Letter from America 1

Have arrived in the US to go on my big train trip. New York to Pittsburgh today, then Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco,LA, New Orleans, Baltimore and back to NYC. There is nowhere else in the world apart from China and Russia that you can do such a long trip in one country.

People are very down on Amtrak, so it will be fascinating to see how well they deliver. And of course whether they stick to time. I have no short connections to make, mostly 12 or 24 hours, so that should not be a problem

I have been riding the subway a lot in New York and while it is efficient, it does have a very rundown feel. There are, for example, no seats anywhere on platforms, and there are stairs that have not been swept for years. The rats on the lines are rather more threatening than our little mice. I wonder if there is a Kings Cross type disaster brewing. People tell me the system is a lot better than it used to be, but may be not good enough.

 On the plus side, cycling in the city, helped by a transport commissioner who had put in a lot of cycle lanes, and closed part of Broadway, and sections of various other streets and  squares, is booming and it was amazing yesterday walking along the southern end of Broadway how many pedestrians there are. There are possibly plans to pedestrianise the whole of it, which would make sense as it is a kind of diagonal which makes phasing the traffic lights on the grid pattern more difficult. So it is a win win. But it is, as ever, difficult to persuade the petrolheads.

  • Dan

    I look forward to reading more Christian.

    I’m a big fan of Amtrak, and the way the rail lines interact with urban and rural areas is different from here in UK somehow – makes for a very interesting social view of the USA – combined with the fact that yanks are more likely to be friendly to you and chat on the journey – should be very pleasant.

    But as for timekeeping don’t get your hopes up! Americans I met were indeed down on Amtrak (they thought service was rude, all too often) – but basically I found service fine, like the standard you’d expect in the UK really – wheras Americans are rather fond of the great service they often get in retail and elsewhere (but which to me seems sometimes – but not always I hasten to add – over false and all about boosting tips and sales based commission pay).

    The other odd thing is the way Amtrak (and Via in Canada) seem to have staff to help you find your platfrom, then staff to help you find your carriage etc – as if you would be clueless – which helps explain the airline check in model that until the budget airlines started. The early airlines must have learned this of US railroads – but of course it is labour intensive.

    When in Chicago I hope you can take one of the Metra commuter lines as well as the CTA urban transit services, I found public transport there rather good – even though the whole society is geared up to be energy dependent – even if you don’t want to waste energy / petrol it is hard not to!

  • Graham


    Been on the Amtrak network myself this summer. Texas Eagle from Chicago to San Antonio then City of New Orleans from New Orleans to Memphis.

    First ride by sleeper excellent in every respect. Second ride just the opposite. Poor timekeeping, poor service but the worst was the ride. The track north of Jackson was so bad that you struggled to stay in your seat. A lady passenger was taken off the train by ambulance after dislocating her shoulder from being thrown about. Freight owned track, but Amtrak’s responsibility to operate safely.

    All in all a mixed experience but it remains the best way to see small-town America.

  • Tom

    Hmm. The day of the chancellor’s review finds “Britain’s leading transport commentator” not in the public gallery of the Commons with the other hacks, but nitpicking about a subway system that, while filthy, proves you don’t need JLE looks to function well. Interesting priorities.

    Guess you’re relying on The Railway Eye then! But just in case you’re too tired: HS2 going forward / Crossrail delayed by a year / GW electrification probably cancelled / Bus subsidies cut / Fares on RPI+3 2012-15 / New Street safe / £6bn for steady state LU maintenance / Widening or improvements to M1, M4, M5, M25, M62, A3, A11 and A46.

    Here’s hoping Nigel Harris can carry on justifying that column fee to Bauer in these ‘difficult times’, eh? Happy holidays! When did Rail last raise its cover price?

  • Jack

    I also rode Amtrak solo last year from San Francisco (Oakland) to Vancouver, stopping by at Portland and Seattle for a few days each on the way. Christian, if you have time in Portland, do follow the circular ‘4T Trail’ which is a really well thought out public transport and short hike combo trail. In a few hours this will summarise for you the best public transport system in North America for a city of that size, and which illustrates, thanks to Darling several years ago, the type of innovative and integrated system that similar sized cities in the UK will now have to wait a generation before we are likely receive anything similar.

    On Amtrak, I was intrigued by the ‘Americana’ style tin-can rail cars and the fact that only the top deck of the double-decker coaches were used as passenger saloons, while beneath was a space containing half a dozen of the most ancient set of arcade games I have seen in my life. Either Amtrak are at the cutting edge of retro or the addiction to subsidy means they have completely lost their way with respect to the typical business necessity that is customer focus.

    I think the issues which face Amtrak are actually quite similar to the London to Scotland sleeper services here in the UK. The business case for their existence as self sustaining means’ of transport were lost decades ago following the advent of the car and construction of good road links. Now they are operated without a real, clearly articulated aim.
    What these rail routes can offer which driving cannot is absolutely fantastic tourist potential. Seeing stags bounding away as the train trundled over Rannoch Moor, miles away from the nearest road was a fantastic and memorable experience. It was such a shame that my microwave pasta in the buffet was an equally memorable experience, but in a non-complementary way. With a change of focus to the tourism dollar, the economics of these services can get back on track. Without it, they remain in the no mans land between quaint rolling museum and eventual death.

