Amtrak, I Love You, But You’re Too Damn Expensive
Amtrak....come on, now
I was sitting at my desk at work, doing what I do best and slacking in between work orders. The fools, I thought, putting me in front of a computer with internet access and expecting me to stay on task.
I decided to plan out my next voyage: New York City. Being that I live on the East Coast now, I wanted to take the train up. It would have been a quick flight up the coast, but I hate flying; it’s too cramped and stressful and even a slight amount of turbulence freaks me out.
I just love trains, always have. I had a great experience taking Amtrak up to Baltimore back in November, and I’ve ridden them all over the country. Plus, this year is Amtrak’s 50th anniversary and so figured it was only fitting. The price up to Baltimore was a little high, but nothing prohibitive, and I imagined continuing on to Penn Station’s new Moynihan Hall wouldn’t be much more.
Anyone who has recently ridden Amtrak knows what happened next. To my horror, I realized that a round-trip train ticket to New York City for a long weekend would run $288.
Yes, $288 to get from Richmond to New York. That was the absolute cheapest ticket, even planning several weekends out. Believe me, I tried all the permutations.
Then, just for shits and grins, I calculated how much it would cost if I just drove. At a distance of 333 miles, I could easily make the one-way drive on a single tank of gas. Tank-and-a-half or so for the roundtrip.
Even with gas prices as high as they are, I could drive to New York and back for less than a quarter of the cost to take the train.
Why is Train Travel So Expensive in the US?
Numerous studies have been conducted and numerous articles have been published over the years attempting to explain WHY it’s so hard to find a reasonable train ticket in the US.
Some people point to the extensive Interstate Highway System signed into effect by President Eisenhower back in 1954. Combined with the suburbanization of America and its inherent independent streak, American car culture was born.
Others say that airlines have lobbied hard for supremacy in the world of transportation. The sheer geographic size of the US is also said to be a factor (the contiguous US is the fourth largest country in the world, and third if you add Alaska), although that doesn’t explain why a similarly massive country like China blows us out of the water.
This article by Business Insider paints a more complete picture of Amtrak’s financial woes, which in turn manifest as obscene prices. Basically, Amtrak only owns a small fraction of the 21,400 miles of railroad track in the US, so it has to pay several other operators for the priviledge of running its trains on their track. Also, while ridership is very high in the Northeast Corridor (DC to Boston), it’s pretty low in other parts of the country. Having ridden Amtrak trains in Texas and the Pacific Northwest as well as the Northeast, I can attest to this. Service is pitiful in Texas, only moderately better on the West Coast, and both pale in comparison to what you find on the East Coast.
But that awesome ridership in one region can’t carry the entire rest of the system. According to the article, Amtrak operated at a net loss of $194 million in 2017.
The Benefits of Trains
This all sucks because trains are–with the exception of travel time–probably the best form of travel. And that’s not just me saying that.
Trains are highly efficient, burning far less CO2 per passenger than planes, cars, and buses. They also don’t spread jet contrails throughout the atmosphere.
They are empirically more comfortable, even if you get a regular coach seat. The seats are cushier, there’s plenty more leg room, and you can easily get up and move down the aisle without bumping into anyone. Even the food is better (though it’s nothing to scream about), and much more filling for the money.
There are other advantages to riding the rails. I’ve met some very interesting people at the dining tables. Even just the weird stuff you overhear people say can make for a funny story.
Hope for the Future
There is a small silver lining, though: even though Amtrak lost $194 million in 2017, it was a 15% improvement over 2016. According to that same article, Amtrak’s revenue losses have actually been decreasing every year since 2012 (the 2020 pandemic not withstanding). 2020 was, prior to the shutdowns, actually on track to be Amtrak’s very first profitable year in its entire history!
Perhaps the prices are super high right now because of COVID; you can see how full their trains are on their website, and it was not uncommon to see routes with only 5% ridership. But when I checked it most recently, it was saying all its routes from Richmond to New York were 70-90% full. Maybe it just takes a while for profits to catch up?
Having said that, improvement is still improvement and maybe one day that will translate into more reasonable fares and extended service for us transit riders.
Another hopeful sign is this article (from a website called AirlineGeeks.com, no less) about Amtrak 35. This is Amtrak’s plan to become financially stable by 2035. I’m hoping it will happen sooner than that, but that’s still great news!
Amtrak, I’m sorry, but I can’t do it this time. There is absolutely no reason why I’m going to be paying $288 just for a roundtrip drive that I could make in two afternoons. I want to. I really want to. But prices like that for service like that are completely out of the question. For the price of two tanks of gas I could get up there and back with fuel to spare.
It’s too bad that that’s the way it is. I love trains, I love how I get to take in the scenery, meet new people, and just chill while the engineer does the driving. I like stress-free the whole experience is compared to flying, and the added environmental benefit is nice, too. Even the food is better. But sadly, at the end of the day, my wallet has the final say. And this time it says get behind the wheel, put on some tunes, and fire up the GPS.
Maybe next time, Amtrak.