Mar 31, 2010

Let's Talk about Amtrak

I do my best to avoid air travel. I flew a lot for my master's: first from Atlanta to London, then round trip between London and Tenerife for a field study, then from London to San Francisco. These were the first flights I'd taken in two years, since I went to London and the Middle East in 2006. Those flights in 2006, the first year of the Compact, more than trashed all of my efforts to reduce my carbon footprint through reduced consumption and my regular cycling transit. I used more transit carbon than an average American that year just because I flew.

One factor not considered in those calculations is that I'm vegetarian. Meat accounts for far more carbon release than does transportation. I still don't want to fly. I'm not a big fan of the licensing effect that one step toward sustainability (such as cycling or eating veg) often produces. And I hate flying. Hate, hate, hate. Sometimes I'm the silently crying lady on the plane, who pries her hands from the arm rest to take more sedatives but is still somehow awake. Thank you, Fear.

So I try to use Amtrak. I loved parts of my journey to the Sierra last fall using Amtrak. So when my folks started planning a family vacation on the Gulf Coast in Alabama to celebrate their 35th anniversary, I started looking at Amtrak options. I don't get very far before I close my laptop in frustration.

I have many issues with Amtrak but here's a precise.
1. Its slow, average speed ~ 25mph.
2. Its not cheap, but it's slow!
3. Its website is full of stupid wizards. I love smart wizards, but stupid ones that can't figure out that if I want to leave from San Francisco I might also consider Oakland are unforgivable.
4. All points lead to Chicago but my life does not, ever. (IOW, the routes are insufficient)
5. The Sunset Limited is only 3 days per week!!! (IOW, the schedule is insufficient)
6. Local transit rarely connects Amtrak to National Parks. (Not really Amtrak's fault, I know.)
7. The pricing schemes are absurd given that the system is underutilized and otherwise deficient.

Grrrrrr! I miss UK travel options, but I'm working with a 25 mph train that rarely runs to effing nowhere. I don't just want to use Amtrak because flying is stupid and scary, I also think that Amtrak should  work, and I'd enjoy seeing the landscape from the train.

If I have to fly, then I'm not going to Alabama for family vacation.  No one else in my family takes issue with flying for carbon reasons. My mom hates traveling period, hence a trip fairly close to her Georgia home. Regional vacation is so reasonable! Too bad our family is half in SF, half in Georgia. My dad doesn't fly a ton, but that's not because of carbon. My sister and bro-in-law fly a lot and will fly for this trip, which adds some self-imposed pressure for me to make it. My family doesn't openly lament my unwillingness to fly, but it feels crappy to diss this trip. My dad even offered to help pay to get me there, which is another concern altogether. My sis' and bro in law will drive from NOLA so I'm hoping I can ride with them to 'Bama, but it's far from certain.

Today I called Amtrak because the stupid web wizards made me want to smash my computer. I had determined some dates, including a 2 night stop in Texas to visit Big Bend National Park (cuz the effing train only runs every 2 or 3 days). My back is still not happy after a dog walking injury in December, so sitting for 72 hours on a train will mean I can't walk during vacay. I gotta have a break so when I saw "Alpine, TX (Big Bend Nat’l Park)" on the Sunset Limited schedule dead in the middle of my journey, I though Amtrak was finally serving me well.

I recommend calling Amtrak if you really want to use it. (1800 USA RAIL) The phone operators are much more intuitive than the website and I didn't have to wait long. Soon after reaching a human I was convinced to reserve tickets that included my stop in Texas. You don't have to pay for 7 days, which is pretty cool. I'm really glad for this feature. If I'd bought the tickets during that call, then I'd have been even more annoyed when I discovered on the Big Bend website that Amtrak's quite far from the park and there's no transit to the park. It's like last fall's nightmare attempt to get into Sequoia Kings all over again.

Anyone live near the park and want to give me a lift? Or know if it's easy to hitch in and out from Amtrak? Or have a recommendation for another camping spot along the Texas portion of the Sunset Limited? Any other Amtrak advice? I'm so annoyed I'm (momentarily?) determined to make it work. Time to enjoy my under-employment with a little family vacation!


Natasha said...

I just read in a newsletter about a young woman who wanted to travel from BC to Ontario by train. VIA Rail does this, and its speed and frequency is similar to Amtrak. However, VIA turned out to be much more expensive, and the woman decided to travel to the US and catch Amtrak before crossing back into Canada.

I've caught VIA across the country, and I enjoyed it and would do it again. However, it (and, it sounds like Amtrak as well) has a long way to go before it can compete with air travel. I went to considerable expense and inconvenience to clear 6 days to devote to my train ride, a one-way trip. It's doubtful this amount of time could be set aside for a round trip. But I could get along with having either one of price or convenience improved!

Is Amtrak government-subsidised?

Beth! said...

I second your frustration with the inefficiency of the US Amtrak system. However, I don't understand why you want to take Amtrak for this trip. If you've made the decision to travel such a long distance, then I would think it would be best to choose the method of travel with the highest passenger miles per gallon, to have the least CO2 emissions for the long distance traveled. Commercial air travel is estimated to be about 90 passenger miles per gallon, while intercity rail gives only 40-50 passenger miles per gallon. So traveling to AL by rail would generate almost twice the passenger CO2 emissions than flying there would. Lame, right?

rachel kesel said...

Natasha, Amtrak is subsized.
That link is a story about a study that estimates that Amtrak is subsized to the per passenger benefit of $32. I don't know how that compares to VIA or other national rail systems.

Beth, the Dpt of Energy says Amtrak's more efficient than air by 20%. I also read a 2007 study recently that said commercial air is about 40 passenger miles per gallon, intercity rail about 65.
Are the stats you're referring to Amtrak specific? I would not be surprised to hear that Amtrak's slow pace costs it a lot of fuel efficiency over the long distance. Do you think the DOE and other study stats are off because they're looking at shorter trips?

Do you know what the distance threshold is when comparing air to rail?

I was surprised to read such kudos for coaches. I just dunno if I could spend 3 days on the 'hound. OMG.

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