You don't realize how bad things are until you experience the opposite. Without darkness there is no light. I have mixed feelings about rail travel in the US. If it seems as though I'm bouncing around between topics bear with me, they'll come together in a moment. To give some background before I start I have to say that I've logged about 15,000 miles on Amtrak in the past and about another 5,000 to 10,000 miles on other train systems all over the world. In addition I've flown about a quarter of a million miles or enough to circumnavigate the earth 10 times. I took my first train ride in 1993 from Pasco WA to Las Vegas. For about the first day of the trip I felt a bit embarrassed because I always thought people who took mass transit were poor uneducated folks with little other choice. - a train was just a bigger Greyhound. If you were someone you drove of flew. How little did I understand trains. I started noticing business people taking the trains, grannies seeing family, workers commuting and more. I realized that normal people took the train.
Back to the future... We started our most recent journey by taking a bus to downtown Seattle to the historic King Street Station. Seattle is like many cities in that we had competing rail companies who built competing passenger rail stations. The interesting part is they built them across the street from one another. Union Station got funding to renovate because it is used for the new Light Rail Station. King Street Station across the street is just starting the process of restoration and the Venetian Piazza St. Marks style clock tower definitely looks better as does the new roof tiles. It might be easy to say that Seattle really only needs one passenger rail station and we should combine our money but how do you decide which of the 100 year old stations to keep? The answer is you keep both as comical as that is.
At some point during the last couple of decades some idiot decided to modernize the King Street station and put in lowered ceiling tiles covering up a truly amazing molded ceiling and a second story balcony. What's worse is they actually chipped molding from the walls so they could plaster over it to get a smooth surface. There used to be a beautiful wooden ticket booth which is no longer and a Lady's waiting room which doesn't get used. The stairway from the street is closed off and the street level parking lot is a hangout for bums and trash. However, funding is starting to tickle in and the clock tower is being cleaned, the clay roof tiles are being replaced and new lighting for the 15 ft clock is being fitted. Inside the station they have a media board showing the future plans which include tossing out the water stained roof tiles, restoration of some of the marble pillars, a new walkway up to street level and a restoration of the outside of the building which will open up space for businesses etc.. The old Lady's only waiting room may be made into a cafe or restaurant.
So let's get to the meat of the question here. Why? Why bother with this old crap when we have at least three eligible airports that could service the area? OK, now the part about my mixed feelings with rail travel. I spend a lot of time in Europe and especially France where high speed rail has all but killed air travel and I have to say that I love trains. The idea of taking a taxi to some airport where I have to take my shoes off, scan my bags and then wait at a gate to be crammed into a tin can with a bunch of other half sick travelers coughing on me and babies screaming is very very unappealing. Because of the amount of time it takes to get to airports, get checked in and get your bags and get away makes any journey under 6 hrs subject for replacement by high speed rail. Longer journeys the planes speed overcomes it's inefficiencies. So is there any hope for Amtrak and why am I yammering about such things? I just spent 4 hrs on the Coast Starlight for the first leg of our journey so it's fresh in my mind.
What Amtrak does wrong.... Let's start by the ridiculous and painful process of going from the idea of taking the train to actually walking on. I went online and bought my tickets with a promotion code (Never pay full price for Amtrak, there's always a promo code somewhere). I then had to go to a station to pick up the tickets where they made me sign each one to combat fraud as they said. Fraud? What, someone is going to masquerade as me on the train? If Safeway did this we'd have to sign each squash to keep someone else from cooking it. Anyway with tickets in hand we proceeded to the King Street Station two days later. My perception may be skewed a bit but in France I show up at the train station 15 minutes early (or whenever to be honest) and walk up to a kiosk to buy my ticket after which I walk onto a train. The whole process takes 15 minutes tops from the time I decide to take a train and get one one. With Amtrak having a ticket is only the beginning. You now have to stand in a long line to turn it into a boarding pass. Once you have your boarding pass you need to move to a new line which is waiting to get on the train. Why would there be a rush to get on the train? Because seat assignments are done at the train car door! Thats right, a person is standing there with a map and a market to scratch off where he wants you. A kiosk that can assign seats on purchase would replaced this entire thing. The one nice side effect of this process though is you don't have conductor coming through to punch your ticket. With Amtrak when you're on you're done. The other thing Amtrak does wrong and I'm not sure they can fix it is the train routes are generally slow and not very frequent. However there are 4 trains a day from Seattle south which isn't wonderful but it's good enough that you can choose a schedule.
