Issue #17 Sept. 15th - Sept. 28th, 2006

Planes, Trains, and...wait, people still ride those things?
By: Kristi Brooks
Photos By: Jason Bondy

Riding the rails with Amtrak can be an interesting and exciting way to travel across the country. However, the delays, outdated stations, and equipment can make for a far less enjoyable trip than it has the potential of being. Last month I took a week long vacation down to San Antonio to visit some family, and since my dad is somewhat of a train buff, we decided to ride down there instead of flying.

Now, this isn’t our first time to travel on the trains. Two years ago we took a thirty-one hour train trip from Nebraska to Reno, Nevada. This trip was by far a better experience, but it wasn’t without its flaws. The ride was supposed to take a total of fifteen hours with a three-hour layover in Fort Worth. This seemed reasonable to us even if the time was a little much, but hey, at least it wasn’t a repeat of the previously mentioned thirty-one hours. Besides, when you take the train you don’t exactly do so because of its speediness, at least not here in the states. I’ve heard it’s a far different matter in Europe. That’s because Europe has a passenger rail system that doesn’t allow for commercial shipping traffic.

This is not the case with Amtrak. In fact, the passenger rails are always put behind the freight trains because they don’t bring in as much money as the commercial lines. What that translates to in my situation is a three-hour wait on the outskirts of San Antonio until the freight trains give Amtrak the go-ahead. And that means that I didn’t get into my hotel room until after three o’clock in the morning just so some dealership could get a shipment of shiny SUVs that much sooner.

I know that I already stated that people don’t ride the train for the awesomely fast service, and I accepted that. What I don’t readily accept is how the rail system sees fit to make living, breathing, people wait while the products are moved along in front of us. I have known for some time that my status in life automatically stations me behind the wealthy, but I never thought I would literally be on the ass end of big business. However, since I’m apparently not worth as much as a car (or whatever else they may be shipping), my family and I had to wait.

Then there is the problem of their station’s upkeep and security concerns that might arise from that. When we got to the station in downtown OKC at eight o’clock in the morning we found that it was in terrible disrepair without even vending machines to grace its corridors, much less actual personnel. There was a small waiting room, but it had no ventilation or air conditioning, thereby making it the perfect setting for eternal damnation. Many of the stations along our route in much smaller towns were in much better states than this one, leading me to wonder if those stations were considered a mark of pride in those towns, whereas Oklahoma City’s was seen as more of a blemish.

In an attempt to remedy this, a bill was passed this June to give additional funding to the failing passenger rail because the President had set up a budget of zero for Amtrak. While the entire bill was for $900 million, Amtrak is only slated to receive $220 million of that. And, while this may seem like a lot to us normal people who struggle to pay our bills every month, this is nothing for the government. This is the same government that has also used billions of taxpayer dollars to bail out the airlines time and time again.

I will admit that the airline travel can be quicker and generally more efficient in a country as large as ours. But I only believe this is because the government has decided to focus solely on air travel over the past few years, neglecting Amtrak until it has lost a lot of its former splendor. Take the amount of the recently passed appropriation ($220 million) and compare it to the billions that European countries spend to update and manage their passenger rails, then add to that the fact that those countries are much smaller than the US. Only then can you begin to realize how mismatched the funding truly is for Amtrak.

Ultimately, what I’m trying to say is that Amtrak is not a bad company because it chooses to be one. It’s a bad company because that’s what our government has turned it into.

I liked the ease with which I could get on and off the train, how I could move about the cars, and how the other passengers seemed to be polite and easy-going. This has not always been the case when I’ve traveled by air. Many people in the airport and on the plane are so wound up and uptight about having to go through security that they don’t even bother to stop and say sorry when they run into you, much less be nice when they don’t have to.

On the train, however, it was an entirely different story. If I was playing cards on the sight-seeing car or watching a movie in the lounge car, someone might come up at any moment and say hello. Not to mention that the staff of the trains we’ve ridden have always seemed more personable than flight attendants, and this may be because they do not feel that they have to be in total fear and watchfulness of each of their charges. To those working on the train, we were actual people, not ticking time bombs.

I was incredibly worried about the future of Amtrak in the US on the way to San Antonio, especially after the long delay. However, during our vacation, the London plot that involved people detonating bombs that were disguised as common liquids with machines as simple as cell phones was uncovered. The sphincter that was already security hell at airports shrunk so fast and so hard it almost closed in on itself. People were experiencing incredible delays, longer searches, and they could no longer board their flights with even some of the most basic supplies.

Needless to say that the train ride home was sold out. In seeing this I couldn’t help but wonder if our future might just lie on a different track. But all of this wondering might be a moot point if the terrorists that have thus constricted our traveling options decide to look for venues other than planes.

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