Archive for November, 2010

Good times with Amtrak

Sunday, November 14th, 2010

We love travel, and we hate it. Seeing places is great…getting to anything distant is an ordeal. Flying means waiting, invasive security, and being wedged into a seat made for people less than 6’1″, plus hours of time wasted just getting to and from the airport at each end. Driving is tiring, even without traffic, and standing up means stopping first. The saving graces are anticipation, aerial views, and roadside pancakes.

Taking Amtrak can be a revelation. If you’re already downtown, you can simply walk to the station. It’s best to show up 15 minutes early of course! The seats in coach are like business class on a plane, but with more leg room. You can head to the head or grab a beer or cup of soup from the dining car anytime you want. You can even be productive, keeping up with email, or playing a sketch game as my coworkers and I did the other day.

People have apparently noticed these advantages. Our trains to Portland and back were full both ways.

Train riders don’t get waited on. But the service I’ve gotten, in a handful of trips, has been excellent. Mostly this has been friendly efficiency, like flight attendants who aren’t being pushy. Where Amtrak staff have really shined is when something has gone wrong.

Two of us returned on Friday, and traveled by business class rather than coach. We’d stood in the wrong seat assignment line in the terminal, and been assigned coach seats. This became clear when we got to Coach Car 8. A worker was inside helping passengers stack luggage. We pointed out the error. He smiled and jumped into action, guiding us to his golf cart, securing new seat assignments by radio (with a full train), and taking us right to Car 1. Five minutes later we even had $3 menu coupons. Taking the blame and focusing on a solution without being totally wrong…that is service.

The Seattle-Portland route’s popularity is great evidence that rail can be popular even at “regular” speeds, at least between big cities at intermediate distances where the timing isn’t much longer (if at all) than other methods. Our region has the right idea for short-term improvements. Aided by federal grant money, we’re supposed to get two additional trips each way, along with continued small improvements that will improve speed. I’m ok with the controversial move to an inland route in Tacoma vs. the scenic waterfront route. Some of the improvements will help freight and commuter rail too.

Long term, the math is probably good to establish true high speed rail on the Portland-Seattle-Vancouver route, or at least much of the route. Whether a new ROW or incremental improvements to the existing, the cost would be huge. But it should prove to be good value, compared the many billions it would require to improve three airports, build a second Seattle airport, and expand highways, all of which are projected by some in the coming decades. A train every 30 minutes each way would replace quite a few commuter planes and cars on the highway. Further, it would help a lot of people reduce or eliminate their car use, and gain those personal savings.

(If you have an opinion or experience to share please do!)