug 22, 2006 at 01:30:04 AM EST

Germany, for example, has both the Autobahns, which put all but the best-maintained examples of our federal intestates to shame, AND they have ICE high-speed rail service, which makes those fools at amtrack look like a bunch of gibbering idiot stepchildren.  Plus, the metro rail systems, that *I* saw at least, were much nicer than most of what you see here too.

Likewise, Japan has both public roads AND high-speed rail, though they are somewhat more toll-road-happy than Germany, and especially the US.

It's not like it can't be done.  We just have to have thew will to do it.


Imagine all the people...
[ Parent ]

German Railways (3.00 / 2) (#108)
by catch22 on Tue Aug 22, 2006 at 02:05:06 PM EST

The German railway system is owned largely or entirely by the government.

[ Parent ]
Another free market point (3.00 / 2) (#43)
by weave on Fri Aug 18, 2006 at 07:29:38 AM EST

Amtrak currently owns and maintains its track in the Northeast Corridor and rents time on other tracks. It also provides its own police force. To compete fairly with other modes of transportation, the government should own and maintain the tracks and charge a usage free for use of it (like fuel taxes) and provide the security force to run it.

[ Parent ]
An example of rail privatisation (3.00 / 2) (#75)
by The Diary Section on Sat Aug 19, 2006 at 06:08:21 PM EST

Here. (Wikipedia...but an unusually well-written and researched wikipedia article)

From my perspective as a user, the privatisation of BR was an unmitigated disaster. The fact of the matter is that the railways are now more not less expensive to the taxpayer and that direct government (therefore, political) involvement is actually greater than when there was a single nationalised company. Ticket prices have gone through the roof and the service is unreliable, slow and crowded.

The Conservative Party themselves have recently admitted it was a mistake.

You don't know what you've got 'til it's been sold to the highest bidder...
Spend 10 minutes in the company of an American and you end up feeling like a Keats or a Shelley: Thin, brilliant, suave, and desperate for industrial-scale quantities of opium.
[ Parent ]

that's a good point (none / 0) (#89)
by CAIMLAS on Mon Aug 21, 2006 at 10:26:42 PM EST

I'm a (small L) libertarian. I've got views that are apostate to both "conservatives" and "liberals" in the US, and ascribe to quite a few traditionally "libertarian" arguments that are nuts to both the liberals and conservatives.

I'd never considered public transit to fit into the same category as the roadways before. I'd just never thought about it; it's such a non-issue, as out here I've never even seen a train for anyhting but slow freight hauling (20mph slow, if that).

Socialism and communism better explained by a psychologist than a political theorist.
[ Parent ]

amtrak in the sticks (2.80 / 5) (#30)
by rhiannon on Thu Aug 17, 2006 at 02:06:28 PM EST

Two of my friends traveled by amtrak recently. The nearest amtrak station is in a tiny little shithole of a town about an hour south of the local urban area here, apparently the tracks that go through town are only usable by freight trains because of the mountains or something.

So my first friend goes down and shows up about 30 minutes early and decides to visit the cafe across the street, the waitress informs her that the amtrak train is *always* late. Literally, it's never been on time. It ends up being 2 hours late. My friend drove her down and waited with her the whole time because this little town is an epicenter for the methquake with lots of sketchy characters loitering nearby.

Amtrak has a bus system where you can buy a ticket from here and it takes you to the train station. So my girlfriend's cousin is trying to leave town and she has a ticket for this service. We look up the bus stop on amtrak's website and it shows two stops in town. We drive around looking for both of them and there's nothing to be found at the address listed, after a while we end up asking a local business and they tell us the bus stop moved several years ago and give us a phone number, we call and the lady cheerfully informs us the bus just left.

I continued to rebuff the advances... so many advances... of so many attractive women. -MC

Then and now... (3.00 / 2) (#39)
by ktakki on Thu Aug 17, 2006 at 09:49:56 PM EST

I used to travel the Northeast Corridor on Amtrak a lot, like every two weeks when I was in college, but at least six times a year afterwards. Back in college, when there were still smoking cars, I'd bring along a smokeless toker and find some cute girl to get stoned with, covering the smell of herb with clove cigs or Gauloises. A couple of drinks from the bar car and I'd arrive in NYC with a good buzz and a phone number in my pocket.

Oh, and those bathrooms are just big enough for fucking.

The Northeast Corridor is Amtrak's only profitable line, so I never had a complaint about how clean the trains were. The Boston to D.C. lines were always fully staffed and never neglected.

The food back in the late '70s was sub-McDonalds: think office vending machine sandwiches. Tuna and cheese on white. Microwaved McMuffin clones. Last time I took the train, the menu had been upgraded somewhat. Yeah the Santa Fe chicken is pretty dire, but believe me, it was much worse back in the day.

Oh, and if you're really polite to the cafe car staff and tip well, they'll slip you extra nip bottles (check under the napkin in that cardboard tray they give you).

The train became a bit less pleasant a trip when smoking was banned. I could handle a 2.5 hour trip from Boston to Connecticut, but 4.5 hours to NYC with just a quick smoke break at New Haven was pushing it. But by that time I had a reliable car with a decent stereo. I like to drive, and a 3.5 hour BOS to NYC run (timed to miss the Boston, Hartford, New Haven, and NYC rush hours) was actually a fun trip.

I'd like to take a cross-country train trip some time and see those places I've only flown over. But this story is sort of a cautionary tale about travelling on the less profitable lines. And though a four hour flight near a screaming infant might be unpleasant, a four day train trip with same would turn me into an infanticidal maniac.

"Oh, was that your child whose neck I just snapped? I'm so sorry, ma'am."

