Amtrak, the nation’s passenger rail system, has been declared dead so many times, it must feel like the characters in Monty Python’s SPAM-A-LOT musical. Amtrak’s been an easy punching bag for politicians railing (yes, pun intended) against federal programs that don’t pay for themselves.
But the last few years have seen big increases in ridership for Amtrak, begging the question: Is Amtrak finally on its way to self-sufficiency? With a much more efficient method for transporting passengers than aviation, does passenger rail get a boost from the coming legislation on climate change?
As a writer dedicated to getting out in the field and conducting research, I decided to hop a ride on the Coast Starlight train from Los Angeles to the San Francisco Bay Area to see what the nation’s renewed interest in Amtrak was all about.
At $72, the train ride was about $50 less than a one-way plane ticket from LAX to SFO, and didn’t charge me an additional fee for my second bag, making the trip $65 less. Of course, at 1 hour 22 minutes, a flight is considerably shorter than the 9 hours of the Coast Starlight. But when you consider how early you have to get to the airport with check-in and security, in addition to baggage claim on the other end, yeah, well, it’s still a lot longer.
What many fail to realize about Amtrak, however, is just how comfortable your trip is. The seats on the Coast Starlight are effectively barcoloungers compared to the cramped airline seats. Outlets next to each seat provide power for laptops (yes, the picture, though dark, is me writing this blog post while riding. And yes, the scenery in the background is the Pacific Ocean…more on that in a minute). There are no restrictions on the use of portable electronics, to make freelance work easier.
While watching surfers as we cruised the coastline between Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo, I have to admit, I had trouble getting work done in favor of sipping coffee and watching the world go by. Later the scenery would turn more mountainous, passing farms and open countryside.
And then there was the wine tasting. Yeah, that’s right.
At 4 PM, a wine and cheese tasting was announced in the parlor car. For $10, we sampled four wines from the regions we were traveling through: a Pinot Noir from Santa Barbara, where we had passed earlier, a Sauvignon Blanc from Napa Valley, where we would be passing through shortly…and so on. These were served with several delectable cheeses, and followed with wine trivia where we could win Amtrak paraphernalia. I’m not much of a wine connoisseur, nor really a foodie, but for $10, it didn’t make sense NOT to attend a fun event like this.
For lunch, I went to the cafe car for an organic Amy’s veggie burger and organic Green Mountain coffee, which combined to fuel this author through several research articles and this blog posting. For dinner later that night, I had crab cakes, steamed veggies, and mashed potatoes, served by waitstaff, with tablecloths and real carnations decorating the table. Compared to airline food…right.
Another thing I realized as I was eating with complete strangers was that the social interaction on Amtrak provides something we so desperately lack in our busy, hectic lives and neverending quest for hyperindependence: community. These were really interesting people, vacationers, retirees, casual commuters, people out for a weekend jaunt up the coast…as the train was almost at full capacity, we were forced to share a table at the dining car during the busy dinner times, which seemed just fine with everyone. We enjoyed a good conversation with people who were outside of our normal social circle.
I realized it had been a long time since I had interacted with people from ENTIRELY different walks of life from my own, and the experience was mentally stimulating, mind-opening, and, well, just really fun. Some restaurants have common tables that people can share when the place fills up, but this took the concept to new heights. Between lunch and dinner, I met a doctor and his son, an engineer and her family, a retired schoolteacher, and another author.
So what about the fact that Amtrak has never been able to pay for itself? I’m not enough of an expert on the subject to get into the debate, but I will suggest that Amtrak is not the only transportation sector that receives subsidies. What would happen if we privatized the Interstate Highway system? Imagine tolls every 25 miles on every Interstate around the country, so that the whole Interstate system received not one penny of federal funds. How much would the cost of vehicle travel go up? How much more would goods shipped thousands of miles cost? It would make a significant difference, and those goods would finally reflect some of their true cost. Ironically, ridership on Amtrak would probably go up, perhaps making it more self-sufficient. And if the Federal Government were to give US Postal Service contracts to Amtrak rather than to privately owned airlines, it would provide another source of revenue for passenger rail that would decrease the amount of subsidies required.
Scott Cooney is the author of Build a Green Small Business: Profitable Ways to Become an Ecopreneur (McGraw-Hill), and hopes that someday, the green economy will simply be referred to as…the economy.