As a new immigrant to the US the opportunity to travel across the continent by rail – from sea to shining sea – was not to be missed. Seattle to Chicago, Chicago to Boston, three days out, three days back and in between a weekend in the stellar company of Nieman Fellows at their 75th anniversary at Harvard. What’s not to like?
Along the way we’d be traversing the Cascade Mountains and the Rockies, absorbing the vastness of Montana and its big skies, the wild immensity of North Dakota amid its fracking boom and the more manicured landscapes of New York State with its rolling hills, rich greenery and picture-book villages.
What followed revealed far more than the epic scenery in my newly chosen country, it showed the daunting determination of pioneers who put a railroad through tremendously harsh terrain, and a distinct lack of ambition by modern-day politicians to build on their legacy.
Our Amtrak adventure began badly. The scheduled departure from Seattle’s King Street Station was delayed due to the unexplained late arrival of the Empire Builder from Chicago.
With no digital displays on site, no wifi, and no useful information from Amtrak there was much confusion among passengers. An hour’s delay became two, then three, then four.
The evening meal we were supposed to be enjoying while skirting Puget Sound and climbing into the spectacular Cascade Mountains became a Subway snack box, a sandwich, a cookie and a bag of chips eaten in situ.
With time hanging heavy and excitement ebbing out the door I started to ponder: Why was there no sense of occasion when arriving at the station? Why wasn’t this route being promoted as a wonder of the rail network?
Where was the signage for Empire Builder travelers? Where was the lounge for those embarking on this 2,200-mile trip? And in a land of hype and hard sell where were the mugs, the T-shirts, the baseball caps and trinkets? Why did we feel forgotten instead of special?
Seahawks fans came and went, a raucous, painted tribe from across the way at Century Link Field where 67,000 of them had watched their team beat the Jaguars 45-17. They went home happy. We sat and watched and strained to hear wisps of information from the acoustically-challenged ticket hall PA system.
Meanwhile, Amtrak’s Twitter feed urged travelers: “RT if you’re ready to take your first X-country trip with us #enjoythejourney” My reply: “I’m ready, you’re four hours late!” failed to elicit an @Amtrak response.
It was left to one of the rail staff, standing on a bench and shouting into the echoing hall, to explain the details of what was unfolding. Notions of an American-style, Orient Express experience were rapidly diminishing.
We left in darkness at around 9pm, almost five hours late. We saw nothing of the marvels of the mountains in this disappointing beginning to a much–anticipated trip. Instead we tried to focus on trailblazers Lewis and Clark, in whose vicinity, if not footsteps, we were travelling for part of the way. They would surely have shrugged it off as a minor irritation and we tried to do the same.
The train staff were annoyingly, repetitively, apologetic as they tried to compensate for the shortcomings though they, too, were suffering the consequences.
We never did get an official explanation for the lateness. A landslide, mudslide, track fire, flooded rails, bison on the line, any of these would have salved the situation and even added to the enjoyment.
The more likely explanation was that the incoming train was forced to give way to freight, sidelined so the real business of the railroad could be conducted. Track repair was another excuse – heavy oil traffic means more maintenance, our car assistant said. The Empire Builder’s punctuality record for August 2013 shows it was on time on only a third of its journeys. For the previous 12 months it fared better, with a 61% time-keeping record – but that’s a long way short of acceptable efficiency.
Amtrak lays the blame firmly at the door of the freight companies on whose track it travels and in the case of the Empire Builder, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp. (BNSF) is cited for the bulk of the problems.
Having someone to blame is all very well, but as a customer I just want something that works and that’s seemingly beyond Amtrak’s scope to guarantee. Their fares are expensive (we could have flown business class to Boston and back for less) their punctuality is poor and they lack the investment and the infrastructure to get out of the mess they are in. Truly, this is no way to run a railroad.
For anyone who has traveled in Europe where train travel is heavily subsidized the contrast could not be greater. High-speed, long-distance routes criss-cross the continent, trains are modern and luxurious, stations are well-appointed and businesslike, and the overall experience is one of effortless efficiency.
Amtrak’s rolling stock is visibly ageing and tired. The polished metal exteriors of the two-storey Superliners have a certain nostalgic appeal, but that’s quickly extinguished by the dumpy interiors.
Our upper berth roomette was on the cramped side of cozy, with no room for suitcases which had to be left in rack alongside an aisle downstairs. Beneath the facing seats which flatten out into a single bed I found popcorn remnants dropped by the previous occupants and a Sudoku puzzle book. Clearly corners had been cut to get the train back into service leaving me to wonder what else had been skimped on.
We had only a single powerpoint, that’s standard. But the audio system didn’t work, the air-conditioning didn’t work, the heating controls didn’t work. And sharing restrooms and showers was always going to be a challenge. (They weren’t cleaned during the trip). On the return leg a vacuum problem knocked out all the restrooms in the carriage, and the water heater failed meaning cold showers only. And so it went on.
Staff worked tirelessly to overcome the difficulties but the overall impression was one of worn-out kit being constantly resuscitated when it would have been kinder to put it out of its misery. Either that, or take the whole kit-and-kaboodle out of service for proper restoration.
It’s hard not to feel sympathy for Amtrak: It’s crucified for the subsidies it gets, pilloried over costs and reliability and then held up as an example of the failure and wastefulness of public monopolies. Congress’s Catch 22 requires the company to provide long distance routes as a public service and then denies it sufficient funds to fulfill the requirement.
Privatisation has no solutions either, unless the public is prepared to countenance the sale of profitable lines in the north-east and the closure of all others.
Why does it have to come down to all-or-nothing choices between unfettered capitalism and underfunded public monopolies? Europe’s high-speed rail network shows that there are alternatives, if you accept the notion of public service – and are prepared to fund it.
There’s value to keeping cars off the road, limiting CO2 emissions from trucks and planes and keeping far-flung communities linked by rail, but the ledger that balances costs per passenger mile doesn’t have a column for less tangible benefits.
Highways continue to suck up the bulk of transport subsidies in the US and because of powerful lobby interests they do so without the hue and cry surrounding the funding of railroads.
I’m not anti-car, nor opposed to flying for that matter, but in a country of vast distances, choked roads and crowded skies a modern, high-speed, rail network should be part of the transport mix.
There were many things Amtrak could, and ought, to have done better on our trip. But travelling through the landscape, watching a canvas of epic proportions unfold, has no equal by road or from the air and in the end that was its saving grace.
The next step for the service has to be to build on the enterprise and imagination of the early railroad pioneers. Their blood, sweat and tears deserve a better legacy than mere memories of faded glory.