More Engineers, Fewer Pilots


No, I’m not suggesting we replace pilots with the almost-extinct flight engineer. What I am suggesting is that we need a little more love of rail in this country. That’s a different kind of engineer entirely.

This topic was suggested to me by a reader in reference to the August 23 WSJ article regarding Amtrak’s strong recent growth. It’s really no surprise. As airline delays get worse, the train becomes more attractive, especially in short haul, congested markets like the Northeast Corridor.

07_09_04 trainIf you need to go to the city center, train stations are almost always closer than airports. And Amtrak has some nice features you won’t find in the sky. You’ll be able to plug in electronics and use your cell phone (though hopefully you won’t use it much). You don’t have to get to the train station early at all because there is no security screening (though that will eventually change, I’m sure). And you don’t have to worry about squeezing your bags into a size-wise while an angry TSA agent makes you empty all your liquids before heading to your flight. Oh, and while weather can mess with schedules on the train, you don’t see anything like you see at an airport.

Sounds idyllic, right? Well it should be, but not all is well with Amtrak. There have been reliability issues, but they’ve actually made some good progress in the Northeast on that front. The trains are also too slow, hamstrung by having to operate on tracks that can’t support high speeds. So why not pour money into developing this short haul network to make regional travel more convenient for all? There’s a lot of politics, of course.

Go figure that every person in Congress feels the need to have train service to every podunk town in his or her state. Unsurprisingly, the people in those towns count as votes, no matter how few. So while Amtrak has the potential to really create an excellent short haul regional rail system, it won’t happen as long as it has to support those pricey long haul runs. While the government talks about how Amtrak needs to survive on its own, that’s hard to do when everyone has their hands in the cookie jar.

Can you imagine LA to San Francisco on a high speed train? Maybe Chicago to St Louis? Or the mystical Dallas/Houston/San Antonio triangle? It may work in Europe, heck they can dig a tunnel under the English Channel to make it work, but there’s just not enough support here to make it happen. And there’s a lot of anti-support, if you want to call it that (most grammar snobs would not). Is anyone willing to give up land to build high speed rail corridors? You think Southwest wants to see high speed trains running against its popular short haul runs? I think not.

In fact, the only US airline to have even tried to get in on this concept is Continental. And they do have an advantage. While Amtrak doesn’t get near an airport in most cities, it’s a short people mover ride away from Newark Airport. That means instead of running a flight from, say Newark to Philly, Continental can just send you on the train instead. Imagine flying from Dublin to Philly. Instead of getting stuck with long departure delays out of Newark for that short connection to Philly, you can just head on over to Amtrak and be in the city in no time. And you’ll earn frequent flier miles in the process. Unfortunately, the distance from train station to airport in most cities makes connections difficult.

But let’s not even focus on connections. That’s a nice side benefit, but the real benefit is being able to serve large local markets like the BOS-NY-WASH megalopolis or LA to SF. Thousands of people could have an easier way to get where they’re going every day, but Amtrak’s inability to get out from under the government’s influence has made it uncompetitive, at best.

So to answer the reader’s question about how I feel about high speed trains – I love ’em. I wish we could get our act together in the US like they have in Europe.

5 comments on “More Engineers, Fewer Pilots

  1. Continental’s EWR hub is perfect for train connections as it is one of the few airports with a good Amtrack connecting station.

  2. Our company headquarters is in New York, right on top of Penn Station. We get deals to use Acela and the US Airways Shuttle. I am a BIG Acela fan, and it is beyond my comprehension why people choose the Shuttle over Acela.

    For me, DC’s Union station is a 5-minute subway ride or a 10-minute drive from my home to Baltimore’s Penn Station. I get a nice comfy seat with a power outlet to do work. And bonus — I can sit in the Quiet Car, which doesn’t allow cell phones. Best of all, once I get to NYC, all I have to do is take 2 escalators and an elevator up to the 25th floor to our offices. No cabs, no security checks, all the liquids I can carry and plenty of room for luggage. What’s not to like, kids??

  3. One of the problems with trains operating on time is the fact (and I was told this by an AMTRAK Conductor) was the freight trains have priority over passenger ones! So they have to pull to the side and let freights pass. Given that there are so few passenger trains, it would make sense that we reverse this. Trains are a joy for shorter distances. Recently I kept fumbling for the seat belt, only to realize there wasn’t one and I could get up and go to the bathroom immediately after departure. When everyone is criticizing Americans for using so much fuel, just compare a European’s access to rail (local and distance) with ours.

  4. What about rail to the airport? At LAX you have to switch to a bus because light rail doesn’t go all the way to the terminals.

    Although both services are heavily subsidized in one way or another, there is much more political noise about rail. Maybe some hope could come if there is less regulation and if AMTRAK is privatized and competition allowed in with the rail lines themselves being in public hands. Yet right now we have exactly the opposite: AMTRAK is public whereas the rail lines are in the hands of the cargo rail carriers who determine priority. Imagine an air transportation system running like that.

  5. I use the Acela between Boston/Providence and NYC all the time, and it’s great! It actually takes much less time and is cheaper than flying, door-to-door, and is more reliable (given traffic) and convenient than driving. Even the regionals aren’t bad if you have a little more time, and for a few bucks you can spring for Business Class. Sit down, plug in, fire up the Verizon card, and it’s a couple of hours in a remote office. Don’t be late, though. Nothing runs on time like the trains!

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Cranky Flier