Monday, May 12, 2008

The Only Way to Go...

I love traveling by train. Catherine and I took a trip this weekend to see a production of Blithe Spirit in Suffield, CT directed by our friend Rob Lunde (more on that in an upcoming post). We'd looked into renting a car but, fortunately, it was cheaper if we took Metro-North to New Haven and then switch to Amtrak on into Springfield, MA (where Rob lives, just across the state line from Suffield). Granted, the only way this worked was that Rob has a car in Springfield—otherwise, we'd have had no way to get around once we arrived except taxis (expensive, I'm sure) or buses (workable, if you know the schedule... and if the buses go where you need to go, when you need to go there). But the actual journey was so easy and much less stressful than driving or flying*. 

Of course, train travel requires adhering to a stricter schedule: we had to make sure the train we took to New Haven arrived in time to make our Amtrak connection, which had to arrive early enough in Springfield so that Rob wasn't rushing to get us and then get us over to the theater; coming back was similar because Catherine and I both had appointments here last night. If you agree with Sartre that "Hell is other people," you'll find a wide variety of demons on mass transit to confirming your beliefs. And Metro-North offers relatively few amenities: the seats are not that comfortable, the lighting is bright and harsh, the bathroom is not very clean (but at least there is a bathroom) and the commuter rails stop quite a lot. But it's also $28 each round-trip off peak, as opposed to Amtrak at $32-$96 one way, depending on schedule. Amtrak offered a much better deal (and our only option) for the second leg of our journey: $34-$48 round-trip. So all in all, our weekend travel expenses were less than $70 each—compared to $125-$200 for a rental car, plus gas (at least another $40-$50, I'd imagine).

We're fortunate in this part of the country: the Northeast Corridor is just about the only profitable Amtrak route, so service is relatively frequent and inexpensive here. I noticed that the Texas Eagle from Ft. Worth to Austin leaves once a day, takes over 4 hours and cost $62 round-trip—no incentive there to leave the car at home, especially if there's more than two of you. And the longer trips are even less appealing—the Eagle from Fort Worth to Chicago, for instance, is also only once daily, takes 24 hours and a compartment will run you $413 per person. That's pretty much only attractive to those relatively few people for whom time and money are not a premium.

What would it take for the U.S. to have the great renaissance of train travel that Europe seems to now be enjoying? Well, taxes on gasoline would have to go much higher here than they currently are (which would put us in line with pretty much everyone else in the world... okay, maybe not in the OPECs). There would need to be an enormous investment in infrastructure—at the very least, upgrading or replacing tracks, signals and grade crossings in order to accommodate high-speed rail service. And I think the only way that investment could happen would be to privatize the industry again, since the first fruits of the project would benefit a relatively small percentage of the public—and what representative can ever hope to win re-election by voting huge amounts of money for projects in someone else's district? Perhaps, as gasoline becomes more expensive, some bright young entrepreneurs will come up with plans that will make money and revive this industry in the U.S. But, more likely, those bright young entrepreneurs are concerned more with how to save their automobiles (fuel cells, anyone?) from obsolescence... 

*If I could go wherever I want to without ever being in an airplane again, I'd be thrilled—I hate airports and flying, in general. But, alas, train service to Europe is unlikely to happen in my lifetime... and can you imagine how many different trains you'd have to take to get to South America from NYC? And, of course, the faster you get somewhere, the more time you have to spend in that place—which is why you're going there in the first place, I'd imagine.

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