Soundings

Clark Whelton
The Cross-Country Jobs Program
Notes on riding Amtrak
Autumn 2012

When I booked my ticket, taking the night train from Albany to Cleveland seemed like an offbeat idea, maybe even fun. Later, at the Albany station, I even believed the “Departures” screen, which showed that Train 49, Amtrak’s westbound Lake Shore Limited (LSL), was on time. But the connecting train from Boston was late, and by the time we began our voyage, Train 49 was 55 minutes behind schedule. Eighteen miles later, we left Schenectady 90 minutes late. We rolled into Utica nearly two hours late and kept losing time as we passed through Syracuse and Rochester. We arrived in Cleveland three hours late.

That afternoon, I composed a note to Amtrak. My grievances included the LSL’s onboard-reservation system, in which conductors hand incoming passengers slips of paper bearing the numbers of seats that have an above-average chance of being empty. I didn’t mention Cleveland’s station, where the passenger platform—a roofless slab of cracked concrete—must be reached by walking across two lines of track. My complaint list also didn’t include the other passengers, who were the quietest, most considerate people I’ve ever traveled with. And the conductors had worked hard to find seats for all and to keep friends and family together. I had to admit, grudgingly, that despite aggravations, the trip west had not been unpleasant.

So I canceled plans to fly back to New York and gave America’s Railroad another try. Train 48, the eastbound Lake Shore Limited, left Cleveland “overbooked” (Amtrakese for “very crowded”) and ten minutes late. Soon, it was 30 minutes behind schedule, and it stayed that way for most of the trip to Albany. The daylight ride, dotted with abandoned factories, offered a shocking autopsy of smokestack America. None of it seemed to matter to the passengers. They were just as nice and happy on Train 48 as they had been on Train 49. The café-car lines were long but orderly. The seats were comfortable. The AC outlets and pull-down trays made it easy to use laptops.

Still, the LSL, even when it’s on time, takes a lot longer than an airplane would. I asked my seatmate, a man heading for Boston, why he took the train. “Because I hate flying,” he replied. I expressed sympathy for his phobia. He shook his head. “I’m not afraid to fly; I just hate it!” Because airlines treated their passengers as though they were enemies, he said, he’d rather be a couple of hours late on the LSL than go through airport security. “With Amtrak, you buy a ticket, you get on the train. Amtrak is the way it used to be.”

Can you run a railroad on relaxed atmosphere and nostalgia? Maybe, if the railroad has a forgiving clientele. I was thrilled when Train 48 arrived in Albany a mere five minutes late. Then I noticed that we had almost arrived in Albany: the train was still a few hundred feet from the station. A conductor told me that Albany-bound passengers could disembark in 45 minutes. “What a time to break down,” I said.

“No breakdown,” he replied. “We’re changing engines. We go through this exercise every day.”

“You keep passengers on the train for 45 minutes, 200 feet from the station, every day?” And then it dawned on me: we weren’t five minutes late. We were 50 minutes late. The 45-minute engine change was built in to the schedule.

Amtrak does some things well. In the Boston–Washington corridor, it hauls more passengers than all the airlines combined. Between New York and Albany, it functions as a pretty good commuter line. Amtrak rakes in $1.3 billion a year in federal and state subsidies, and it has big plans for faster trains and more capital investment, though its officials worry that Mitt Romney, if elected, will keep his pledge to derail their federal money. If Romney does make it to the White House, he’ll have to cross swords with Amtrak’s friends in Washington. A recent Capitol Hill hearing offered grounds for suspicion that the railroad’s 20,000 employees—who average $90,000 a year in pay and benefits—have cousins in high places. It came out in the hearing that Amtrak loses more than $80 million a year on food services. That comes to about $68,000 for each of the 1,200 people who work for Amtrak’s food and beverage division. A cheeseburger that sells for $9.50 in an Amtrak café car costs the railroad $16.15.

So an average hot-dog vendor from the street outside Penn Station could lease an Amtrak café car, turn a profit for himself and the railroad, and reduce food prices for passengers. Is there even a slight chance that such a thing could happen? Not according to what one heard at the hearing. “Why are some members of Congress promoting the elimination of good middle-class jobs with decent pay and benefits?” demanded Dwayne Bateman, vice general chairman of the union that represents train service workers. Nick Rahall, the ranking Democrat on the House’s Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, agreed. “It’s a whopper of an idea, trading good-paying jobs for cheaper hamburgers,” Rahall said.

American taxpayers owe Bateman and Rahall a vote of thanks for shedding light on the perverse incentives that make Amtrak such a mixed experience. For passengers, a café car means cheeseburgers. For café-car employees—and many legislators—it means pork. For passengers, late trains mean time lost. For train crews, they mean overtime gained. Bottom line: Amtrak is a jobs program on wheels.

If there is a change in Washington next year, President Romney will need a specialist to deal with Amtrak. He might consider Liu Zhijun, China’s rail czar, who was indicted in Beijing last year for, among other things, “belief in feudal superstitions.” Since Amtrak is feudal to its core, Liu would be right at home. Failing that, Romney should start by ending the food scam. If he can’t put an end to such blatant fraud, he’ll have no chance of reforming Amtrak’s rail operations.

Clark Whelton was a speechwriter for New York City mayors Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani.

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