What they're doing right.... This is also from my experience today. The Coast Starlight is a double decker Superliner train similar to their flagship Empire Builder. I've always been a fan of the double decker trains. An Amtrak Superliner is a completely different product than say a French TGV. The TGV is an all business experience more like an airplane ride (but not so Walmart). TGVs have about as much room per passenger in economy as airplanes have in business class. There's very little difference between first class and second so unless the ticket prices are close we always ride second class. Unless you knew the specific differences you wouldn't be able to tell. The TGV experience is about getting to your destination as quick as possible with relative comfort. The Amtrak Superliner experience is drastically different. Immediately upon entering the train you will notice that you have an insane amount of room in your coach seat. I measured 5 softbound novels from my upright setback to the one in front of me. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that is a lot of room. I'd estimate roughly 45 inches between seats or roughly equal to a first class airplane ticket. The seat width is as wide as the first class airplane ticket as well. When you fold down your tray you have to then slide it toward you about 6 inches before you can put anything on it. The seat reclines about 2-3 times more than an economy airline seat and a second lever props up a leg support and a third pops up a bar for your feet. The overhead luggage compartment has enough room for a rugby team and if that's not enough there's more space at the car entrance. Because they're double decker the second level (the main level) doesn't have to deal with train wheels so there's 37 rows of seats in the car which is amazing considering the space between them. The lower level is for first class and sleepers in addition to the bathrooms which also will surprise you. A couple (that's right, a couple per car) are small like airplane bathrooms and then there's at least one large one where you can plug in all your electronic shavers, blow driers etc... The lower level also houses additional luggage storage although if I were you I'd lock my bags if I couldn't monitor them.
Not only do you have way way more room than on an airplane the train gets going quickly because they can load all cars at the same time. I think we were off about 15 minutes after we started boarding. Each seat has power plugs which are a godsend and a quick stroll through the cars will show many people taking advantage of them with laptops and pods everywhere. Speaking of which if you get bored in your oversize seat you can take a walk. The Coast Starlight also has a bar/lounge car with observation deck which is where I love to just sit and read and watch the scenery pass by the wraparound glass windows. Downstairs from the observation car is the food counter where they have the usual cardboard pizzas and AMPM quality hamburgers. There is about 12 tables where you can sit an eat your food before returning to your seat. If you want more of a personal experience (and more costly) you can snag one of the attendants as they walk through the car and get a reservation to eat in the restaurant. The restaurant car is complete with white table cloths and nice food but you have to be fast because there's several seatings and if you don't get a reservation you're limited to the bar car or bringing your own. Speaking of which you can bring your own food and drinks (yes liquids!) avoiding the whole can of soda for two bucks situation completely. I remember times when I was passing through Portland and had a layover when we'd run down the street to the Burger King and buy a couple of $1.39 Whoppers and take them on the train. I'm sure there's probably limits to what you can take on board (like your weber smoky mountain smoker) but they're not real strict about it. The train ride goes by very casually and without disappointment. On the Amtrak you feel like you can take as much time as you want to get where you need to be and for good reason, you have to. The trip from Seattle to LA takes 40 hours. Amtrak is not crappy rail travel, let me just say that right now. However, they're rarely on time, they're not fast and they're not always cheaper than flying. My first Amtrak trip cost me $177 from Washington to Nevada round trip. That was cheaper than any plane ticket then. Now I can fly for less than that. The train would probably cost more.
So back to my original quandary. Should we do something about rail in America or let Amtrak go the way of the dodo? I say do whatever to bring us up to the same level of Japan, China, France and Germany or leapfrog them. A modern train with right a way could do Canada to Mexico in 10 hours or less and would be full the whole way because unlike an airplane they pick up people on the way. Before people jump on me about taxes and subsidies let me say one thing, the TGV system in France makes money. That's right it makes money and is usually full. The TER (inter region) do not make money and need to be subsidized. So in this country where we're afraid to pay one cent in taxes unless it's put to good use bombing a small country to protect our civil liberties we should think about just using rail for these high profit lines. I would think that Vancouver BC to San Diego would be one such line as well as Boston to Miami and Chicago to NYC.
On a less idealistic dreamy note Amtrak would do well with newer rails and more right of way. It took us 4 hrs to get from Seattle to Portland which isn't that much slower than driving and a heck of a lot more enjoyable. If the Superliner could get up to speed or stay at top speed longer it could equal driving and still be more comfortable. More trains, a bit more speed and keep them full so the ticket prices could be lower and I think we'd have a winner. It's no TGV but I think it could be profitable. Also there's the feel element. I just like riding trains. I like the rhythmic rocking motion and I like the fact that I can do other things on them. Buses are cheaper but I hate them. A good bus can't compete with a bad train in my book.
On arriving to Portland we exited the always nice restored Union station. A short walk to the Chinatown station put us on the red line light rail. Thirty minutes later we're at the airport. I'm fairly impressed by how much light rail Portland has put in compared to Seattle. We've managed 1/5 the amount of mileage and only after two decades of talking about it and it still doesn't really go anywhere.
Tomorrow we fly to Georgia. Yes you heard me Georgia then we turn and fly to Mexico City. It's the long way but I'll pick up some miles and I got the tickets for a song. The plane leaves at 6:30 and our Comfort Suites is going to start breakfast at 4 so off to count sheep I go.