"In spite of everything, I still believe that people
are really good at heart." - Anne Frank

smoking on trains (none / 0) (#95)
by CAIMLAS on Mon Aug 21, 2006 at 11:53:18 PM EST

The only time I've been on a train - Amtrak from Huntingdon, PA to NYC - I just popped back to the last car and had a cigarette and a chat with one of the railway workers with the back door open. Didn't realize it was a problem...

Socialism and communism better explained by a psychologist than a political theorist.
[ Parent ]

I tried (none / 1) (#40)
by Sashazur on Fri Aug 18, 2006 at 12:15:50 AM EST

Last summer I planned to take the train from Oakland CA to Salem OR, I think it was the Amtrak "Coast Starlight" or something like that. Luckily, I called ahead to check the schedule. I couldn't get a real human on the phone, but the message said the train was delayed. After never getting more info than that after calling several times over several hours, we dropped by the Oakland train station and were told it was going to be 9 HOURS LATE. We took a plane the next morning instead.

And people wonder why nobody goes by train in the USA?

The sadness of the Coast Starlight (3.00 / 2) (#53)
by jslabovitz on Fri Aug 18, 2006 at 12:08:07 PM EST

The Starlight is always late for three reasons:

  1. Amtrak does not own the tracks; Union Pacific does. Amtrak is at UP's mercy, and must yield to UP's unscheduled freight trains, as well as repairs.

  2. In Northern California and southern Oregon, there is only one main line, with spurs. So Amtrak must "pull off" whenever a freight train comes by, leading to many small delays that add up to huge delays.

  3. Once the train is off schedule, it seems that Amtrak just drops their sense of urgency. You'll find that the conductors and pursors refuse to officially give any idea of when the train will arrive. And since it's always late, it's effectively a train without a schedule.

I just took the line from Martinez to Salem, and was 6 hours late. It's been later, but rarely in my half-dozen trips on that line has it been significantly earlier.

Luckily, I had a sleeping car, which is, I think, a necessary expense on any overnight Amtrak trip. A Swiss guy across the aisle from me was amazed that Amtrak was "allowed" to be as late as it was; in Switzerland, the trains must be no more than 2 minutes late, he said, or the rider gets compensated or helped in some way. As the Amtrak pursor told us, "We are only required to get you there. There's no rule that says when."

Lovely, eh?


[ Parent ]

amazing journey, but only if time isn't important (none / 1) (#116)
by onemorechip on Sat Aug 26, 2006 at 01:30:03 AM EST

We took Coast Starlight twice. First time was LA to Portland, round trip. I forget how late we arrived in Portland; maybe 5 or 6 hours. But it was spectacular to wake up and see the sun rise over Shasta Lake, or to travel through the Cascades with no roads in sight. It's one of the top rail routes in terms of scenery, up there with the Alaska Railroad or the Oslo-Bergen route.

The second trip was only as far as Paso Robles. The southern part of the route is beautiful, too, but in a different way. We spent an hour on a siding only a few miles from our destination, waiting for the southbound Coast Starlight, which should have passed that point several hours earlier that day.

Fortunately we weren't in a rush so both trips were enjoyable. I would recommend the ride at least once, for anyone not in a hurry. The sleeper is a must for overnight trips, but it's costly so it's also not for anyone on a budget.


I did my essay on mushrooms. It's about cats.
[ Parent ]

oh my god (none / 0) (#44)
by el_guapo on Fri Aug 18, 2006 at 07:30:07 AM EST

"and the electric train didn't spew an ounce of greenhouse gas into the sky."

look, i'm all for saving the environment as anyone, but electric powered 'schtuff' AIN'T the way to do it. tell me, WHAT generated the electricity to power that 'electric train'????? very likely coal or natural gas. environmental moron activists have killed off the one industry in north america that could be reducing greenhouse emissions by an ass-load - nukes
mas cerveza, por favor mirrors, manifestos, etc.

efficiency (none / 0) (#50)
by shokk on Fri Aug 18, 2006 at 10:21:54 AM EST

The electricity generated for the electric trains and electric cars is far more efficiently done than that which is generated in everyone's vehicles every day.

That said, yes, nukes are the way to go.  We only need to figure out how to dispose of it properly - remember, that radioactive stuff came from the ground in the first place!  Plus, the electrical infrastructure is going to need a massive upgrade for all those electrical cars that need to feed off the power from clean nuclear energy on a nightly basis.
"Beware of he who would deny you access to information, for in his heart, he dreams himself your master."
[ Parent ]

short sighted of me (none / 0) (#51)
by Xpat on Fri Aug 18, 2006 at 11:08:30 AM EST

As shokk points out the energy used to convert to electric power is done so at high efficiency but there is this little principle of conservation on energy that I now remember from physics class.

I throw myself on the mercy of the reader for that one.

[ Parent ]

Diesel (none / 1) (#100)
by MyrddinE on Tue Aug 22, 2006 at 04:07:43 AM EST

Modern trains do not 'run on electricity' any more than old trains 'ran on steam'. Old trains ran on COAL, which boiled water to make steam...

Now, trains run on diesel fuel which powers electric generators, which then power electric motors. They are no more efficient than any other diesel engine... the efficiency of train transport is due to the fact that there is less air and rolling resistance. Rail is a very efficient way to move things, no matter what you use to power it with.


[ Parent ]

No Sir (none / 1) (#106)
by tetsuwan on Tue Aug 22, 2006 at 12:38:27 PM EST

Depending on where you are, trains are either diesel-electric hybrids or completely electric, the latter with power from power lines above the rail.

Njal's Saga: Just like Romeo & Juliet without the romance
[ Parent ]

Hydro power (none / 0) (#101)
by Kinthelt on Tue Aug 22, 2006 at 10:29:11 AM EST

Electricity in New York comes from the province of Quebec.  Quebec is the largest producer of hydro electricity in the world.  No coal or natural gas there.

