What's Wrong With Amtrak? Writer Ben Jervey wants train travel to make a comeback, so he took a cross-country rail journey to try to figure out why more people don't take the train. He says the biggest complaint from regular Amtrak travelers is that the trains often are behind schedule.
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What's Wrong With Amtrak?

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What's Wrong With Amtrak?

What's Wrong With Amtrak?

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(Soundbite of Amtrak radio commercial)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) What a country. Now, you'll see it. Take the train and just lean back, 'cause you'll get to go from downtown right to downtown when you go Amtrak...


The glory days of passenger rail travel may not be over. Amtrak is expecting another record-breaking year. Last year, a record-high number of passengers, nearly 26 million of them, rode on the rails on Amtrak trains, and the National Railroad Passenger Corporation expects to beat that number handily this year.

So, is it the ease of going from downtown to downtown as the commercial says? Well, actually, I'm guessing it probably has a lot to do with high gas prices. A happy, fun travel experience? What's it really like to ride the rails on Amtrak? Ben Jervey tried it out. He's a contributing writer to GOOD Magazine. Hi, Ben.

Mr. BEN JERVEY (Writer, GOOD Magazine): Hi, thanks so much for having me.

STEWART: As a journalist, what did you hope to find out on this trip? What were you looking to discover?

Mr. JERVEY: I was trying to figure out what is the condition of American passenger rail. I work a lot in the sustainability field and report a lot about environmental and sustainability issues, and I personally see trains as being a very essential solution, a transportation solution for, you know, our new 21st century and a new energy economy. But nobody ever considers taking the train. Certainly none of my friends do. And most of the people I talk to, it's considered a novelty. And I just really wanted to figure out why. What's wrong with it? What's broken? Look in to the history a little bit and see possibly - try to get an idea of how things could be better moving forward.

STEWART: Tell people about your trip, where you went, from where to where, how many miles and how long it took. Let's get the basics out.

Mr. JERVEY: Well, I started this trip right here in New York City, at Penn Station, and the ultimate destination was Oakland, California, the Bay Area. The train doesn't actually get quite into San Francisco. You have to - you end in Oakland and take a bus across. It's an over-3,000-mile trip. If the trains make their schedule, it takes about 77 hours. It travels along two long-established railroads. The first is the Lake Shore Limited, from New York City to Chicago. Then you exchange to the California Zephyr, and I love these romantic rail-route names. Zephyr goes from Chicago all the way out to Oakland.

STEWART: You brought up a lot of interesting points. Let me unroll them a little bit. You said 77 hours and 15 minutes, if on time. I love the train. It's rarely on time.

Mr. JERVEY: Its true. It's the biggest complaint and most common thing you'll hear from regular Amtrak travelers is that it never makes its marks, and especially so when you get out of the Northeast Corridor.

STEWART: Why's that?

Mr. JERVEY: There are some more dependable routes up here in the Northeast. Amtrak owns some of the more tracks that they travel on here in the Northeast, but once you get out West and along some of these older freight lines, these freight, privately-owned rail lines that Amtrak is forced to travel on, they're sort of beholden to the private companies' schedules. And it really slows down the process.

STEWART: Were you frustrated at all during this trip? That's a long time to spend on a train, even for a journalistic endeavor.

Mr. JERVEY: Well, I'll tell you, it's comfortable. I like the train. I think it's a great way to travel. I think it's - but you need to have the time. It's not that practical if you're traveling long distance unless you sort of integrate it into part of the journey, if the journey becomes part of the experience, part of the trip. I was getting a little stir crazy towards the end, to be sure, the last day or so from Salt Lake City onward to California. It was - drew out long a little bit.

STEWART: We're talking to Ben Jervey, a contributing writer to GOOD Magazine. Ben spent well over 77 hours on trains going from the East Coast to the West Coast. You said there are four different kinds of travelers on the trains these days. What are the groups?

Mr. JERVEY: There are the thrifty, the folks traveling a sort of medium distance, intercity routes, for really sort of marginal cost savings, maybe 50, 75 bucks cheaper than it would be to fly. There are the - those who are afraid of flying, and I was actually surprised to see how many there were. If you're looking to find a collection of people who are afraid of airplanes, this is the place. There are an incredible group of people that absolutely fascinated me, that described themselves sort of ultimately as railroad junkies, train nuts, or rail fans, which is sort of their lingo. And these are just passionate, really rail aficionados. They can tell you the history of the rail. You sit down for a beer with one of them, and you're talking for hours about the history of trains, really interesting.

