Trains! We want so desperately to love you, use you and abuse you to cut travel scars across the great big face of this countryside like those lucky jerks in Europe. And it would be nice to not be forced to relinquish our liquids before we board, or be crammed in like cattle on the Megabus, be forced to suffer interminable delays watching airport CNN ad nauseum or feel guilty about guzzling up fuel and spraying it across the sky. Yet every time we go to book a trip on you, your prices are practically as high as riding on an airplane, which makes none much sense at all.
This very week, Amtrak is testing a 165-mph high-speed train, which still clocks in 40-100mph slower than the ones in Europe and Asia. While we wait for super speed rail to come along (or until they discover that motor from Atlas Shrugged, at least): Amtrak is having a sale this week: It’s $25 to go one way to Philly or $29 to Wilmington, Del., which, come to think of it, is not really a deal over taking the bus, seeing as a one-way to Philly normally runs about $36. You have to book by Thursday, and the travel is only good for Nov. 28 – Dec. 13. So that kinda sucks. Does anyone out there take trains regularly any more?
For an answer about why Amtrak is so expensive, you can check out these Quora answers, which go into the whole political hot-potato aspect of it, including underfunded government subsidies, unionized rail workers and high operating costs. It won’t make you feel any more optimistic about the future of train travel, especially when you realize Amtrak hasn’t been profitable since 1971.
The Baltimore Sun reports even plans for that new Amtrak system upgrade and speed train they’re testing still lack a dedicated funding source.
Price aside, wouldn’t we all rather travel by train? It was how I first visited my family in NJ when I left for college in DC, and you can’t help but feel the old world romanticism rumbling up with every clackety clack as you cross the seaboard, pausing from reading your novel or scratching in your moleskine to gaze pensively at the countryside out the window. Traveling by airplane is sort of a warp zone flyover thing, where you can fall asleep on on coast and wake up on another; traveling by bus gets tiresome as you stare at the hypnotic gray highway pavement as all of I95 blends together.
Train travel you at least get the sense of the physical distance you are cutting across. You can blame Before Sunrise for instilling a generation of young men with fantasies of meeting dream girls on trains in that special space of free fall between there and here when you’ve got nothing better to do.
But romanticism falls flat against the wall of cold hard fiscal reality. So I’ll stick with the Chinatown buses and their ilk for now. Because $10 for a bus ride to Philly beats a “sale” price of $25 any day.