Today I took the train from Newark’s Penn Station to Trenton for meetings, then back again this afternoon. We boarded an Amtrak regional train, which meant that we stopped at pretty much every station along the way. (One of the stops, aptly named “MetroPark,” appears to be a giant web of parking garages and surface lots and is one of the busiest stops of all.)
The train is a bit more expensive than traveling by car, but for the Uptight Traveler — that’s me — it’s a lot less stressful. You don’t need to hassle with New Jersey traffic and risk missing your meeting because of gridlock, the seats are spacious and comfortable, and you can work while you ride. Add in a short walk from the Trenton Station to my ultimate destination, to provide a little fresh air and exercise, and you’ve got a decent business travel experience.
We don’t have any rail service in Columbus, so any train trip is a bit of an adventure. I liked my small taste of commuting, East Coast style.
The train tracks come into Columbus from the south. At night we regularly hear the whistles moan as the trains approach the downtown area. As the cars rattle past German Village, they roll underneath the Whittier Street overpass.
The overpass has a tightly meshed fence that keeps the passersby away from the tracks and makes it impossible to get an unobstructed picture of the trains as they rumble by. It’s an apt physical sign of Columbus’ circumstances when it comes to trains. We are serviced by freight trains galore, but we’re blocked from boarding any passenger trains. If you live in Columbus and want to take a train trip, you need to drive about a hundred miles south or a hundred miles north — because neither Amtrak nor any other passenger rail line stops in Ohio’s capital city.
If you look at a passenger rail service map, you can see Columbus’ isolation. It’s there smack dab in the middle of Ohio, far away from any of the operating rail stations. Even with efforts underway to increase passenger rail service in other cities, when it comes to trains Columbus is nowhere.
It didn’t use to be that way. If you talk to old-timers, they’ll tell you about Union Station, which used to anchor the northern edge of downtown Columbus, and how you could catch an interurban train to other cities in Ohio, take a long cross-country trip, or even book a ride on a special car that took Ohio State football fans up to Ann Arbor for the games against That Team Up North. But now Union Station is demolished, its classical entrance arch has been reconstructed in a park in the Arena District, and the train trips from Columbus are a distant memory. At some point, when the superhighways and the airports had taken away many of those former passengers, train travel became uneconomical, and somebody decided that Columbus really didn’t need passenger trains anymore.
Now we just hear the trains, and it’s a lonesome, sad sound.
I liked taking the train, and I’d take it again. The Acela Express leaves from Union Station in D.C., has stops in Baltimore, Wilmington, Delaware, Philadelphia, and Newark, then arrives in Penn Station about 2 hours and 50 minutes after you’ve left the Nation’s Capital. Total travel time is about what you’d have by air, factoring in the time needed to get to the airport and go through security, and you end up in the middle of Manhattan rather than at LaGuardia. The cost of my first-class Acela ticket was about the same as the cost of a flight, too.
The first-class car was clean and spacious, and the train was sold out. Most of the first-class passengers were taking advantage of the free wireless that was afforded and the free beverages; my traveling companion and I each had a glass of decent red wine. Our car was quiet and spacious. The train rocks a bit, but you can stretch your legs and walk to the cafe car if you want, or just watch the scenery roll by. As an added bonus, I saw a U.S. Senator on the trip — New Jersey’s Bob Menendez.
A New York attorney I know said the Acela Express advertises itself as the “civilized” travel alternative. That’s not inaccurate. Thanks, fellow taxpayers, for a pleasant journey!
We often hear politicians, of both parties, talk about trying to run the government “like a business.” Of course, the government isn’t a business, and it inevitably doesn’t run like a business — even when it is performing a business-like function.
The latest example of this reality is the news that Amtrak is selling food and beverages to its passengers at a loss. In the last decade, Amtrak’s food and beverage cars have lost $833 million. $833 million! How did that happen? Because Amtrak is selling food and beverage items for less than it costs to supply them. According to the linked article, every cheeseburger costs Amtrak $16.15, yet Amtrak charges its customers only $9.50. Every can of soda costs Amtrak $3.40, and Amtrak charges its passengers only $2. The fact that each can of soda costs Amtrak $3.40 tells you something about Amtrak’s uncompetitive cost structure, given that any American can buy an individual can of soda — to say nothing of the per-can cost of a twelve-pack — for much less than that.
Of course, no business could remain in operation if it racked up $833 million in losses over ten years and regularly sold goods for much less than it costs to provide them. The fact that Amtrak has done so for a decade just confirms that bureaucrats don’t think or behave like businessmen and aren’t subject to the same competitive pressures that cause companies like Wal-Mart to constantly search for ways to bring goods to market for the lowest possible price.
People of different views may disagree about whether we should subsidize Amtrak fares in order to support mass transit. Does anyone, however, really think it is appropriate that taxpayers also subsidize the cheeseburgers and sodas that the Amtrak passengers consume on their already subsidized journeys?