The majority of people who take the train, I found, were really there for the experience. These are the people who are considering, you know, this trip to be part of their vacation. They're building it in, the rail experience of traveling, seeing America from the train. It really does have this romantic connotation for a lot of people, and I think that Amtrak, you know, greatly benefits from that.

STEWART: Well, let's look into the history. Amtrak is somewhat of a boondoggle.

Mr. JERVEY: Yeah, it was precisely. It was basically formed out of the dregs of the failed portions of private freight-rail companies. They were offering passenger-rail service. Through the '60s, it got, you know, very - they lost all their profits, and then people started flying. People started driving. And it was very costly and cutting into their profits. And in order to save the rail companies, to keep them moving the freight, the power, the economy, President Nixon's administration basically said, we will take on all of your passenger rail, you know, these unprofitable segments of these businesses, and it was formed as a quasi-public-for-profit corporation that had a history of never turning a profit. So, it was kind of, you know, it was kind of cursed from birth.

STEWART: When we're looking forward, we've obviously - with stories about bridge collapses and the like, how is the infrastructure, from your reporting? How is the infrastructure of the rail system? Is that part of the problem of why it's late all the time?

Mr. JERVEY: Yeah, it's old.

STEWART: Like, people don't think about it? It's just old.

Mr. JERVEY: It's old. It's the same as it has been for years. We haven't laid new train tracks, real high-speed tracks. In Europe, you know, they run on these maglev or electric tracks. And you know, they just tested a train in France, 350 miles per hour. They run regularly at 250 miles per hour throughout Europe and in Japan. You know, our really sterling example here in the States is the Acela, and it runs...

STEWART: That's the sterling example?

Mr. JERVEY: And it runs for 150 miles per hour for a 15-minute span.

STEWART: Exactly.

Mr. JERVEY: So, it's really, you know, to call it high-speed is a stretch, even.

STEWART: What kind of investment would need to be made to help the rail - help rail service reach the goals that you have for it?

Mr. JERVEY: Right.

STEWART: In terms of it being better for our future, for our environment and just plainly being a nicer way to go?

Mr. JERVEY: I am not a transportation expert, but I feel like a short-term investment in Amtrak is a good idea, because Americans are finding it now, and they need to remember the rail as a viable form of transportation. So, increasing service and trying to increase reliability in the short term, but with this system that they have, it's never going to get to that next level, where people are - where it's really going to be the answer. And I think it would take - I think it would require public investment on new tracks, new lands, new routes, real high-speed tracks in these high-density corridors, that, you know, these 500-mile-or-less corridors that could really move a lot of people and, you know, relieve the airline traffic and interstate traffic.

STEWART: Ben Jervey is a contributing writer to GOOD Magazine. Thanks for sharing your rail stories with us, Ben.

Mr. JERVEY: Thanks for listening.

STEWART: The Kubler-Ross model? You know what it is? About 40 years ago, Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, she introduced the five stages known as the five stages of grief, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Obviously, we're on the last week of this fine program, and we've been working away through the five, as many of our people in our audience have. Monday, we talked about denial. Yesterday, it was anger. Today, we're going to discuss bargaining, and of course, we had to bargain with each other for what song to play. There's been a big debate in the BPP news room in terms of the best song to play to express this. Is it this?

(Soundbite of song "Take a Chance on Me")

ABBA: (Singing) If you change your mind, I'm the first in line. Honey, I'm still free. Take a chance on me. If you need me, let me know. I'm going to be around. If you've got no place to go, if you're feeling down...

STEWART: Or should The Best Song In The World Today to express bargaining be this?

(Soundbite of song "I Want You to Want Me")

Mr. ROBIN ZANDER: (Singing) I want you to want me. I need you to need me. I'd love you to love me. I'm begging you to beg me. I want you to...

STEWART: ABBA versus Cheap Trick, the debate is on, coming up on the Bryant Park Project. Also coming up on the rest of the show, we'll talk a little bit to the band Dr. Dog. They come out of Philadelphia, and we'll also discuss the possibility of an Oscar for Heath Ledger for his role as the Joker in "The Dark Knight." Tom O'Neil from the LA Times will join us. He's actually going to be in the studio. I can see him through the window right there. Real life, you are real! You do exist!

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Yes! Stay with us here at the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

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