Americans Have Had It With the Hassles of Flying. Will They Take the Train?

Americans are getting more and more frustrated with air travel. The airline industry is getting worried. Will passenger rail get the spoils?

Security lines, delays, and baggage fees are adding up to big frustrations for air travelers. Is the airlines' loss rail's gain? Photo: ##http://theotherhubby.com/2012/08/##The Other Hubby##
Security lines, delays, and baggage fees are adding up to big frustrations for air travelers. Is the airlines’ loss rail’s gain? Photo: ##http://theotherhubby.com/2012/08/##The Other Hubby##

A new survey by the U.S. Travel Association [PDF] found that 27 percent of respondents thought flying had become more of a hassle in the last year. They’re annoyed about delays, safety, and all the extra fees associated with baggage, premium seats, and boarding priority. Security screening is a pain, and costs have increased.

It’s beginning to affect the bottom line. Sixty percent of travelers said they thought they would take more trips if airport hassles were eliminated — on average, 2.63 more each year. A third of respondents said these annoyances resulted in them traveling less than they used to or planned to. The Travel Association thinks the trips not taken have cost their industry $27 billion.

Could Americans’ disillusionment with air travel be an opening for rail? It happened before: In 2000, Amtrak introduced Acela service on the Northeast Corridor, and a year later, 9/11 led to increased fears and tightened security at airports. The result: Amtrak’s share of the travel market between New York and Washington went from one-third to three-quarters.

A Harris interactive poll a few years ago showed a third of business travelers and two-thirds of leisure travelers would ride high-speed rail if it existed, instead of flying [PDF].

The survey neglected some drawbacks to flying. “They didn’t ask about airport access,” said Dan Schned of the Regional Plan Association. “I wish they had. Trains drop you off in the middle of the city, closer to your final destination. Getting to and from an airport outside of town can be expensive and time-consuming.”

Still, the air travel survey may not present many opportunities to Amtrak as it exists now. Though some problems, like extra fees and security screenings, aren’t an issue for rail travel, and there are other perks like being able to stay connected to the Internet, other concerns may be even more acute for rail passengers today than for fliers.

After all, 30 percent of travelers said their number one concern about air travel is delays. Outside of the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak is notoriously unreliable, and even scheduled travel times are long. Sharing track with freight rail leaves passenger rail at the mercy of the shippers. Schedules for long-distance service can be highly inconvenient.

Nevertheless, whether because of growing frustration with air travel or some other reason, Amtrak ridership is booming: The service has broken 10 ridership records in the last 11 years. And in key places around the country, rail is becoming a far more viable travel option.

In California, the funding nightmare for high-speed rail has finally turned around, with hundreds of millions of dollars coming its way from cap-and-trade revenues. In Florida, a privately-operated high-speed rail service is due to launch next year. In the Midwest, trains are operating at speeds above 100 mph, in places, between Chicago and St. Louis. With improved service like this, rail has the opportunity to take much more of the travel market as air travel gets bogged down in excessive fees and hassles.

  • lop

    And the highway is already built.

    And it did cost a lot. The eisenhower tunnel on I70 was the most expensive federally aided project when it was built. Also the highest vehicular tunnel in the world at the time, and still is in the United States. Still the highest point on the Interstate system too.

    SLC-Denver seems like a waste to push for high speed rail. Existing surface travel is 500 miles, a lot of that on winding roads and grades not suited for trains, with no magical alignment to let trains make the trip in less than three hours, flying is less than 400, and less than an hour in the air.

  • bolwerk

    That’s $82M/mile.

    If it has to be that expensive, it’s probably not worth building. But even tunnelling through mountains should be significantly less than that. Maybe there is a geographic problem I’m not aware of, but those costs look snowballed to me.

  • Michael Klatsky

    I could care less if it is a waste or not. I was only addressing the costs compared with highway construction and that they don’t differ much.

  • bolwerk

    I-80 has considerably gentler curves and is flatter, without adding much distance. At average speeds of 100MPH or more, that’s easily competitive with air. It could even be useful for other trips if spurs can be built to places like Cheyenne.

    And, Michael is right. Nobody actually suggested this ROW should be a national priority. I mentioned it as a possibility because it reinforces the point I made above: people believe a lot of horseshit-stupid assumptions about rail operation and construction. Some of those things reflect the status quo, and are hard to fault, but a lot of them may as well have been pulled out of the dankest corner of the Reason [sic] Foundation’s ass.

  • lop

    Gotthard Base tunnel in the Swiss Alps is 35 miles, projected to cost $10 billion, to open in 2016.

    If they were tunneling the whole way it would be more than $82M/mile.

  • bolwerk

    To be clear, I meant tunneling through mountains incidentally, not making one long 155 mile tunnel.

    But Gotthard will actually see sufficient traffic to excuse higher costs. I doubt this Eagle-DIA project would.

