I’ve had trains on the brain recently, what with the triumphal opening of the Link light rail (and given Seattle’s history, it was a triumph), which may help explain why I just booked a 7 hour and 20 minute train reservation from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh.
Now, at first glance, that might seem a little crazy, considering a non-stop flight on US Airways clocks in at under 1 hour and 20 minutes gate to gate. But on closer examination it’s not as nutty as you might think, an examination that speaks to the many competitive advantages of intercity rail… advantages, alas, that most American cities aren’t able to enjoy.
The cost comparison is fairly easy. For example, the airfare (with tax and fees) would come to $133 round trip, plus $15 each way to check my bag, and $20 each way for the airport shuttle in Pittsburgh. That’s $203 to fly, versus the $91 I just payed to book on Amtrak.
But is a $112 savings really worth 12 hours extra traveling time round trip? No, probably not. But then, what with all the time spent wandering around the airport, flying doesn’t really save me 12 hours, does it? After all, with frequent logjams at the TSA checkpoints, most airlines recommend arriving an hour and a half before a domestic flight, so subtract three hours there. And, of course, while flight time is measured gate to gate, you still have to account for deplaning, walking to baggage claim, waiting for your baggage, and then getting to (and on) ground transportation, so subtract another hour of airport time at either destination, and we’re down to a seven hour advantage.
Then there’s the airport shuttle to and from the hotel in Pittsburgh, maybe a half an hour each way to cover the 20 miles, depending on traffic, plus additional time if we’re not the only stop. Throw in the wait for the shuttle at both ends of the line, and that shaves another hour and a half from our total, bringing the air travel advantage down to five and a half hours, because oh yeah, rather than being on the outskirts of town, Pittsburgh’s Amtrak station is right across the street from my hotel.
On this particular trip, getting to 30th Station in Philadelphia will be just as much a hassle as getting to the airport, as I’m coming from the Jersey shore, so there’s no time saved there due to its central location, but on the way home, the train stops in Ardmore, PA, just a 10 minute drive from my sister’s house, whereas the flight would leave me inconveniently at the airport. So I save at least another 30 minutes travel time by rail.
So… is $112 in savings really worth twelve five hours of my time? Well, it is for me when you consider that instead of going through the hassle and stress of getting to and from two airports and on and off two flights, I get to sit on a train with ample leg, elbow and head room, walkable aisles and a convenient cafe car… all the while knowing that when I get to my final destination I’ll actually be at my final destination. Yeah, its an extra two and a half hours traveling each way, but I spend much more time than that writing each day, and with power outlets liberally scattered throughout each car, I’ve got no concern about draining the batteries on my laptop or iPhone.
And then, of course, there’s the added bonus of not having to hand even more of my money over to the despicable US Airways, which on my last flight set a new record for poor customer service by actually threatening to have me arrested. (It’s a long story.) I know, I know… at least my daughter and I arrived safely, eventually… but should the bar really be set so low that the standard for acceptable service is a flight that doesn’t end with you standing hip deep in water on the wing of a plane floating in the middle of river?
Of course, not everybody holds the same visceral hatred for US Airways, unfortunately the only airline to fly nonstop between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh or Seattle, so perhaps your calculus would be different from mine, and perhaps the bizarrely slow train between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh (7 hours, 20 minutes to travel only 300 miles? Really?) isn’t the best example of intercity rail’s inherent advantages. I mean, why would anybody fly the shuttle from DC to NY when even the non-Acela trains can get you downtown to downtown in less total time, and at two-thirds the cost?
Yeah I know, we’re different out West, where the distances are longer and the right to a single occupancy vehicle is written into our state constitutions. But the distance between Seattle and both Portland OR and Vancouver BC is actually less than the distance between Philadelphia and DC, so imagine a Cascade route upgraded to mere NE Corridor speeds (which is itself, substantially less than European standards) cutting up to two hours off the current three and a half hour trip in either direction. Yeah, at current gas prices you could drive for less… but would you really want to?
One of the stupidest arguments against rail—light, heavy or otherwise—is that it is an antiquated, 19th Century technology, whereas the automobile, itself more than a century old, is the transportation of the future. Puh-lease. Different technologies make sense for different purposes and in different circumstances. For short and medium intercity trips from downtown to downtown, nothing beats heavy rail (at least rail done right), whereas even a bullet train wouldn’t make sense coast to coast compared to modern air travel. And as much as I love the new Link light rail, and plan to use it extensively between my neighborhood and downtown Seattle, I’m the first to admit that I’m not ready to give up the convenience of owning a car.
Our nation has been on an airport and road building binge over the past half-century while neglecting or even tearing up our aging rail infrastructure, and the persistent anti-rail bias is based on little more than ideology… a lazy, free market tirade against government subsidies. But government has long subsidized transportation, from canals to railroad right of ways to the interstate highway system. You think the airlines picked up the cost of building SeaTac? Think again. Those are your tax dollars at work.
So if heavy rail between cities and light rail within them can efficiently divert traffic from the roads and the air, doesn’t it make sense to spend some of our tax dollars providing travelers with more choice, not less? And should it really require “trains on the brain” to recognize the value of such investments?