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September 07, 2008

America's Getting Into "Training"

Any occasional reader of this column knows that I’m a “train nut”… a “foamer”, as the railroad folks describe us (because we supposedly foam at the mouth at the sight of a train).

I’m a big fan of rail travel, both on Metro-North and Amtrak, and I’ve written extensively about both. Last October I wrote about my two-day, two-night journey from Chicago to San Diego on “The Southwest Chief”. This week, a less cheerful report on my recent trip to the Windy City and back.

We who live along the Northeast Corridor are spoiled with speedy and frequent rail service. Acela can whisk you to Boston or Washington in just a few hours, admittedly at a premium fare. And the reason is that Amtrak owns and maintains its tracks, or “right of way”, where you’ll seldom encounter any slow-moving freight trains.

Not so in the rest of the nation, where freight “rules”. Consider my recent trip to Chicago by way of Washington DC.

Train # 29, the Capitol Ltd, rolled out of DC on time at 4:05 pm. But I knew we had only a 14% chance of pulling into Chicago the next morning at 8:40 am as scheduled, in time for a business meeting. That’s because Amtrak’s own website warns this train is late on 86% of its 17-hour journeys.

The reason: CSX and Norfolk Southern, the freight railroads whose tracks Amtrak uses to make the trip. Amtrak pays a pretty penny to use these tracks, but to the freight operators passenger trains are second class citizens.

Sure enough, minutes after leaving DC my radio scanner crackled with the sound of a CSX dispatcher trying to route us around the slow-moving coal trains that dominate this two-track railroad through the mountains.

By morning as the sun rose over the steel plants of Indiana we were two hours late. It was stop and go, the rail equivalent of “bumper to bumper” traffic, all the way into Union Station where it was almost 11 am CDT by the time we de-trained, much too late for a full-day of business.

The return trip was even slower. Departing Chicago ten minutes late (7:15 pm) we immediately were delayed in the Indiana rail freight log-jam. Next morning’s 5:45 am scheduled arrival in Pittsburgh was more like 8 am (also delaying the connecting 7:20 am “Pennsylvanian” to Harrisburg and NYC). As we crept toward Washington I kept calling “Julie”, Amtrak’s automated phone agent, asking her our ETA in DC.

As it turned out, we were “only” 2 ½ hours late, but it still gave me just 15 minutes to connect to the last train to Stamford of the day. All told, Chicago to CT was 25 hours.

Mind you, the train ride was enjoyable. My bedroom compartment was comfortable and included a private bathroom / shower and tasty meals in the dining car. The on-board staff was professional and communicative.

But the train was packed! Every sleeping compartment had sold out weeks in advance and coach seats were jammed with new converts sent to “training” by high gas prices.

Amtrak has become a victim of its own success. Like Metro-North, trains are running at capacity, but there are no more cars to be added to handle the crowds… or, in this case, funding to design, let alone order them.

In the Northeast, Acela’s seats are almost always sold out. And the slower, newly branded Northeast Regional trains are increasingly packed. Congress has told Amtrak to become financially self-sufficient. And now’s their chance, if they could add cars to capture this huge surge in ridership and revenue.

Americans are getting into “training” alright. I just wish Amtrak could carry them all.

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