  • dr2chase

    i.e., around what we spent to bury a freeway in Boston, or a few months spending in the Iraq war. That’s not a large enough amount of money to stop us from spending it, if we happen to feel like spending it.

  • Garl Boyd Latham

    Tragic,

    My two girls, now teenagers, have grown up with trains and train travel.

    It was absolutely wonderful to take trips with young children who never ONCE asked, “Are we there, yet?”!

    I’m sorry to hear about your four year old.

    Garl

  • Garl Boyd Latham

    Sporty,

    I gave up on commercial airline travel long before our “security” insanity set in; still, I certainly understand your feelings.

    To be honest…even way back when, I begrudged every red cent I ever spent on air fares. Give me the peaceful train!

    Garl

  • Garl Boyd Latham

    Technically, they still have priority, Sharon.

    Unfortunately, when you’re trying to move more traffic than the existing infrastructure can conveniently handle, something’s got to give. In our case, it’s usually the passenger train’s timetable.

    Keep the faith! Things will get better.

    Garl, who – along with his family – also travels exclusively by train.

  • Garl Boyd Latham

    Thank you, Alex.

    I’m a faithful passenger train rider, too. No apologies!

    Garl

  • Garl Boyd Latham

    Then let ’em “put up with” it, andrelot!

    Ultimately, we’re discussing multi-modal transportation alternatives, not trains-versus-‘planes.

    I’m just thankful my position allows me to choose a mode of transport based upon personal preference, not what I might or might not be able to endure.

    Garl

  • Alex Brideau III

    I actually prefer train trips that allow me to get a sleeping compartment. While it’s certainly nice to meet new folks when traveling by train, there’s something to be said for being able to have some quiet moments to relax and reflect (and sleep flat) while in transit. While Amtrak’s national network trains are not known for being cash cows, on the routes I take the sleepers always end up selling out.

    And when you can bring key long-haul routes down to a single overnight, then you start having the ability to compete with certain red-eye flights.

  • Garl Boyd Latham

    Well…

    If we had a system – and train speeds – which were in any way comparable to what existed before Amtrak came into being, you’d be flabbergasted at all the options available from a major gateway like Kansas City!

    Our “national” railway passenger train system IS “too fragmented”! Still, that’s the fault of our “leaders” for failing to establish a comprehensive domestic transportation policy. It has nothing to do with any failures on the part of conventional railway technology.

    To put it another way: with the trains which were in place a half-century ago, you could travel directly, via a number of routes with a wide choice of convenient daily departures, to any of the destinations you mentioned – and for a trip from Kansas City to the metropolitan northeast, you could leave after noon and arrive in New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore or Washington the next morning, following breakfast.

    Ideal? No…but it’s a proven starting point which would give us the chance to prove a market exists for 21st century passenger train service – and allow us time to design and construct true high speed routes within selected markets.

    It’s not rocket science; it’s railroading. It’s only our blessed government that makes it so difficult.

    Garl

  • I’d love for her to ask “Are we there, yet?” She’s been diagnosed with speech delay and autism.

    While she’s great in the car for a couple of hours at a clip, she needs to stop and stretch her legs like most kids–hence the length of our trips. Driving at least keeps the expense down.

    I’m not really sure what there is for you to be sorry about.

  • Garl Boyd Latham

    Well…

    I was being a bit facetious before. Now I’m just embarrassed.

    I wish you well.

  • Garl Boyd Latham

    The blessed Intestate Freeway system was designed and construction began – yet the feds didn’t seem too concerned about “transcontinental travel” (or the lack, thereof) or “sweet spots” or airline competition.

    Why do we need to fret over these issues when discussing railway passenger service?!

    Tell you what: why don’t we reestablish a viable network of passenger trains – everything from local transit to intercity limiteds – then let travelers decide for themselves how and when and where they’d like to use them!

  • Garl Boyd Latham

    It wouldn’t take a “massive investment,” Grant; it would require a REASONABLE investment!

    We wouldn’t begin with true high speed operations, much less attempt the level of service currently seen in Europe or Japan. We’d begin with the restoration of multiple-daily main line trains in the form of a route matrix, concentrating on multi-modal service along established railroad corridors.

    Once our foundation has been relaid, the rest will come through simple marketing techniques.

    We’d be serving an entire generation who, perhaps, “have never set foot on a train,” but they’d already know they don’t particularly like their existing options.

    Convincing these people to give train travel a try should be relatively easy! Certainly, if we fail, with the product in place, we’d have no one to blame but ourselves.

    Garl

  • We have all been there, especially on the Internet. Not to worry!

  • Garl Boyd Latham

    Thank you.

  • R.A. Stewart

    *This* Congress will respond by doing nothing, or else by trying to cut funding, or maybe by taking up once again the perennial right-wing dream of killing Amtrak once and for all. And all indications seem to be that the next Congress will be even worse.

  • R.A. Stewart

    Our daughter and son-in-law and grandson did that when visiting us for Christmas. It was a great way to travel.