[ Parent ]
Viarail Canada. (none / 0) (#45)
by wiredog on Fri Aug 18, 2006 at 07:33:33 AM EST

Years ago I rode from Montreal to Vancouver on Via. Great trip.

Wilford Brimley scares my chickens.
Phil the Canuck

The Canadian (none / 0) (#102)
by Kinthelt on Tue Aug 22, 2006 at 10:31:54 AM EST

A few years ago, I took the train from Winnipeg to Toronto.  I'll never get on a train on that route again.  It was well over four hours late just to get going, and was over 12 hours late at the end of the trip!  What turned out to be a 1-day-and-1-night affair turned out to be 2-day-and-2-night.

The Windsor-Montreal corridor is da bomb, though.

[ Parent ]

Training (3.00 / 2) (#46)
by BrightCrayonLLC on Fri Aug 18, 2006 at 07:43:07 AM EST

Although I live in the United States, all my train travel has been done in Australia. While on the rails, I have often thought that the probability of hijacking a train to an unwanted destination is quite low.


cat's out of the bag (none / 0) (#49)
by shokk on Fri Aug 18, 2006 at 10:18:49 AM EST

Now that everyone knows there's no security on rail roads, you can expect a Madrid style bombing in the near future.
"Beware of he who would deny you access to information, for in his heart, he dreams himself your master."
To what point? (none / 1) (#55)
by xC0000005 on Fri Aug 18, 2006 at 01:49:28 PM EST

"And today in the news, a massive bombing of seven amtrak trains occured, killing fourteen people. Next, A singing dog - could it be true, and Maria Cleanwell reports on "Sock Lint". This is america. You want to blow up something they care about. Like the mall.

Voice of the Hive - Beekeeping and Bees for those who don't
[ Parent ]
security (none / 1) (#63)
by Xpat on Fri Aug 18, 2006 at 05:51:27 PM EST

Airport security does two things well; inconvenience the hell out of passengers and nurture the kernel of doubt in the security of the traveling public.

Maybe, just maybe, a committed terrorist has to go five minutes out of his way before he inflicts real damage and certainly metal detectors prevent most guns from finding their way on board but that was true 30 years ago. The post 9/11 buildup in airport security is a waste of time and money.

[ Parent ]

not entirely (none / 0) (#97)
by CAIMLAS on Tue Aug 22, 2006 at 12:40:46 AM EST

I know a guy who accidentially (yes, accidentially) carried a full-frame 1911 pistol (ie, all steel, not something like a glock which is half plastic) onto an airplane shortly after 9/11. he usually carries it concealed, and it just escaped his mind that he was carrying it.

I've flown just as many times with 3.5" folding knives in my carry on bag since 9/11 as I've flown without them (which isn't too many - only about 5 times for each, I guess). Still that's 5 times that I've brought a knife on a plane (once in my pocket) since 9/11 when I wasn't supposed to.

The last time I flew I somehow managed to carry a .22LR cartridge, bullet intact, onto the plane. I found it half way to Chicago, sitting in the cuff I'd rolled in my legs (pants are a little too long). Talk about a panic attack (ie, I had one, and quickly hid the bullet in a pocket so I could dispose of it at the earliest moment). I'd been shooting earlier in the day before going to the airport, and it must've fallen while in the process of loading... only way I can figure how it got there.

metal detectors are only as good at detecting things as the operator is competent. sometimes they aren't competent at all.

Socialism and communism better explained by a psychologist than a political theorist.
[ Parent ]

Ya know... (none / 0) (#99)
by SvnLyrBrto on Tue Aug 22, 2006 at 01:37:57 AM EST

Last time I flew, security was such a boondoggle, with SOOOO many people backed up in line, for SOOOO long, I thought to myself along the lines of:

"Forget blowing up the damn AIRPLANE, all a terrorist would have to do is bomb this fucking LINE (or shoot it up with an AK or an Uzi or whatever), and he could kill dozens, if not hundreds, of people.  And if he had an accomplice to deal with security, he could keep at it for quite a while."

(This was after you quit seeing national guardsmen and M-16s at every security checkpoint, but before this latest bomb scare.  I imagine there are probably guardsmen in the airports again now, though.)


Imagine all the people...
[ Parent ]

trains in song (none / 0) (#52)
by goosedaemon on Fri Aug 18, 2006 at 11:32:12 AM EST

As has been alluded to in previous comments, trains used to be a bigger part of our society. Perhaps this is going a bit too far astray, but there are a lot of songs relating to trains (maybe White Room, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, Can't Stop Loving You, Rock Island Line; doubtless many others) that perhaps don't mean quite what they once did, whether from just atrophy or from changing significance.

It's just change, of course (plenty of songs about airplanes), but have there been any new songs lately about trains? It would be cool if there have been; trains definitely have some romance to them.

Wreck of Old 97 (none / 0) (#96)
by CAIMLAS on Tue Aug 22, 2006 at 12:23:04 AM EST

Wreck of Old 97 is hard to beat.

Part of the reason why trains were such a part of music in the past is because, quite frankly, they were such a huge part of both popular culture (due to their use for commute up until the highway work projects) and their huge positive impact on commerce.

I suspect that another part of the attraction towards trains was the almost mythological stature of the steam engine. It was around until the 1970s or so, and when it was brought out of large-scale commission, a great many people were made sad.

My grandfather was a fireman and then later an engineer (for several years) on steam engines on what is now Metro North into NYC. To hear him tell it, they were more alive than many a person, and to properly firing and engineering one was more of  an art than a task of labor (this from a man who has done oil paintings that have sold for millions of dollars). Steam engines had character - the distinct whistle blow and the rythmic steam discharges. Hell, I've only seen a steam engine once in my life, and it was quite mesmerizing.

