I’m in the first class car of the Acela returning from New York, and I notice a strange sign on the wall I’ve never seen before. It extols first class benefits, but they’re strangely different: lumbar support seats, for example, which don’t now exist, and no free alcohol, which very much does now exist. It seems to me that the benefits are less overall than currently is the case. (FYI: A first class seat from Providence to New York is about $300, which includes all meals and drinks. There is also a frequently rider program to earn free trips.)
One of the car attendants was nearby doing his paperwork. So I asked if it were an old or a new sign. He looked like a 30-year railroad guy, so his first sentence nearly knocked me down: “It’s a subliminal message.”
After a gulp of my currently free alcohol he told me that this was a subtle warning by management that things would change to save money. The Acela I was on was full, as are most of them, and Amtrak has a larger portion of Boston/Washington corridor business than the airlines. This route—where the Acela solely runs—is hugely profitable.
But get this:
• Many of the train components—for example, the cash machines in the cafeteria cars—were purchased from companies no longer in existence and can’t be repaired. So they all have to be replaced.
• The cars themselves, fiendishly expensive, were built by a firm overseas that is now out of business, and Amtrak mechanics can’t fix them easily or well. Why they can’t be trained to do this, or they can’t hire people who can do it, is beyond me. Hence, the trains often run with problems (water leaking in the galley) or the cars have to be pulled out of service altogether for longer than warranted repairs.
• The engines, one at each end to avoid having to turn the train around at the end of the line but adding hugely to the weight, had to meet crash standards far beyond European or Asian counterparts, are heavier than those engines, and more expensive. The train was designed to run at about 185 MPH, can actually manage about 155 MPH but seldom does because the track can only support that speed in a few places between Boston and Washington, which are roughly 400 miles apart. (The Acela usually takes slightly less than three hours to go from Providence to New York City, which I can drive in the exact same time or less, though with much more inconvenience.)
• As I recall, the train cars were originally designed to tilt on curves to enable increased speeds, but no one had the bright idea of testing what would happen if two trains passed each other doing that, until too late, and the feature couldn’t be used.
So, as airlines increase their first class amenities and membership lounges, Amtrak maintains dingy lounges in major cities on the route and is going to reduce first class amenities on its most profitable trains.
There is an article in the New York Times today about Amtrak “inching along” on improved rail service.
Anyone want to invest in Uber on tracks?
© Alan Weiss 2014
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