Why I Just Can’t Hate Amtrak

As I’m writing this, I’m making the quarterly trek up north to the family homestead. Naturally, I am doing this sans car as car ownership in San Francisco is suicidal. In the past, when it has been more than one person making the trip, it is more cost effective, although not environmentally sound to rent a car. It seems that recently, because gas is $4-5 a gallon, the rental car companies think that they need 25% more in rental cost for their vehicles despite the fact that fuel costs don’t affect them in the least. Needless to say, it has made the trip by rented car far too expensive when compared with taking Amtrak.
Most people in the US despise Amtrak and even go along with the premise from The Bush that for some moonshine-induced reason, Amtrak needs to be a public transportation company that is self-sufficient, i.e. running at a profit. I happen to not be one of these people and I think that it should actually be more heavily financed by the government and built up a great deal more. For those who aren’t aware, Amtrak was basically a freebie tossed to the commercial rail carriers to spare them the burden passenger travel which was quickly becoming a loss due to the burgeoning air travel sector in the early 1970’s. But, I refuse to look at it as a handout and to view it as more of a public project that could have so much potential to change the US view of transportation at a time when we’ve needed it more than ever.
To all its detractors, I understand the points. Yeah, it can smell funky here and there. Sure, you have to interact with your fellow human beings, which some people find like totally icky. Yeah the elderly fellow across the aisle from me with the pneumonic cough is less than appealing, but I will be stronger for absorbing his airborne germs. And things on the train don’t always work like the door between the next car and mine that keeps opening and closing on its own. But, I think what really kills people with Amtrak is the delays. This train that I’m on was 20 minutes late in arriving. Thankfully the bus connection up to the homestead waits for this train otherwise I’d be stuck in Sacramento for the night.
I admit the delays can be maddening, especially when you’re taking such a short, a two hour train. But while Amtrak bears the brunt of peoples’ ire when it comes to this, it is absolutely not their fault… most of the time. You see, they don’t own most of the rails that they use and thus, they don’t have priority usage. The freight carriers that they unfortunately bound to lease them from get to bustle their trains down the rails firstly with the frustrated people coming in at a distant second or even third in priority. The net result is that you get a lot of people mad about what is actually an amazingly huge and relatively good system, yet is not viewed that way.
I’ve been trying to figure out for a long time how we can deal with this problem short of forcing imminent domain on all the rails in the country, which should have happened a long time ago. I still believe that this is what is ultimately needed, but the railroad lobbies are so incredibly powerful that there is no way American citizens can force this immediate change, especially given the very pro-corporation government we so dearly enjoy at the moment.
The change must be small. It must be focused. It must be gradual. It must happen on a grassroots level to tackle such a huge problem. I believe that yes, the solution lies in the blog. As cheesy and digitally ridiculous as this may sound, hear me out. If people used a focused blogging initiative to document the situation with Amtrak, we could actually build a wealth of information that would mean something in time. And I’m not just talking about pissed off riders complaining about being late. I call on the conductors and engineers of Amtrak to write about their experiences and collate what they know about the delays, who is causing them, where the biggest offenders are and then bring small, governmental campaigns to purchase the rails in the areas where Amtrak suffers the worst. They can blog anonymously if they have to, but cutbacks to Amtrak affect the employees as much as they affect the public, whether they want to realize it or not.
Sure, I admit that all of this could get ignored and we could still be in the same situation that we’re in, but when it comes to actually having the power of focused information as opposed to random spiraling whirlpools of hearsay, Americans actually will do something. If it affects people on a local and personal level (and having this information at hand will show those who it does affect) people get motivated. It’s a small idea and maybe it’s shortsighted, but it’s food for thought as I just realized that the Sacramento River Wetlands are passing by and this is my favorite part of the trip.
Why I Just Can't Hate Amtrak

One Reply to “Why I Just Can’t Hate Amtrak”

  1. What the privatizers don’t tell you is that the European railroads are also subsidized! They’re split into private operations companies, and government-owned infrastructure companies. The operations companies make a “profit”, and the infrastructure companies are subsidized to many times that alleged “profit.” See chart at http://www.amtrakoig.com/reports/E-08-02-042208.PDF

    First thing Amtrak should do is to split their annual reports into two parts. Nobody reads past the bottom line, which is where this myth of profitability came from. If you issue two sets of annual reports, one called “Amtrak” that magically makes a profit, and one called “Amrail” where all the losses are dumped, then that’d change the terms of the debate.

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