Socialism and communism better explained by a psychologist than a political theorist.
[ Parent ]

congratulations (none / 0) (#56)
by Zombie Stanislaw Lem on Fri Aug 18, 2006 at 01:51:42 PM EST

+1 FP!

[note, any moderation or posts made on or after 01/04/2007 were probably made by the jerk/s who stole my account after I left.]

Amtrack must DIE!!! (Repost, like the story.) (3.00 / 5) (#57)
by SvnLyrBrto on Fri Aug 18, 2006 at 02:08:48 PM EST

Everyone who is, or has ever been, involved in any way with Amtrack should really just be ground into chum and tossed into the ocean. Add to their number the MUNI and BART people and the ones from Boston's T, DC's Metro, New York's subway, and especially that abomination, that passes it off as transit, in LA. I live in San Francisco, most of my family in Florida, in the vicinity of Palm Beach and Miami. The last time I went to visit them, I considered going via train. Not because I was scared to fly post-9/11 (I've taken too much math to be scared... flying just pisses me off these days.), but because I'd had good experiences on trains overseas a few years before, I thought a leisurely ride across the desert southwest would be fun and relaxing, and because, at the time, I had both the time and a bit of disposable income. So off to Amtrack's website and trip planner, where I punch in my travel dates. And there went the notion of taking the train ANYWHERE in the US.

The motherfuckers wanted me to first take a bus... yes, a BUS... to Emeryville, then a train to LA, change trains and go to CHICAGO!!!! At Chicago, I'd have changed, again, to a train into New York, and there finally onto the train down into Florida, where they wanted me to get on to ANOTHER bus to my final destination. The trip back was almost as absurd, but actually would have taken me on that elusive (on their trip planner) train across the south, from Orlando, IIRC, to LA. The whole affair would have eaten up almost all of my planned two-week trip, leaving only about a day and a half to spend with my relatives. And to add even more insult, the fools had it in their head that for the "privilege" of being jerked around the country like a giant kitten's scratch-toy, I'd be willing to pay THREE TIMES the fare to just fly there! Well... as much as I hate to set foot on a 737, guess how I wound up making the trip?

And what should we do once we've pureed the bastards responsible for the abomination that is train service in the US, you ask? We should hire the companies that designed and built Japan's Shinkansen to come over here and re-do the whole damn thing from scratch.... correctly this time.

> We made it to New York 2 1/2 hours behind schedule.

In Japan, if by some freak occurrence your train... even if it's just a standard Tokyo subway... is late, the conductor gives you a note to take to work and show your boss. The train schedule is THAT reliable... it's just SO inconceivable that the trains would be running late, that no one would believe you otherwise. For another example, see Wikipedia...

In 2003, JR Central reported that the Shinkansen's average arrival time was within 0.1 minutes or 6 seconds of the scheduled time. This includes all natural and human accidents and errors and is calculated from all of about 160,000 trips Shinkansen made. The previous record was from 1997 and was 0.3 minutes or 18 seconds. Japan celebrated 40 years of high speed rail in 2004, with the Tokaido Shinkansen line alone having carried 4.16 billion passengers.

... that in one of the most earthquake-plagued, typhoon-targeted, giant-radioactive-muntant-reptile/insect-infested countries in the world! And it's not as if they're the only country that got it right. Many a European country has a vastly superior train system than Amtrack, as well!

Kind of makes you want to hunt down an Amtrack or Caltrain or BART or T or Metro or whatever drone and start stabbing, doesn't it?


Imagine all the people...

Nice rant, False, but nice rant. (none / 0) (#118)
by gregcoit on Sat Sep 02, 2006 at 07:22:21 PM EST

Why would you make stuff up?

1) anybody going from SF to Florida has 2 options:

SF to LA by the Coast Starlight and then to Orlando by the Sunset Limited (this would be the fastest option).


SF to Chicago via the California Zephyr, to Washington DC on the Capitol Limited and then to Orlando on the Auto Train or Silver Service / Palmetto (this was the option given to me by the amtrak.com trip planner).

There's no reason what-so-ever to go on the Southwest Chief from Los Angeles to Chicago (the only exception would be if this was just after Katrina which of course disrupted train travel in the Louisiana and Mississippi areas but then the California Zephyr would be much faster than going to Los Angeles in that case).

As for service on any form of public transit - the blame for poor service lies in 1 place and 1 place alone - our representatives in government (and hence us, the voters).

No form of public transportation pays for itself.  Not one.  In any country.  But it's not as bad as it sounds.  Public transortation saves fuel (and hence air pollution) and reduces traffic.  It's in any governments best interest to subsidize public transit.  Most countries recognize this.  Except ours.  American polititions are convinced that Amtrak is some form of leach rather than the public service it truly is (same with practically any form of public rail travel in this country - hence your gripe about caltrain and bart).  If rail travel was subsidized to even a small fraction of highway subsidization, we could easily have as nice of passenger trains as they have in Europe and Japan.

Stop spreading lies....


[ Parent ]

it isn't really subsidized in Japan (none / 0) (#121)
by Delirium on Mon Sep 11, 2006 at 01:28:55 AM EST

In fact the current public-transit market in Japan has multiple competing metro and rail companies. They make money because: 1) they charge higher fares ($2-4 per subway ride, versus ~$1.50 in most U.S. cities); and 2) they get more riders. #2 is partly due to higher population density.

[ Parent ]
Amtrak Cascades (3.00 / 2) (#59)
by frankwork on Fri Aug 18, 2006 at 02:36:51 PM EST

I'd like to put a brief plug in for the Cascades route between Eugene, OR and Vancouver, BC.

While the punctuality often leaves a bit to be desired, the trains are modern, clean, comfortable Talgo units (the fancy Pendular ones that lean into turns).

