Raising Amtrak

As I get ready for another trip on Amtrak’s Acela to Philadelphia tomorrow, I can’t help but wonder what ails Amtrak and why it seems to struggle to make a profit? It is a provider of a much needed form of Mass transit, especially with todays fuel costs and high airline ticket prices. Other countries, including large countries like Russia, China and India have thriving railways. (As an aside, the Indian Railways is the largest employer in the world! Even bigger than WalMart). If Amtrak can get its act together, I see no reason why people will not take a train, over driving, flying or taking a bus. In most cases, it is cheaper and faster than driving. It is cheaper than flying and boarding a train certainly more convenient than getting on a plane (and you don’t need to get x-rayed). It is cleaner and more comfortable than riding a bus.

I have a few suggestions that I believe can help Amtrak move towards being better and eventually profitable:

Expand the network:

Trains need to be more pervasive. This will take a lot of investment, but aren’t we looking for ways to boost the economy by creating jobs? And oh yeah, make a public-private joint effort. Not a tax payer only funded effort (My Tea Party readers may now start breathing again…)

Get High Speed Rail:

While you are at it, get High Speed Rail. And I mean the real stuff, not Acela.

Add freight:

One of the ways the Indian Railways is able to make a profit is thru it freight service. Right here in the US, freight train provider CSX is growing, even in this economy. Amtrak runs trains all over the country. Why not lug freight too and make some money? Use the profit there for the investments needed to grow.

Help Customer Solve the ‘Last Mile’ problem:

One of the main reasons people don’t use trains is because of the proverbial ‘last mile’ problem. How does one get to and from the train station? I live almost an hour from DC’s Union Station. I have to drive to it. I still do it as it is better to drive one hour to the train station than three hours all the way to Philly. I still have to take a taxi to get to my destination in Center City. Trust me, if I had to drive an hour at the destination end too, I would have driven all the way. Amtrak needs to help riders address this problem. They need to get creative here.

They should sell package tickets – tickets that include a commuter train or bus ride at one or either end of the journey. I can already get listings of connecting commuter trains on Google Maps. Why Can’t Amkrak offer a service on their website and sell tickets for them too?

Now for travelers going to a non-mass transit served area, include a cab ride. I would love to pre-pay for a cab ride in Philadelphia, especially if it guarantees that the cab will be there to pick me up at the station and then to bring me back when I need to catch for the train ride back. This is especially needed for smaller stations that have no fully operation cab stand. I can get a cab in Philadelphia’s 30th street station any time of the day. But I remember taking the train way back when, as a student to Durham, NC. I had to wait 45 minutes for a taxi, as the only way to get one was to call for it after I had gotten off the train at the station. I am sure there are ample taxi/limo companies that will be willing to tie up with Amtrak.

Amtrak – anyone listening?

If anyone else loves trains and has some great ideas to make Amtrak better, do share by leaving a comment below.

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  1. It is obvious there is a lot you don’t understand about Amtrak. Expanding the system and getting high speed rail are nowhere near as easy for rail as it is for an airline. It is expensive and Amtrak has to work with the freight companies that own most of the track they run on. Also Amtrak is short on equipment just to run what it is offering right now. As for adding freight, Amtrak tried that and it pissed off the freight companies. Remember the freight companies run most of the tracks and their dispatch tells Amtrak when the train can go hence the freight companies play a big role in on time performance.

    Now I do agree with you that the “last mile” should be improved. I don’t know if you overlooked this, but Amtrak does offer connecting bus services in some places. I wouldn’t go so far as prepaying for cab rides, but Amtrak should at least publish links to connecting transit services on the station pages. That wouldn’t take hardly any work/money.

    The biggest bang for their buck problem they need to take care of though is rude and/or apathetic employees. Also cleanliness of the cars which comes back to apathetic employees. They just don’t have a culture of customer service.

    The whole premise that Amtrak can be profitable is silly though. One of the big hang ups is starting employees out at around $15/hour for unskilled labor. Unions that negotiate with the gov’t always win big so Amtrak and the Post Office get killed with labor costs. Labor cost is just the start of Amtrak being in the red though.

