Sunday, March 13, 2011

Why Americans Will Never Embrace Train Travel

You might have taken the Capitol Corridor train to the Bay Area, but taking an   Amtrak train to a distant destination is a much different experience. I endured such an experience in January a couple of years ago when I decided to take the train to Salem, OR instead of drive. Based on that trip, I can see why Amtrak is always in financial trouble. America will never embrace train travel if it stays the way it is now.
Delays are the number one issue that needs to be overcome. Trains are much worse than airlines for staying on time. My departure from Sacramento was an hour late. That was a good day. Often times it can be a lot worse. I was supposed to leave at midnight and ended up leaving at 1 a.m.  When I woke up the next morning, we had apparently lost another hour. The reason for most of the delays...freight trains. Amtrak leases the tracks from Union Pacific. That means they have to give way to freight trains whenever there is a right-of-way issue. Freight trains are LONG and SLOW. We lost more time along the way. My arrival changed from 3:30 to 5:30. I was lucky. The next day’s train apparently broke down in the middle of the mountains and sat for eight hours! It was so late that instead of going to Seattle, it stopped in Portland and bussed the people to Seattle (and the reverse) so that the next day’s train could be on schedule if it departed from Portland. Lucky for me because that was my return train home!
The second problem with train travel is it is boring. They need to have airline type seats with the monitors in the seatbacks and some movies. On my way home I had finished my knitting and reading. It was pitch black, outside so I ended up taking a sleeping pill and going to sleep at 8:00. Luckily there were no further delays and we arrived on-time at 6 a.m.
There are some good things. The observation car is nice during the day to look at the scenery. On the way up some volunteers got on at Klamath Falls and gave trivia and history of Oregon all the way to Eugene. The snack bar was O.K. It offered snacks that went up to microwaveable pizzas, etc. The dining car was nice too. I only tried breakfast, so I don’t know the quality of the entrees, but they did include things like lamb shanks and Angus burgers. The coach seats recline really far and there is plenty of leg room and a leg rest that flips up. 
One tip I got from the papers and from another passenger—if you want to get a sleeping cabin, don’t book it in advance. Instead, get on board and then inquire after departure. Sometimes you can get them at a discount. The guy I talked to got his for just $50. But I think it depends on if you get a nice conductor or not. When I inquired for my return trip he told me $129, so I passed. 
In my opinion people should have priority over freight. Who cares if a load of lumber is two hours late? If they could take care of that and add some entertainment on the trains, people would be more willing to use the trains to travel.
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