Passenger Rail Isn’t Just for “Rail Buffs”

I just returned from an overnight train trip on Amtrak a couple of days ago, riding the Crescent from Meridian, Mississippi, into Penn Station, after completing the southbound trip a week earlier. It’s a route I’ve traveled before, one of dozens of long-distance hauls I’ve made on Amtrak over the last 20 or so years. And while it may be wishful thinking, I felt like there was an improved mood on the train this time, among both crew and passengers. I heard several hopeful conversations in the dining car about the future of intercity rail travel in this country.

DSC_0026.jpgThe Amtrak Crescent connects New York, Atlanta and New Orleans. Photo by Sarah Goodyear.

The people having those conversations were as good a cross-section of America as you could hope to find anywhere in the nation: old and young, black and white, and, almost certainly — although politics never came up explicitly — liberal and conservative. They were traveling for business, for pleasure, for family obligation. There was no typical passenger on that train.

Which is the point Streetsblog Network member blog Trains for America made in a recent post about how passenger rail in this country needs better advocacy:

We, as advocates of good ground transportation, have been segregated into the slums of public policy with a bunch of pass-riding sentimental blowhards that reflect nothing of the people on the trains. Amtrak’s customer base includes students, business people (even in the middle of America), minorities, and women with their families.…I think an Internet community can more easily reach out to people of different age groups and backgrounds and include them in the national discussion. That is what Trains for America is about.

Riding the rails isn’t simply a hobby for "train buffs" any more than riding a bike is merely recreation for "bike freaks." I’ll be writing in a future post about how the small city of Meridian has leveraged its railroad infrastructure into a powerful tool for economic redevelopment precisely because its mayor recognizes that passenger trains provide efficient and pleasurable transportation. Rail needs more advocates like him, and like the folks at Trains for America.

Elsewhere around the network: Phoenix’s Light Rail Blogger talks about DOT Secretary Ray LaHood’s visit to see that city’s light rail system; Hub and Spokes reports on Neal Peirce’s vision for a regional approach to urban affairs; and Seattle Transit Blog shares some thoughts on the phenomenon of "transit heroes."

  • jonesy

    Sarah-

    but why is Amtrak SO expensive? This summer i want to ride it from minneapolis back here to nyc… last i checked, it was over $200, and a plane ride was $150. now, aside from all the rehearsed arguments about how air travel is subsidized, etc, this was still incredible! its just a train!

    do you have any tips for getting cheaper rides?

  • When I took Amtrak from Buffalo to San Francisco a dozen years ago, and again from San Francisco to NYC a year later, it WAS cheaper than flying. Now, the airlines are selling seats at below cost and charging it to (1) business customers and (2) the government (in the form of going bankrupt).

  • Join NARP and you get at 10% discount on all Amtrak travel!

  • Bill

    And use their Guest Rewards program to get traveler miles to use for free trips in the future.

  • Kyle

    Sometimes reheared arguments are the most valid and potent arguments.

    Don’t discount the airlines’ federal help just because you’ve heard about it before. It actually matters when talking about the disparity in prices between rail and airline travel and is probably the number one reason in price difference.

    Airline fares cost the same now as when jet travel began in the 1950s. I wonder if the same is true of cross country rail fares.

  • Kyle

    Shoot. Reheared = Rehearsed

  • jonesy

    kyle, absolutely rehearsed arguments are accurate, i’m not disputing them at all. its merely that, as a student who has the time but NOT the money, the ironic part of the trip is that the flight (3hrs) is so much cheaper than a train that takes 2 days, which i’m completely willing (and excited!) to do. just sad is all.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    I don’t know if anyone has noticed or not but the airlines are all bankrupt and their farebox recovery rates are really not much higher than AMTRAKs. Its a big country and air travel has its economy. Looking at intercity connection competivity around the range of train travel successes in Europe, less than 300 miles will yield a much different comparison price. Try Buffalo-Albany, Cleveland to Chicago, Minneapolis to Milwaukee (Minny to Milly) then you have runs that in raw cost effectiveness and travel times downtown to downtown rail stands right up there.

    We have produced many, many airplanes since the 50s and eliminated lots of track in the same period. There is a cycle to every economy. Instead of privatizing AMTRAK we may soon be talking about nationalizing the air carriers. We wouldn’t be the first industrialized democracy to decide to do so.

  • Hi Sarah-
    Thanks for the mention! Funny you mentioned my blog in the same post with your Amtrak trip.
    Next week is my mom’s birthday. My mom lives in Orange County, CA and I live in Phoenix. I’m going home to see her and taking Amtrak, leaving Tuesday and returning to Phoenix by Thursday.
    I’m sure most of you are aware, but the Amtrak station in Phoenix is closed. In order to enjoy passenger rail service, I need to board a bus, head north on I-17 to Flagstaff OR head south on I-10 to a smaller town on the outskirts of the Valley.
    Apparently there used to be passenger rail service, and I’m wondering if there could be plans with so much talk about rail in other parts of the country. I’m doing some research now, the information and journey I thought would make for cool content on my blog next week. I know I’m the light rail blogger, but thought I would branch out a bit. 🙂
    Anyway, thanks again for the shoutout and for alllowing me to participate in the conversation.

  • Lola

    I just returned from three weeks of traveling around Calif. on an Amtrak rail pass ($159 for CA only; national passes also available for c. $360).

    I saw an amazing amount of scenery and met many terrific people. People who were very happy to be mingling rather than staring out a windshield.

    I had to plan my trip around places where there was either a train station; where the train didn’t arrive at 3am (e.g. Redding); or there was a car rental agency somewhat nearby. Amtrak supplements rail service with a long bus route up the coast from Oakland, a long, windy, mountainous (and spectacular) route.

    I rented a car twice to cover long distances. Inconsistent bike transit policies made it impossible for me to bring my bike on my journey (some trains require box, some prohibit box, bus depends on driver mood). But I rented a bike on a couple of occasions as well.

    Survival tips for long-distance train travel:
    –Plan a stop every 12-18 hours for overnight sleep somewhere and to see the sights.
    –Earplugs and a cap for sleeping.
    –Lots of reading material.
    –Pack light.
    –Be very patient.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

Amtrak to Begin Welcoming Bikes on Long-Distance Routes

|
The nation’s intercity passenger rail service just got a lot bike-friendlier. Amtrak announced last week that it is installing new baggage cars — equipped for bike storage — in all trains on its long-distance routes by year’s end. The change will allow Amtrak riders to “roll on” their bikes, rather than disassembling them and transporting them […]

Transit-Oriented America, Part 1: Eight Thousand Miles

|
My wife and I were married last month in Brooklyn. For our honeymoon, we wanted to see as many great American cities as we could. In 19 days of travel, we visited Chicago, Seattle, Portland (Ore.), San Francisco, Los Angeles and New Orleans (and also stopped briefly in Cleveland, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Houston, Atlanta, Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia). How could two people as obsessed as […]

Meridian, Mississippi: What Trains Can Do for a City

|
When President Obama announced his plan for a national  high-speed rail network earlier this year, one of the people invited to attend was the Republican mayor of a city you’ve most likely never heard of — Meridian, Mississippi. And one of the rail routes, running from Atlanta to New Orleans, went right through Meridian. The […]