  2. Trains are peculiar beasts. The Global Warning crowd always claim that trains save the planet vs cars or planes. However, the fares always seem staggeringly high in comparison, particularly if you can’t get discounted ones. And, in most countries, trains are heavily subsidised. Straight economics suggest that the subsidy plus the huge fares would mean that trains consume more resources than other methods of travel (granted that you need to take total cost of car ownership into account). So either the railways are massively inefficient in how they do business (and this is repeated the world over), or trains are a much less efficient means of transport than their advocates suggest.

  3. I know that there was federal money put aside, or earmarked for tran expansion, but several locations rejected it because they would need to invest too much of their own money.

    I thought that some of the tracks were used for freight, I thought that was part of the reason they can’t go true high speed on the NE Corodore, they don’t own the tracks so they can’t make the changes needed to allow for the high speed.

    BUT, I just know what I read occasionally in a newspaper.

  4. I have to ask why you feel it’s necessary to take a cab from 30th Street to Center City Philadelphia? If you’re traveling and have both a briefcase and a roller bag, I can understand slightly, but the option is still there to take the Regional Rail or Market-Frankford El to Center City; both options are quick and easy.

    Likewise, it’s possible to make it to Union Station via the DC Metro. I understand that it’s inconvenient to make it to the Metro from some portions of No Va, but that’s certainly no Amtrak’s fault.

    At any rate, Amtrak’s problem is that it has too many routes that an entirely private company would most likely eliminate unless it was subsidized. I agree that Amtrak needs true high speed rail, but until it can cut many of its unprofitable routes, it’s doomed.

  5. I love Amtrak and take it quite frequently (Pacific Surfliner in California and the Keystone Express Harrisburg-Philadelphia-New York City)

    One of the main problems stems from the fact that Amtrak took over passenge service from rail roads. As such Amtrak is at the mercy of the remaining railroads who own the right of ways that the Amtrak Trains pass over (BNSF, CSX, NS mostly). Amtrak is a federal liability whereby Congress literally force-feeds passenger service down the throats of the freight companies. For example, Amtrak trains shall be given priority over freight traffic (as long as Amtrak maintains it’s schedule) and the freight companies hate it. There is no way the freight lobbyists would ever allow Amtrak to carry freight.

    If you look at trains running in the Northeast Corridor, you see the trains as mostly full and probably turning a profit, but that is far from the case across most of the network.

    Someone with a lot of capital would need to do the up front financing to purchase track right-of-ways that pass through major cities. As time goes on, Amtrak is forced to divert a lot of traffic away from metropolitan areas (especially in the southwest and middle-America as freight service runs their lines further away to avoid congestion and costly not-at-grade crossings (required for reliable timetables and high-speed service)

    Couple that with the sentiment of “not-in-my-back-yard” and you have a major problem securing financing to make trains run from city to city. California has been trying to get a high-speed line from Southern California (most of the proposals from Anaheim or the High Dessert) to Las Vegas but every time the a proposal is announced cities vote against having the tracks run through their land as residents dont want the perceived danger and noise of a high-speed (or even regular) train running through their areas.

    I have no objection or plausible answer to other complains…

    Amtrak should advertise the fact that a paid Amtrak ticket is valid on Metrolink trains (in the LA area and often on other transit systems within LA) and I believe also valid on SEPTA trains in the Philadelphia area.

    There is no reason not to have online ticketing.

    There is no reason not to grant schedule access to third parties.

  6. @Justin, thanks for sharing. I agree that the ‘last mile’ is not Amtrak’s fault. What I am suggesting (and other comments have shared this sentiment) that Amtrak make it easier for travelers to find options to solve the ‘last mile’ problem right on their website. @Jason has some points to make in this respect too in his comment too.

  7. @Robert, thanks for sharing. I am in no way an Amtrak expert and have claimed to be one. My thoughts were just based on my observations as a train passenger and someone who thinks that Amtrak can have a greater role in the American transportation system than it does today. I do hope that you and others who have more knowledge in this field can continue providing input that can help Amtrak.

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