Note: Much of this post was written while sitting in freight traffic on a northbound train on the Adirondack line towards Montreal. I like train travel as much as the next low-car urban enthusiast, but the trip left much to be desired.
Amtrak can’t compete with inter-city bus companies on price, and they can’t compete with airlines on travel time (with a few notable exceptions, largely on the Northeast Corridor and only if you are measuring center-to-center). So where do they find a niche? In the area where both buses and planes fail in a big way – comfort and travel experience.
Inter-city buses share the big disadvantage of cars – the rides depend on traffic conditions, which are often terrible on many of the most useful routes (again, notably in the Northeast – the trips from NYC to Boston, Philly, or D.C. can be quick and painless or hellish depending on the day). They lend themselves to motion-sick passengers, the bathroom is usually terrifying within the first hour of the trip, and they can’t offer food service (although I once traveled between Prague and Vienna on a bus with a food and drink cart, free in-seat entertainment (nothing beats dubbed episodes of Friends in Czech), and a 45 minute stop in the middle to stretch your legs in the beautiful Bavarian city of Brno. It was also about 15€ for the five hour trip. If Megabus or Bolt ever start offering this level of service at their existing prices Amtrak will have a serious problem.)
Air travel still has one huge advantage over our ground-based alternatives – it’s fast. Very fast. It’s not a particularly bold claim to say that airlines will remain dominant on the routes where this matters most – international and cross-country trips. Where Amtrak can make headway is the relatively shorter trips, between two and ten hours in duration. These are the ones where the hassles of the TSA, limited in-air mobility and comfort, and inconveniently placed airports in many major cities with poor access to public transit (here’s looking at you, La Guardia) would be enough to convince people to spend the extra few hours traveling, if the experience was far superior and cheaper.
So what can Amtrak do to get to this point? I’ve picked out three main areas for improvement: cost, reliability, and experience.
The first one is straightforward. Amtrak needs to find a good middle ground for dollar value between bus travel and air travel on these routes. They need to ensure that it is cheaper to take a train for a trip under ten hours than it would be to fly. On some routes like the Adirondack and Lakeshore Limited, they have already succeed at this. In others, like the Northeast Corridor, they fail (for the important reason that the NEC subsidizes the rest of the system, a problem that would hopefully be alleviated by growing ridership). This won’t lure away people from buses, but it could make a dent in the shorter plane routes.
The second criteria is tough – Amtrak is sadly unreliable along along routes where they don’t own the track (The Adirondack was late so frequently they just moved its arrival time an hour later. That does allow them to hit on-time targets (although it’s still one of the worst lines in the system), but seems against the spirit of the whole thing). In some areas, fixing this will require better cooperation and stronger negotiations with freight companies, and in others it will require new infrastructure to double up tracks where only one exists now. If Amtrak can promise a comfortable ten hour trip between NYC and Montreal, people will take it. If they can promise an eight hour trip, even better. But if they promise a ten hour trip and it takes twelve, people will start to look at that six hour bus ride in a favorable light. People like movement – stopping for an hour waiting for a freight line to pass feels like a delay, even if it’s planned and doesn’t change the trip time.
The second half of this post will cover the on-train experience and passenger comfort. That section turned out to be as long as the entire first bit above, so I’m separating it into two posts. Keep an eye out for that in the next few days.