The scenery is quite striking, particularly north of Seattle.

agree on both counts (none / 0) (#64)
by Delirium on Fri Aug 18, 2006 at 09:27:48 PM EST

Yes, the scenery is stunning, and yes, the punctuality leaves "a bit" to be desired. In fact you're lucky if the train gets you there on the same day that it's scheduled for, never mind what time... delays of 9+ hours aren't uncommon.

[ Parent ]
Tacoma Narrows (none / 0) (#113)
by tigheig on Tue Aug 22, 2006 at 06:07:48 PM EST

Having taken that train between Seattle and Portland a number of times I'll agree.  A modern train with good, clean facilities, nice seats, and large windows.

As an interesting note for K5ers, as you go through Tacoma along the water you pass under the Tacoma Narrows bridge, possibly the only bridge all of us should be familiar with.  It's actually quite beautiful.

[ Parent ]

The origins of Amtrak (3.00 / 2) (#68)
by Apuleius on Sat Aug 19, 2006 at 12:08:42 AM EST

Furriners might be surprised to learn that America has a nationalized passenger rail company. And that it was created by Nixon. The reason that happened was that in the 1970's, when America was experienceing so many forms of a crack up, among them was the financial collapse of several train lines. At the time there were still many towns for whom the train was a lifeline, and so panic ensued. Amtrak was created out of the bankrupt husk of several passenger rail companies, with a big subsidy, to save parts of the country that relied on it, i.e. towns and cities, and not to save passenger rail service itself. Service only needed to be good enough to prevent the creation of ghost towns, and so, well, it was only that good. If you think Amtrak is bad now, well back then it was worse. By 2006, there are no such towns. Any town that needed the trains to exist, either found other ways to be connected to the US at large, or, well, no longer exists. ANd that does make a case for privatising Amtrak to draw in more investment. But don't take it out on the Amtrak staff. They have their hands tied behind their backs by the comparatively huge subsidies given to the airlines and road system.

There is a time and a place for everything, and it's called college. (The South Park chef)
so did anything happen worth writing about?! (none / 0) (#70)
by newb4b0 on Sat Aug 19, 2006 at 12:23:52 AM EST

http://www.netmoneychat.com| NetMoneyChat Forums. No Registration necessary. Ya'll.

Subsidies and American Mass Transit (3.00 / 2) (#81)
by stupidpuppy on Mon Aug 21, 2006 at 07:34:37 AM EST

The biggest "subsidy" that Amtrak could ever ever receive is cutting all the subsidies that air and automobile travel receive.  From what I understand, train subsidies pale in comparison.

As for the oft-maligned American Mass Transit ... you need to consider the country and the society.  Most americans just don't live in places where mass transit could very effective -- america is just not very city-centric.  Our largest city contains only about 2.6% of our population, and only about 8% of our population lives in the ten largest cities combined.

You also need to consider that american society is very individualistic, which explains both the reason we have cars and the reason why it's hard to have good trains (gov't can't just go around seizing land -- people complain loudly).

gasoline is still too cheap (3.00 / 3) (#83)
by Xpat on Mon Aug 21, 2006 at 10:27:16 AM EST

Your point about American individualism is spot on. Perhaps the only way to convince people that they need to change the way they think about transportation is to let the price of gasoline go to $10 per gallon. I have no doubt that it will get there eventually.

The time for government to act is now, not when gas does cost $10 per gallon. Ironically, US involvement in the Middle East has the effect of exacerbating the gas price problem, but that's a different discussion altogether.

As the midterm elections draw near, I wonder if any political candidates will talk about a national transportation strategy.

[ Parent ]

Individualistic (3.00 / 3) (#84)
by The Diary Section on Mon Aug 21, 2006 at 03:06:40 PM EST

Sorry, most people are. That is just an excuse.
Spend 10 minutes in the company of an American and you end up feeling like a Keats or a Shelley: Thin, brilliant, suave, and desperate for industrial-scale quantities of opium.
[ Parent ]
Why Most Americans Live so far Apart (3.00 / 5) (#86)
by catch22 on Mon Aug 21, 2006 at 09:13:11 PM EST

Americans live so far apart because the automobile allows them to. The government and industry made the choice to emphasize automobiles over trains to increase the supply of economically useful land. It was a conscious economic choice. In a sense, the society was built around the automobile because it creates urban sprawl.

If society is to see a rise in the quality and quantity of rail transportation, then society will have to make that choice. And the way that choice will be implemented will be through government leadership. After all, we do live in a democracy.

[ Parent ]
The thing I notice as a visitor (3.00 / 4) (#91)
by The Diary Section on Mon Aug 21, 2006 at 10:50:17 PM EST

is the lack of pavement (sidewalk) outside cities, esp. in the suburbs. It just stops in odd places. If there are say two groups of shops or  say a mall and a place with a cinema half a mile apart it just wasn't foreseen that someone might have the audacity to want to walk between them. In Europe you can more or less automatically assume that you will always be able to walk between two points. It is this lack of, in a few cases, 10 metres or so of sidewalk that shows how deeply held this addiction to the car is that it causes oversights like that. I should say in Europe, a lot of us would drive between two places less than a mile apart but at least the concept of walking it hasn't completely disappeared.
Spend 10 minutes in the company of an American and you end up feeling like a Keats or a Shelley: Thin, brilliant, suave, and desperate for industrial-scale quantities of opium.
[ Parent ]
who pays for the sidewalk? (none / 0) (#109)
by Xpat on Tue Aug 22, 2006 at 02:05:45 PM EST

The shopping center puts a sidewalk in front of their businesses and the adjacent shopping center does likewise, but unless the city pays to connect the two, it doesn't get done. It's not necessarily a love of automobiles as much as a fanatical desire for Americans to keep their taxes as low as possible.