    And some of my favorite travel memories from childhood are of the old Pullman cars–the ritual of setting up the berths every night, watching the darkened countryside roll by through the window, being lulled to sleep by the sounds and vibration of the train, waking up to the porter’s breakfast call. Good times.

    The problem is that those sleeping compartments are so expensive. Personally, I’d like to see Amtrak revive the Pullman-style sleeping cars.

    (And watch Some Like it Hot again, too, now that I’m thinking of it.)

  • R.A. Stewart

    And in addition to all those advantages, Amtrak has so far resisted imposing on its passengers most of the security theater you go through at airports.

  • Joe R.

    Honestly, there probably wouldn’t be any point to airline style security procedures on a train. You can’t hijack a train or fly it into a building. And even if someone succeeded in getting a bomb on board, American trains are built like tanks. At most you would kill some tens of people.

    Of course, I wouldn’t be surprised if some right wing group which hates Amtrak might try to get them to impose airline style security on the theory it gives trains an “unfair” competitive advantage to not have it while the airlines do.

  • bolwerk

    Well, if the point is security, no, there probably is no point. But since the point is largely to intimidate, I’m sure it would prove popular with RWAs. And if it hurts Amtrak ridership, that’s just gravy.

    Pretty sure Amtrak suffers a lot of statutory competitive disadvantages to airlines, including not being allowed to discount tickets or overbook.

  • R.A. Stewart

    Joe R. and bolwerk, totally in agreement on what the real effect, and in my opinion too, the real purpose of airline-style security theater on Amtrak would be. Which makes me the more surprised that it hasn’t been imposed already.

  • lop

    How big of a bomb would it take, when detonated from within a train, to destroy a billion dollar tunnel? Something that could be reasonably fit into luggage?

    And if ‘hijacked’, without automated train control systems to prevent it, what sort of damage would result from screaming into a station at 200 mph?

  • R.A. Stewart

    I don’t know the answers with any precision. I’m sure a suitcase-sized bomb brought on board, or less likely a hijacked train, could cause great damage and loss of life. But along with that must be asked the questions, how likely is it? and how much freedom and privacy are we willing to give up to prevent–maybe–what appears to be a very unlikely scenario?

    Historically, I believe railroad sabotage has much more frequently been done by damaging track. And of course TSA-style passenger harassment would not prevent that.

  • FWIW, sleeper services nationally earn a profit for Amtrak, even if the long-distance routes overall lose money. There are some LD routes where a well-timed sleeper service could legitimately compete against flights, like the Twilight Shoreliner or the Lake Shore Limited.

  • Alex Brideau III

    I’ve always been a fan of the Capitol Ltd, myself. It allows me get some work done and some good sleep between Chicago and DC and gives me just enough of a layover in Chicago to grab some good Pequod’s pizza!

    If Amtrak’s national-network trains can take advantage of the new high-performance rail sections, I think bit by bit we’d start to see some shorter running times. I’d also like to see Amtrak run all of its long-distance routes twice a day, spaced approximately 12 hours apart. But first, they should at least resume their New Orleans-to-Miami service that remains “suspended” to this day due to since-repaired damage caused by Hurricane Katrina. Talk about a lost market they could be capitalizing on.

  • Leslie Payne Simmons-Hale

    here here.

  • Mundane Lustrator

    I did the Chicago – San Antonio route several years ago. It was pretty cool.

    Amtrak used to run from San Antonio to Florida, but after Hurricane Katrina, the infrastructure somewhere past New Orleans was never rebuilt. I think that is sad.

  • SortingHat

    Actually we’ve been railroaded by both political parties out for their own interest. Contrary to popular belief *I don’t know where it came from* the *Tea* party is not actually a party and isn’t even listed as such.

    It’s groups of people like you and me marching and protesting *legally of course* with permits against excessive taxes but racist groups have gotten in with their own political messages screwing it all up.

    Same with OWS.

    You can raise taxes a bit during good economy times but during tough times like these you need revenue incentives to bring small to medium sized businesses back so then MORE money flows in then goes out.

    Taxing the rich will back fire as the rich will simply bite the bullet and raise the product prices for you and me ten fold adn any investors who are stupid enough to remain in the USA will leave in those conditions.

    That means no high speed rails among a lot of other improvements which are usually backed by private investment……………………….when the economy is healthy.

    Right now the economy is stagnating. The *false* recovery was due to temporary jobs that always happen in the winter time making the job figures rise a bit then drop when the work is all done.

    China is backing our f-ked up dollar because their people are too poor to buy anything so we are the hand that feeds them so if China ever attacks us they will bite the hand that feeds.

  • SortingHat

    If Amtrak has real competition in a business friendly way *not in a way that allows monopolies to form or we will have this issue again* then and ONLY then will Amtrak be forced to improve standards.

    Companies merging is NOT freedom as it means less choices leading back to where we are now.

    Because otherwise people won’t ride on them except those that are brain dead and refuse to listen to alternatives.

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