I love trains. I always have. All things equal (or nearly so), I'll take a train.
As a frequent visitor to Europe and the Northeastern U.S., not to mention living in Chicago, I have plenty of opportunities to ride efficient, clean, fast, punctual trains. (Take out "clean" and the El still qualifies. Return "clean" and take out "fast," "efficient," and "punctual" and the London Underground qualifies.)
Take the Acela: for about the same cost as an airline ticket, you can go from the U.S. Capitol building to the Empire State building in just under three hours, door to door. To do the same on an airplane would take significantly longer and cost more. Figure the time and expense of getting to National Airport and from LaGuardia or Newark, plus security lines, baggage checking if applicable, and traffic delays into the LGA-JFK-EWR nightmare, and now you're at 5 hours and significantly more money.
I'm writing this on the Amtrak Wolverine from Chicago to Detroit. Just a few minutes ago I read a recent article in the New York Times (Jon Gertner, "Getting Up to Speed," 14 June 2009) that discusses the planned high-speed rail connector between San Francisco and Los Angeles (and, ultimately, San Diego and Sacramento). It mentions, implicitly, the train I'm sitting on, as this route is one planned to get high-speed rail sometime in the 21st Century.
Right now the scheduled trip from Chicago to Detroit (383 km) takes about 4 hours and 45 minutes. Add in getting to Union Station (20 minutes, $2.00) and a cab to Comerica Park (15 minutes, $10), and the trip takes almost, but not quite, as long as traveling by plane. Of course, it's far cheaper; even in Business Class my round-trip is $74, compared with $179.20 for the lowest airfare I found in Coach (21-day advance purchase on both Expedia and Southwest).
Only, as of 2:45 pm we're only about 16 km past Battle Creek, Mich., 177 km from Detroit and two hours later than scheduled.
So far, the trip has entailed:
- A 30-minute delay at Union Station for an (ultimately unsuccessful) air-conditioning repair;
- A 15-minute delay just 1 km outside Union Station to let another train pass;
- 10 more minutes in Indiana, waiting for an oncoming train that would not have delayed us had we left on time;Half an hour in Battle Creek for the same reason;
- When we are moving, track so old and rickety that it feels like...well, not to put too fine a point on it, but: the El; and
- Do you remember how the air-conditioning repair did not succeed entirely?
About that last point: My G1 and Weather Bug tell me it's 36°C at my present location (Marshall, Mich.). So if the air-conditioning fails completely—it already has in one of the four cars on this train—we're going to melt.
In sum: while we wait until the launch of new high-speed rail service between Chicago and Detroit (2020? 2025?), the existing rail service between the two cities, like much of Amtrak's network, bears entirely too much resemblance to the rail service in the 1870s.
Matt, my cousin, with whom I'm seeing tonight's Cubs game (the reason we're going to Detroit), took Megabus. He has texted me at several interviews to mention how comfortable and on-time his bus is. Sure, I've got more room to walk around, but who wants to do that in a car with a failing air conditioner? Oh, and he has WiFi. Somehow. On a bus.
At least the power outlet works...