Thoughts on Making Amtrak Better

I've long been a fanboy of Amtrak. The slow pace and great scenery suit my travel style. In the media, there always seems to be some buzz on train travel, why it's not used more, how to improve it, and, lately, why high speed rail is the answer. After having my train to Montana cancelled yesterday (see Convenience below), I started thinking about what can be done to Amtrak better. I came up with 3 main categories which I see needing to be addressed to make this government-owned corporation a truly viable travel option.

Price: Amtrak isn't cheap. In many cases, it is more expensive than flying. The price structure is not simple, either. Different times of day cost more, prices go up closer to travel date, some discounts can only be applied x number of days before hand, etc. If ticket prices were lowered and/or the price model was simplified, this would definitely encourage more ridership which could help streamline things and lead to higher revenues.

Convenience: On this, Amtrak actually rates pretty well. Strong positive points come from the wonderful comfort afforded by rail travel (ability to walk around, dining cars, lots of leg room, etc.), less intrusive security, and more conveniently located stations. Points against include limited schedules (only leaving certain towns in the middle of the night) and extremely poor reliability* (for example: for the past 4 weeks, the train from Sacramento to Denver has been, on average, almost 1.5 hours late, one time being 12 hours late and another 7). Addressing this reliability issue isn't simple because of the ownership structure of the rails, but it is worth it in the long term for all the potential gains, not only in reliability but also as a way to address cost.

Speed: To spend 48 hours to travel what would take 3.5 to fly (Seattle to Chicago) is kind of a big deal. For those who have that kind of time, it can be great, but that doesn't describe a very large portion of the population. To broaden it's market, Amtrak could introduce faster trains (as proposed by the Obama administration), more direct routes, or find other time saving measures.

(My personal thoughts on high-speed rail: *)

I want to see Amtrak become a more feasible option for travel, but for that to happen, I see at least one of these three things needing to change. Faster trains at the same price and convenience, cheaper prices at the same speed and convenience, or more convenient trains at the same price and speed. (My vote is for optimizing cost, as it is the great equalizer, but that's just me. I am kind of a penny pincher.)
Wednesday March 2 2011File under: transportation

Toggle Comments (2)comment?
on Sat 05th Mar, 2011 07:24 pm PST Katherine said:
Took the train a few years ago from Philly to Montreal and although the scenery was awesome...we arrived almost 5 hours late, the train was unclean and there was little to no food available for purchase. Bummer on all fronts.

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on Tue 08th Mar, 2011 07:35 pm PST ez said:
I agree on most of your proposals, especially because I have become more of a fan of Amtrak lately. I also have a lot of time for traveling and like the more grounded feeling I get on the train then the airplane. I also find that people are generally happier and willing to engage in conversation versus feeling obligated to chat on the plane.
My major complaint is their waste. Everything comes in disposable packaging and the Empire line does not have a recycling option.
There also seems a general feeling of apathy from the crew so the train is usually messier than a plain.
All that aside, I still enjoy the train more. I hope America will continue its shift towards mass transportation and steer away from the car.
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