[ Parent ]
Perhaps (none / 1) (#110)
by The Diary Section on Tue Aug 22, 2006 at 02:22:47 PM EST

and they get what they pay for I suppose. Actually, here when a business (rarely an individual) builds on a site they generally get landed with a load of local improvements to build, probably both commerical properties might end up paying the bulk of the price of the pavement between the two. Which sounds anti-competitive but the only other option is to build in a different county and the cost is chicken feed to them anyway. FWIW ASDA (=Walmart) are quite happy to pay up, I was just using a the nice pedestrian bridge they had to build over a canal. I would also defend it on the basis the council is the people and ultimately its our country not that of the corporations. So if they want us to tolerate them then they can pay up for these odds and ends.
Spend 10 minutes in the company of an American and you end up feeling like a Keats or a Shelley: Thin, brilliant, suave, and desperate for industrial-scale quantities of opium.
[ Parent ]
my experience on a train (none / 0) (#87)
by CAIMLAS on Mon Aug 21, 2006 at 09:32:53 PM EST

The only time I've been on a train was a trip from Huntingdon, PA to NYC (and then Metro North to Brewster North - or whatever they're calling the stop now). The whole trip took, IIRC, about 6 hours - a trip that usually took about 5 hours by car.

It was the week after finals, I was tired (I was always tired in college), and not only did I get a sleeper, but I was traveling with my girlfriend. The 'cabin' had enough room for 3 or 4 people in a pinch, but 2 were quite comfortable. If the bed were down in 'sleeping' position, there wasn't standing room really, but there was (IIRC) enough room for 3 people (2 sitting, one sleeping). No more room than for two to sleep, however. Much activity was also awkward.

I don't recall how much it cost, but I do recall that I thought it was pretty reasonable; it was competitive with driving, even at circa 2000 gas prices (which was good; I didn't have a car). I want to say the total cost was around $350 for the two of us, up and back.

Considering we got time to sleep, a real, honest to god meal, and private accomidations far superior to anything an airline would consider offering... I really wish there were transit trains throughout the country. I'd take a 24 to 30-hour trip from where I am now to where my family lives in a heartbeat (which is about how long it'd take to drive the distance at 55mph). Though probably not if it were too much more than a plane ticket.

Though, with how expensive plane tickets are, $400 doesn't seem "unreasonable". The clincher, unfortunately, is that these days (unlike, say, before the 1970s) everyone is neurotically panic'd about time. Also, traveling by train north to south (except for along the East Coast) would be pretty, er, difficult, as there really aren't many railways that go that way (kinda like hte water migratory limits of the African continent).

Socialism and communism better explained by a psychologist than a political theorist.

My Amtrak horror story (none / 1) (#88)
by jubal3 on Mon Aug 21, 2006 at 10:15:27 PM EST

I liived in Germany in the early 80s for 3 years and took the trains all over Europe. the trains were clean, generally on-time and quite comfortible. To put it simply, they were a real pleasure.

Last summer my Wife and I took a trip to the west coast. Sopent a week in Washington state, a few days in victoria BC and then headed down California for my daughter's graduation.

For a change, we decided to take the train from Seattle to Los Angeles. The trip was supposed to be about 24 hours, which is similar to the time it takes to drive the same distance. 2 1st-class tickets were actualy a bit cheaper than coach fares via airline.

The trip started out wonderfully. Easy to get on, not a lot of security nonsense. You have quite a lot more room than you would have in an airliner, and you can move back to the salon car complete with full windows on both sides and the tiop for great vews.

The first three hours were wonderful. the views are lovely, (you're going through some of the most beautiful countryside anywhere) the food was decent, great coffee, plesant service.

the other 28 hours -Yes, that 24-hour trip took 31 hours we were 7 hours late- went from boring to downright hiddeous.

Apparantly Amtrak is unable to maintain their toilets. about 3 hours into the trip the toilets started backing up all over the train and stinking to high heaven. After about three hours of this the stench becomes worse than placing your face on the grates of the streets in Times Square and inhaling for an hour. Yes, open sewer doesn't begin to describe it.

Then there's the smoking issue. While I'm ok going 4-5 hours between cigarettes, if you're a smoker, Amtrak just sucks. there some stops here and there, but inevitably they come when you are trying to sleep (an interesting feat given the stench from the toilets) or when its pouring rain.

the staff on these trains get top marks. The steward really worked hard to make us as comfortable as possible. The meals were fairly decent if not stellar, and generally I was very impressed with the staff.

But the stench..I cannot begin to describe the smell, and the state of mind which one arrives at after several hours of it, not to mention 25. By the time we arrived, I would have happily traded the time in that train for the same period in a salvation army cot on skid row.

The high speed rail line between Boston and NYC in contrast travels an average of 90 miles per hour and was cheap and pleasant. (too short a trip for the toilets to back up?)

Anyway, having travelled by rail a lot, American rail is just plain pathetic compared with everywhere else I've travelled.

***Never attribute to malice that which can be easily attributed to incompetence. -HB Owen***

trains in Europe (none / 1) (#103)
by Delirium on Tue Aug 22, 2006 at 11:32:55 AM EST

I liived in Germany in the early 80s for 3 years and took the trains all over Europe. the trains were clean, generally on-time and quite comfortible.

If that's your impression of them, I'd wager you didn't quite take them "all over" Europe. Specifically, trains in Spain, Italy, and Greece don't generally meet that description.

[ Parent ]

although I should add (none / 0) (#104)
by Delirium on Tue Aug 22, 2006 at 11:40:49 AM EST

That those three countries do have very good intercity bus networks. I actually prefer them to northern Europe's trains, because they're much more affordable, and approximately equally clean and comfortable.

