Riding a (very) slow train to somewhere
October 27, 2006
There are some left wingers who will tell you this country is being run by fascists.
I’m here to tell you that isn’t true. If fascists ran this country, the trains would run on time. After rolling into Denver on Amtrak nearly eight hours late on the first leg of my recent vacation, I can attest there are no fascists in charge of that system.
I thought the adventure of riding Amtrak from Reno to Denver during the fall colors season in the Rockies would be a great experience for my daughter, who is wild about trains. It would be a relaxing change of pace from the two other options, the pains of air travel or a tiring, monotonous two-day drive. I could kick back, stretch out, and read a book instead of dealing with traffic and airport security.
And for the most part, it was relaxing, and enjoyable.
The train was four hours late getting to Reno. That allowed us some extra time to pack, but then we almost arrived too late to board. Seems there is only one employee working at the Reno station, and after 5 p.m. he closes the ticket counter. We found him loading luggage below and he got the train to wait for a couple of minutes while he printed out our tickets.
I was still panting from running up and down flights of stairs to get our baggage to the train on time.
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“Just relax,” he said. “In a few minutes, you’ll be on board, having a drink and dinner. Then you can go to sleep and wake up in Utah, have a shower, a good breakfast. This is the relaxing way to travel.”
It was relaxing, so much so the train lost another three and a half hours on the way to Denver. I didn’t mind so much being late, since we were on vacation. But the highlight of the trip was supposed to be going through the Rockies during daylight. The sun went down somewhere between Grand Junction and Glenwood Springs, just as we were entering the mountains.
So much for the sightseeing.
I asked Amtrak employees what the problem was. It seems the trains always run late, though eight hours was not normal. One problem cited was that Amtrak doesn’t own the tracks and they have to yield to freight traffic all along the route.
Another problem, the tracks themselves are in poor shape in places. When I woke up in Utah, the train was creeping along at maybe 20 mph through the Bonneville Salt Flats, the place where so many land speed records were set. Since I didn’t see any other trains, I’m guessing that the tracks were bad on what should be the fastest part of the route.
The service on the train wasn’t bad, but there were a number of little things that added up. The trash cans went unemptied. The ice for passengers was stored in a cheap Styrofoam cooler sitting on top of cardboard trash cans, as if having ice wasn’t something they planned for.
The dining car was sloppy, with the staff appropriating booths to store paperwork and supplies. It took away from what otherwise was a nice experience, sharing some good food and conversation with our fellow passengers.
Then they started to run out of things, like wine and food items on the menu. Even though we stopped at different stations, the staff didn’t even try to rectify these shortages.
It’s really a shame, because Amtrak has so much potential. If it were faster, more reliable, and offered a little better service, I think a lot more people would use it, thus reducing the need for the federal government to subsidize it so much.
It seems that the subsidies simply go to keeping the status quo instead of investing in the service to make it like the quality systems in Europe. It’s like giving a cancer patient life support instead of operating to remove the tumor.
We should have more to show for the billions that have been spent on Amtrak over 34 years of its existence. Amtrak could have bought the tracks, improved them and made this a service people would pay for.
A train that doesn’t move forward is useless, and right now Amtrak is not moving in the right direction. Considering the energy problems in this country, I think there needs to be a serious investment made to make this service better. I also think the government should explore options that bring in private enterprise and competition, and create a system that doesn’t need subsidies to survive. Most important, we shouldn’t accept the status quo, which is a slow, expensive, painful death of a very good service.
I hope that one day my daughter will be able to take her children on the train, and talk about the fun she had riding the rails as a little kid. And maybe then the train will be on time and she will see the Rockies in the daylight.
• Kirk Caraway is editor of nevadapolitics.com, and also writes a blog on national issues at kirkcaraway.com.