Happening Now

A train big enough for us all

April 23, 2019

American passenger trains face false choices

Abe Zumwalt

False Dichotomy
ˈfȯls \ dī-ˈkä-tə-mē

“a false dichotomy is a kind of fallacy in which one is given only two choices when in fact other options are available.”

-Merriam Webster

You don’t get to headline that “there is no reason to travel across the U.S. by train,” as was written in the New York Times last month, if in the same article you end up providing a reason. A compelling one, at that:

Scale on a rail trip is what’s most arresting. We live so much of our lives close-up — scrolling through phones, watching our type appear on computer screens, scrutinizing papers, preparing meals, cleaning our homes room by room. Very few elements of our day-to-day tasks remain out of arms’ reach. An extended train ride affords a chance not just to see a horizon but also to soak it up. To luxuriate in the far-off for uninterrupted hours. To exist, briefly, in the uncharted sections of the cellphone-coverage map.

So according to the media as of late, Amtrak can be beautiful. But apparently, it can’t also be practical.

Just a week later Forbes asked “is it time to pull the plug on Amtrak?” Their answer was a resounding ‘Yes,’ complaining that the trains don’t run often enough outside of the Northeast, and also that the company receives subsidies. To save the hassle of reading it, it is yet another article about trains, somehow written in a world where Amtrak represents the only mode of transportation that receives subsidies, and where busses and trains are interchangeable (they aren’t).

While we could spend more time, point-by-point, refuting and qualifying points made in these articles, there is a better, inclusive way. The trains of the future should be big enough for us all, for business, family, and pleasure, seamlessly bridging the increasing urban and rural divide. However, there are two major takeaways from these articles that are important for us to understand.

A large number of the complaints in recent articles surrounded those of decrepit and outdated equipment; one has to wonder how new trains would have changed perspectives.

The larger issue, however, is one of perspective- the unfounded perception that trains in this country facilitate land-cruises rather than real travel choices, one that serves to consistently warp coastal writers’ takes.

Capital Backlog

Many, if not most, of the complaints in recent articles come down to the decrepit condition and age of the trains themselves.

Anyone who has travelled in the last decade on Amtrak’s western trains more than once probably has a story about duct tape décor. There are members of this Association that actually carry tape and shims with them to keep their “first class” accommodations from rattling to pieces.

Not only is the fleet worn thin. The age of the fleet also confronts the fact that it was designed for a different era; the average size and weight of Americans has changed drastically since the upper berths in Superliner roomettes were copied and pasted from the double slumbercoach rooms that the Budd company drafted up in the 1950’s.

Attendees from this Association’s RailNation Miami conference late last year rode the new Brightline trains – enthusiasm was stoked not by tableside sparkling wine service, but by the bathrooms, which became an attractions in and of themselves. Self-cleaning, requiring no hands-on activity. Spacious, and thoughtful enough even to include window seats outside of it, graciously inviting passengers to wait. Everybody had to see them. Taking a step back, and realizing that a sanitary, functioning bathroom was an attraction to regular rail passengers paints a fairly clear picture of our present circumstance.

New equipment would have fundamentally changed both of these awful reviews.

New equipment takes increased, reliable and dedicated funding from the federal government. Fred Frailey over at Trains Magazine seems convinced that Amtrak will be stuck with the same amount of funding that it always has. Still others feel that Amtrak’s latest budget request reflects the current presidential administration’s ambitions to dismantle our national system of passenger trains. But the numbers don’t add up.

Amtrak budget appropriations have defied both Presidential threats as well as limitations from the past surface transportation authorization for the past three years – and we’re looking down the barrel of the upcoming surface transportation reauthorization that may actually give us what we need to make American passenger trains better – and Amtrak itself is finally starting to make big asks to reequip its fleet.

“We’re all in this together”

Amtrak top brass has itself described the national network trains featured in these articles as “experiential” and yet has also admitted that only a small fraction of travel on them is from endpoint to endpoint, say from Chicago all the way to Seattle. This Association has made the point for years that such trains offer connectivity in thousands of different ways across the hundreds of stations they serve. There may be “no reason” to travel cross country by train if you’re starting from New York, but the perspective shifts pretty quickly if you’re in Osceola, Iowa, or Havre, Montana.

Why can’t the answer be both? Our interstate trains can and do offer practical mobility to many interior parts of the country, but it’s a two-way street, and does the same for metropolitan centers into the heart of the country. And even then, there is another reason why a New Yorker might want to travel overland – if this country is going to insist on being 3000 miles across, how better are we going to try to express some kind of unity in this divisive era? The trains hold an answer of a changed perspective. Again, from the same author who started her column by saying that there is "no reason" to do this:

Azure and golden orange were the colors of the afternoon. Action-movie posters are dominated by this color combination, famous for its vibrancy, and indeed, a horizon filled with just these hues seemed to draw the Sightseer Lounge into a kind of trance. For a long while there was nothing but sky and earth to observe — I saw actual tumbleweeds somersault by — yet everyone, me included, remained riveted to the windows. It was possible, in the Sightseer Lounge, to watch weather roll in from a great distance, even from one side of the car to the other. As we ascended hills covered in pinyon and juniper, flakes began to fall, and soon we were in a winter forest. As quickly as we had entered the snowscape, however, we were back in dusty New Mexican grasslands, rolling through a hailstorm of white birds.