[ Parent ]
Trains in Indonesia (none / 1) (#114)
by jsnow on Wed Aug 23, 2006 at 12:35:05 AM EST

I once had the adventure of taking a train from Bandung to Jogjakarta. Me and a friend (who had been living in country for 9 months and spoke the language fairly well) arrived at the station in the afternoon and found that there were seats available. We then spoke to a ticket scalper, who didn't have any either, so he spoke to the station manager on our behalf for quite some time.

I should interject here that Indonesians rarely say "no" to a sufficiently determined person, especially if they have deep pockets and willingness to suffer.

In the end we ended up paying full price for seats on the dining car. Not so bad, right? Unfortunately, when we boarded the train, we found that there was no dining car - it had already been converted to seating. We were given comfortable seats elsewhere for awhile, until their real occupants boarded a few stops later. In the end, we ended up spending the trip in the hallway by the bathroom, just behind the engine (with not even a door to dampen the sound).

We arrived at Jogja at around 3:00 in the morning, and were conveyed by motorcycle to a hotel. Our stay was rather short, consisting of a tour of Borobudur and Prambanan, then food poisoning. Our return train ride was less eventful, though our enthusiasm had waned considerably by then.

fuller story and pictures

[ Parent ]

So, basically... (none / 0) (#123)
by jungleboogie on Wed Sep 13, 2006 at 01:16:58 AM EST

...everything was great, the view, the stewardess, the food, everything worked fantastically except the toilet fuck up.  That and the delay.  So that makes all "American rail" seem "plain pathetic" ?  

[ Parent ]
a godling has descended (1.75 / 8) (#105)
by grimpen on Tue Aug 22, 2006 at 12:24:14 PM EST

are not we lucky to have an enlightened one among us?

a little godling has descended among us to tell us how it should be!

the people of North America do not know what they need but our correspondent does:

the government to subsidize the rail system, the government to institute a "national transportation strategy".
this is equivalent to saying, the government to decide where and how much rail service there will be.
otherwise stated, the government to pay for, organize and run the rail system.

he thinks the government should plan things so as to "improve the standard of living" of the people. "the time for government to act is now", he says.

of course, he knows what the government should be doing: in fact, he should be one of the planner people, or at least one of the supervisors of the planner people. who knows, maybe he should be the head supervisor of the planner people, just so there are no slipups.

and, of course, he knows, most importantly, that the organization of the godlings - the government - should be doing this planning and managing. which is to say, the organization with all the policemen, hangmen, soldiers, judges, jails, prosecutors, administrators, taxmen, should use whatever of its resources are necessary to make sure that anyone who does not agree with what the planner people want and wants to run his own life himself should be forced into the planner's system anyway, on penalty of fines, jail, beatings or killing.

and he knows that the people should never, ever be left to manage their lives for themselves by peaceful, voluntary interaction and exchange: the latter is - shudder! - the open market, where people are left to run their own lives. for the correspondent knows people do not know how to run their own lives, but the god people such as the correspondent and his fellow god people in government do.

but, an inquisitive person - someone who thinks by himself when the planner people are not watching - might ask, how can the planner people know what is required to "improve the standard of living" of the rest of the people.

and, if the inquisitive person were a student of economics he would know that people's choices on the free market are ipso facto a demonstration of their preferences. the plans and coercions of the planner people are therefore necessarily a derogation of their standard of living, for their control of their own lives has been decreased.

government planning, by taking people's property and control over their own lives away from them, is just about the maximum decrease in a person's standard of living that can be conceived.

by the way, when did it become the business of the government - of the planner people - to "improve the standard of living for it's citizens".

(the answer is, the planner people decided for the rest of us that they should undertake this task. was not that kind of them?)

let us ask another question, how are these planner measures to be paid for?

subsidies and payment for the planners are taken from taxes and central bank inflation: both of them are forms of plunder and theft. since the plunder and theft are regular and established, they constitute a form of slavery.

note that the correspondent hates nationalism. but, we may ask, what are nationalists but a bunch of people with a program they want to stuff down people's throats, at gunpoint?

that is, they are people just like the correspondent.

the correspondent complains about the ghastliness of travel by air. here is where we see how important it is that the correspondent himself be put in charge of all the god programs to make life better for all of us. this is so that he can delete all the programs that cause him personal inconvenience.

however, the correspondent seems not to be prime material for the position of Mr. Big. for how can it be that he does not realize that it is crucial to keep the people terrified and afraid and stirred up with hatred of enemies so that they will continue to be willing to put up with the enslavement and plundering of the planner organization?

the correspondent's failure to understand this key point is a grave flaw in an up-and-coming godling. such an one must be willing to put up with a little icky-poo personal inconvenience in order that the public be kept willing to accomodate the slavery they now live under and the extensions thereto planned by the correspondent himself and all other godlings and godlings-to-be. therefore, it is improbable that the correspondent will become boss of the god business anytime soon.

free market (2.50 / 2) (#111)
by Xpat on Tue Aug 22, 2006 at 03:08:49 PM EST

I'm not sure if I parsed your tome correctly but I _think_ what you said is that you favor the free market over government involvement.

Now, forgive my terse reply, but the free market isn't always the magic solution to all of the ills of civilization. In the case of large, fundamental changes to something like transportation infrastructrue, it's simply too great of a risk for a private enterprise to come in and build, for example, a high speed rail line connecting say NYC to DC. I doubt you would invest in such an undertaking but I assure you that if such a rail line were constructed using your tax dollars, private enterprise would fill the gaps in getting passengers comfortably from their homes to the train depots, which would most likely be have some options for food etc.

Rail line right of ways are already in place. I understand why the government subsidized highways so heavily and de-emphasized rail travel, but it makes a lot of sense today to reexamine the options for travel.