  • Dan

    Good comment Jack – but are you saying Mr Darling should not have bothered to save the banks? If so I’d be quite angry – as an account holder at Lloyds TSB I’d have been pretty angry (and I mean french style angry) had I lost all my savings due to the fialings of the people who we now learn “ran” that bank. My ‘demutualised’ free shares at Bradford and Bingley – once worth a few hundred quid have been lost – but I regard that as inevitable collatoral damage and can shrug my shoulders as I never ‘paid’ for them. At least on this blog lets be serious about the choices whoever was in power in 2008 had (not many).

    Your point about Amtrak vs Caledonian Sleeper is of note, but when I was crossing Chicago – San Fran (and also Toronto – Chicago before that route closed) it was notable how many low income types and students got on the train at small towns along the way – not in the expensive sleepers but in ‘coach’ – they surely needed to use that service. Would it have been cheaper to give them a car, or pay a taxi fare? (these were places not near airports) – maybe, but that is not the point. If you want tourist trains – there are plenty of them in North America – try the Rocky Mountaineer for example – do they go where you might need to travel if you live there? Probably not? Are they affordable beyoned once in a lifetime? not really, are they public transport? no.

    Amtrak just needs modernisation and investment – esp on the east and west coasts, and in the mid west city links – then it would be totally viable. Obama’s paper from US DOT recognised this – not sure where things have got with it now (if anything like UK most dosh spend on reports and assessments, not much spent on track and signals….)

  • Michael Weinberg

    I’ve travelled several times on Amtrak’s long distance trains. In fact every way there is from Chicago to the West coast. I, also, noticed back packers etc joining the trains at small mid-western towns, some to go comparatively small distances. When I asked why they didn’t fly since Amtrak is so slow they replied 1/ Amtrak was much cheaper than air and 2/ not many small towns actually had air services and although flying is far more common in the States than Europe, airlines concentrated on serving the big cities. In some places Amtrak is all they’ve got! That’s why many State Governors react angrily at suggestions that the long-distance trains should be axed, although hopelessley uneconomic.
    Incidentally I would advise Christian to try the Californian Amtrak services which I know well. The stock on these is superb, the fares are cheap, and journey times are comparable with many routes in the UK. They also seem to be well used.

  • Not a holiday Tom, research for my next book – and v worthwhile. But yes, poor timing, annoyed I missed the spending review but I will be writing about it in my next Rail column.

  • Tom

    Glad you’ve got a sense of humour Christian 😉 Sadly lacking in some quarters at the moment!

  • Jack

    Hi Dan, thanks for your comments following my earlier post. I think you may have misinterpreted what I meant when I referred to the actions of Darling.

    I was talking about his decision to cancel a number of the high-quality LRT schemes for places like Liverpool, Leeds and Portsmouth, which were, and still are, badly needed to tempt people out of cars on the grounds that they did not offer good value for money, albeit determined using a flawed appraisal methodology. I was not referring to his intervention as a result of the financial crisis, and now the corresponding public sector austerity measures, although undoubtably this has combined with Darling’s former decision to kill off the prospect of high-quality, segregated PT to some of our largest urban areas for at least another 10 years.

    On Amtrak, I think the several questions you pose at the end of your second paragraph illustrates my point quite well in that the passenger service exists without a clear aim. Remember, the US railroad by and large exists to transport freight and it is the transportation of freight in such bulk quantities which makes the system economic, funding the maintenance, signalling and renewal etc. Passenger services can be run on such a railway, but it is only optimal to do so providing that prices are set such that the resulting level of demand ensures that the marginal cost (train maintenance, staff saleries, stations etc) is covered. If they do not, we then ask well what value do we put over and above revenue on the social benefits of having a passenger railway service to a particular town? For Amtrak these are low because Greyhound can always go where Amtrak does and often much more quickly, frequently, reliably and at lower cost to the provider.

    My argument therefore goes that these services should pay for themselves, at least covering the marginal cost. With emphasis on the quality of the experience, better use of train capacity, by getting rid of those ancient video game machines and putting in more cabins and spacious viewing cars, and also serving good food. With proper marketing and commitment to the whole experience, untapped demand for this American gem will grow.
    I observed too that there were college-types using the trains, but I have to argue that they are more likely to be from middle-income groups – the fact that they go to college at all in the US suggests this. But ultimately, many people, and I am one, just love to travel by train, and consciously choose not take the bus or plane instead. This is not out of financial necessity, but a free choice we make.

    Travelling on much of the Amtrak network therefore is a luxury, and so the pricing and all-round customer experience ought to be updated to reflect this if it is to be sustained. Like you say, this requires time and investment, but there must be a clear aim. The alternative is to have a rolling folly which, during times of austerity, leaves Amtrak vulnerable to a foresight-lacking, high-level political intervention which could conceivably send otherwise viable but currently subsidised rail services to the bone-yard forever.

  • Dan

    Sorry Jack – I did misunderstand your point about Darling and now note what you mean