The New York Times recently ran a piece arguing that Amtrak is making progress stealing back customers from the airlines, principally on short flights between Boston, New York, and Washington, DC. This is the same corridor where Amtrak competes with its so-called “high” speed Acela service.
It’s certainly not comparable to high speed train service in Europe or Asia, but given the delays and inconveniences of traveling by air, short flights are particularly vulnerable to competition. I know that I regularly traded off the benefits of flying Southwest to and from school when I was an undergraduate in Orange County. If I avoided most of the traffic, I could drive 450 miles in about 7 hours. Flying meant 45 minutes on either end for ground transportation, an hour or two for waiting at the airport, an hour in flight, and some more time just in case anything went wrong. Basically, flying took a minimum of four hours, cost more than the gas for my car (even when it was at $4.50 a gallon), and left me without any transportation of my own after making it home.
My situation required a judgment call, but NYT makes several good observations about why flying doesn’t necessarily make sense when distances are even shorter, as they are back East. Delays can be unexpected, and while rain may slow the rate of takeoffs and landings it doesn’t usually affect cars and trains. In addition, business travelers trying to get to and from their offices in urban centers don’t want to deal with the inconvenience of traveling to suburban airports.
The greatest threat to airlines seems to be that they are being attacked on all angles. Business travelers with time-sensitive needs will take the train to avoid the lost time in the air and on the ground to and from an airport. Leisure travelers will take bus services like BoltBus that offer ultra-cheap transportation and even free WiFi (I can’t say how happy I am to see them giving good competition to the crappy Chinatown bus fleets).
Who does that leave in the middle?
I find it amusing that Delta claims its edge is providing customer loyalty because Amtrak can’t get you to South Africa. That’s not really the point. If I want to fly long distances, particularly to someplace expensive like South Africa or even just to San Francisco, that requires an entirely different evaluation of my travel needs than making regular trips to business partners only a few hundred miles away. Reversing the situation, people who like Acela for travel in the Northeast Corridor aren’t necessarily clamoring to spend days on its trains to get across the country to Seattle or Los Angeles.
You see, Amtrak isn’t making any money on the rest of its routes. Nor should anyone expect it to. When I took the Cascade line up to Vancouver this past spring, I’m not really sure I saved any time by not driving. I definitely could have arrived earlier and at a more reasonable hour if I had been able to meet my own schedule by driving, or if I had paid extra to take any of the dozens of flights a day. The train was slow, the WiFi was either intermittent or non-existent, and overall the service was just one notch above an airline. The only reason I enjoyed myself was because of the scenery. And even when I want to take the train for this purpose to cities Amtrak theoretically serves, like Truckee, CA, it often tries to shove me off on a bus instead.
Outside the Northeast Corridor, then, Amtrak isn’t a form a transportation anymore than people take a cruise to get from Miami to St. Thomas. It’s just a glorified tour on rails. And this is the fundamental problem with Amtrak as a going concern. I’m all for rail travel. I love it and use it as much as possible when in Europe. Think about the contrast in America. Boston to DC is only 450 miles and hits several additional major population centers worth the time and expense of stopping, so much so that Acela manages to be profitable even without true high-speed service. But out west, Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco are really the only major cities over a distance of 1,000 miles. Look how empty it is west of Texas!
I don’t know if California’s high speed rail experiment is going to work. I really hope so, as much as I disagree with the game of carrot and stick being played by forcing construction to start in the middle of nowhere. That’s why rail got into trouble in the first place! But hopefully, someday before I die, we’ll see a real train system in this country. Until then, I’ll continue to fly. At least now I’m old enough to pass the downtime in the airport club!