[ Parent ]

The Free Market is a Tool (2.00 / 4) (#112)
by catch22 on Tue Aug 22, 2006 at 03:59:50 PM EST

Free markets are useful tools to optimize the distribution of goods and services in an economy. The market is a tool to serve the public interest, and often it works very well.

Governmental intervention is also a tool that can often serve the public interest.

There may be times where using a free market solution is the only practical way of serving the public interest. There may be other times where government intervention may be required to serve the public interest (for instance in cases where a private monopoly will result). To exclude the use of one tool or another is counterproductive, unrealistic, and does not serve the public interest.

Above all, we should not confuse the tools we use with the goal that we are trying to achieve, which hopefully is to increase the public good.

[ Parent ]
Don't be fooled! (none / 0) (#115)
by harrytuttle777 on Thu Aug 24, 2006 at 05:49:49 PM EST

Don't think that the country wich invented the A bomb, the H bomb, and the stuffed crust pizza can't run a train?  Only incompetance can explain why the AMTRAK executives aren't using the confussion in the air to mop up on competition. This level of incomptence does not come accidentally.  The AMTRACK executives were placed /allowed to stay in thier job for a reason.  So that the Car companies will continue to make cars, and people will continue to fly.  Don't for a second believe that the US airlines are in as bad a shape as they say they are.  I have traveled on non-us airways, and the planes always had about 1/4 of the passenges that would be flying on a similar US airway, for the same ticket price. The only way US airways can't be making insane profits is by playing 'hide the money' game.
  America isn't incompetant.  We are extremely good making people work insane hours in service of the state and the illuminated owners of the state.  People just need to realize that the state does not exist to serve the people.  People exist to serve the state. I have no idea how otherwise intelligent people get the idea that a nation should derive its power from the consent of the governed, or that the purpose of a state is for the mutual support and benifit of its public. I mean for crying out loud, half the States in the union sell lottery tickets to our poor.  The state makes a good living collecting taxes from alchohal.  Why should it be any different with airlines / AMTRACK.  Sure we don't have a state run airline, but you better beilieve the people who run the airlines run the state.  
  Give up and do as I have done; join the department of Homeland Security.  That way you can serve your rightfull masters and maybe even catch a few scraps thrown under the table.
-Fixing Air Conditioners since '73
Better sig for you (none / 1) (#122)
by jungleboogie on Wed Sep 13, 2006 at 01:14:37 AM EST

-- Huffing Freon Since '73

[ Parent ]
Couldn't imagine it would work out... (none / 0) (#119)
by Kreylix on Mon Sep 04, 2006 at 03:19:41 AM EST

I've taken Amtrack from Chicago to Albany and also a whole bunch of times from Albany to NYC...so I knew this was not going to be much fun for you. It's such a shame that trains are about as bad as buses.

Speaking of trains... (none / 0) (#124)
by Vicco on Sat Sep 16, 2006 at 06:29:41 PM EST

I have relatives who do not like flying (some of them have phobias about flying), so sometimes they take trains.

My mom does not like train trips through the U.S. - Partly because of the scenery. She remembers one trip where she saw blighted parts of the U.S. South.

I do not remember much from any of the train trips I have been on. I was too young to remember any of that.

Across the country via Amtrak and i LOVED IT (none / 1) (#125)
by JADEDRAVEN on Fri Nov 24, 2006 at 09:15:48 PM EST

Recently I decided to move across the country (from upstate NY to Phoenix, AZ) and I decided to take Amtrak for a couple reason...#1 I was able to bring 3 suitcases included in the price of my ticket, and then 3 more for 10 dollars each-not too bad for 300 pounds of stuff that never would have made it on a plane...also, as far as carry-ons they were very cool about it-I think I brought 2 duffle bags as my carry-ons, plus a lunch bag and my purse, no problem. and reason #2 my ticket was DIRT CHEAP...i mean, seriously on the way there i think it was like 120 bucks and on the way back, maybe 140.  I boarded in the middle of the night, and the train was about an hour late...but hell, if i had taken a plane i would have had to been there anyway, and planes are late all the time.  There was no security check, they didn't even weigh my bags...no one made me remove articles of clothing to prove i wasn't carrying a bomb, etc.  When I got on the train everyone was asleep, and I was handed a pillow, and pulled out a book.  The one thing that bugged me was the NASTY restroom (shiver),  11 hours later i was in Chicago for my 6 hour layover.  Some people whine about layovers, i don't know why.  I had never been there before, and union station is so pretty...so blah blah...then to the 2nd leg of my trip...which was 36 hours from shy town to flaggstaff, since the train doesn't run to phoenix.  What can i say...36 hours sitting down isn't fun...but what the hell, there's scenery, there's books and music, and they played a couple movies...the seats were roomy, and I was by myself most of the way.  I only ate in the dining car once, and I thought the food was ok, not great, but you know, average.  It was kinda sucky that the closest place i could get to phoenix by train was 2 hours away...but luckily i had a friend in the area.  My trip back about two months later was even better.  I learned a trick for the 36 hour jag...vicodin staggered with sleeping pills.  I slept like a baby the whole way.
Everybody gives trains a bad rap, someone told me to just think of them as "punk rock" and everything will be ok...I would take a train over a plane anyday, i have never been on a plane, and its not that i am scared, i know the statistics, after all, and to be fully honest, terrorists don't mean shit to me...but if i was to travel by plane in my "free" county i have to be treated like a criminal, forced to remove articles of clothing, forced to give up my personal belongings...scared that i am going to make one wrong comment and suddenly find myself restrained by air marshals because i made one joke about terrorists (not that i would, i'm just saying) but you get the point i hope, i would rather take dirty bathrooms and longer commute times that losing my freedom any day.
Plus, I like being able to see whats around me, the shitty towns, the countryside...it was a blast.

Traveling by Train in North America | 125 comments (101 topical, 24 editorial, 0 hidden)
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