Planes & Trains: A Cautionary Tale

By Scott Spangler on December 15th, 2009

After World War II the airlines sealed the fate of railway transportation by offering an equivalent level of reliable, safe service more expeditiously. After more than a half-century of being the only way to go, the airlines grew increasingly dismissive of the people they supposedly served, all but shaking them inverted by the ankles to capture spare-change fees before folding them into a barren tube. And this after the government has disrobed them at the airport doorway. Stir in misguided management focused on quarterly bottom lines, and it’s wonder that the airlines are in decline. 

JetWhine_Train-board At the same time, the number of people traveling by train has been increasing, its growth limited by its atrophied infrastructure of rails just 56.5 inches apart. In early December my wife and I needed to be in Reading, Pennsylvania, for the wedding of her youngest son and for interviews and photos at the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum for an in-the-works article. Anticipating the multi-flight airline trip with the enthusiasm of a death-row inmate about to roll up his sleeve, on a whim we visited the Amtrak website, which proved a welcome surprise.

Our combined round-trip fare–which included sleeping accommodations and all meals–totaled $580, an amount about equal to the fees the airlines, as best as I could discover, would charge above and beyond the ticket price for baggage and other “services.” Granted, the train travel takes time. The Capitol Limited left Chicago at 1840 Central and arrived in Washington, D.C., the next day at 1340 Eastern. After a 2 hour layover, we’d board the speedy Northeast Regional Acela express for Philly. As railway virgins, we didn’t know what to expect, but we agreed it couldn’t be any worse than flying the airlines. It wasn’t…it was way better, and like many of the people we met along the way, we’ve become railway converts.

Everyone we met, from trainmen, conductors, and attendants to counter clerks, security personnel, and our fellow passengers were, if not downright happy, at minimum in a good mood. Unlike the aggravated, anxious, aggressively rude misanthropes at the airport, from packed waiting rooms to the exclusive waiting rooms to the sightseeing car, people were polite, relaxed, and smiling.  The security matched that of the airport—without the striptease: the ticket clerk asked for a photo ID. In Philly it went a step beyond: a dog leashed to an armed law enforcement officer sniffed each of our bags before we got on the train in Philly.

JetWhine_Train-Lounge As sleeping car passengers we were directed to the Metropolitan Lounge in Chicago and D.C. An expansive room decorated for the holidays and filled with over-stuffed chairs and couches, it offered free snacks and drinks and flat-panel TVs. An attendant announced our train for preboarding and walked us to it. It reminded me of the first-class airline lounges of the 1970s I saw only from the outside, and in the movies. We made our dinner reservation upon boarding and ate real food (pork tenderloin and salmon for me on the outbound and return trip, and veggie lasagna and salmon for my wife), with real silverware, on a real table cloth with linen napkins.

JetWhine_Train-Lounge_1 At dinner we ate community style, with unrelated passengers taking seats until each table was full.  Like most of our railway conversations on the train and in the waiting rooms, it didn’t take long before someone asked, “Why are you taking the train?” On the Limited, roughly a third were on business, a third were on vacation, and the rest were traveling for a multitude of reasons, from a new job to a family emergency. Regardless the reason, almost everyone expressed a hatred of flying. Not fear of being up in the air, just a seething  dislike of anything related to the airlines. The only time I saw people getting truly cranky is when they started talking about their last airline experience. And then they would go silent, look out the window, and let the passing scenery soothe them.

JetWhine_Train-Philly When talking with business travelers I probed their need for speed, the airlines’ primary selling point. Their responses confirmed what I’d learned from time in a corporate structure and its myriad planning meetings and approval channels: very little happens at the last minute and most deadline rushes are the result of procrastination and poor planning. Train travel not only gives you time for one last pass through the presentation before delivering you relaxed and refreshed, said one business traveler, it also gives you time to contemplate what you’re doing, to make sure it fits well in the grand scheme of things. Too many of today’s problems are the result of thinking about a decision after it’s made and acted upon, which brings us right back to procrastination and poor planning.

On our way back to Chicago, the Capitol Limited suffered a 2-hour delay because an important safety item—the horn—went in-op during then night, a malfunction exploited by the snow and sleet. Somehow, they made up a half hour of the delay, but it allowed us to sleep in. We pulled into Chicago at 0930, and it was clear it had been snowing seriously for some time. The TV news said more than 200 flights at O’Hare had been cancelled, and we might have been among that stranded mass of humanity had we not been a bit adventurous.

The chances that the railroads will regain their passenger supremacy is slim because the time, money, and land needed to rebuild its steel circulatory system is prohibitive.  But the railway’s good service and other amenities will, I believe, continue to nibble away at the airline’s passenger pool. And the airlines, arrogant in the notion that they are the only viable transportation option, will accelerate their passengers’ defection with an increasing array of higher fees and poorer service. – Scott Spangler

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18 Responses to “Planes & Trains: A Cautionary Tale”

  1. Julien Says:

    Great post, thanks for sharing the experience!

    I don’t know if you’ve already taken the train in Europe, but the experience on the high-speed train network in France and Germany is fantastic. Not only is the door-to-door trip time roughly the same as flying for trips up to 1000km, but you also get wireless Internet and can book meeting rooms on the train when travelling with work colleagues. In addition, the green factor also contributes to making trains more attractive than airplanes because of lower CO2 emissions per passenger.

  2. Jim Raeder Says:

    Thanks Scott,
    My last flight was very easy and 40 min EARLY but I too have had it with the airlines and have been looking at other travel options.

  3. David Sakrison Says:

    Great post, Scott. We’ve been train converts for years. For a real treat, take the “Zephyr” from Chicago to San Francisco. The scenery is breathtaking and you can sit in a comfy chair and just watch it go by.

  4. Mark Says:

    Sounds like a great trip, I wish they had better routes for me to get to my family from atlanta to chicago because I would definitely take the train.

    Last I checked I was going to have to go over to D.C. and then back to Chicago and that is just too much time lost when I only see them once a year.

  5. Amy Laboda Says:

    I guess I have too many bad memories of being stuck in the Lincoln Tunnel on Amtrak trying to commute day-in, day-out, between New Jersey and New York for work. I’d much rather fly myself than utilize any other mode of transportation I’ve tried, and with an airplane that can get me 17mpg the numbers work out fine. Of course, I’d have been grounded waiting out that snowstorm, too.

  6. Stephen Ruby Says:

    When President Eisenhower initiated the National Highway Act in 1957 a massive undertaking of freeway’s was installed, that meant we could get into the Ford Esquire wagon and drive to Salt Lake City from Detroit.

    Boeing was ushering in the trans-oceanic 707 and began service with Pan Am in 1958. Had those events not materialized, we would have what Europe has I suppose. Political agenda sided with airline travel because of it’s prestige and expediency, and now rail
    travel has slid into oblivion for the most part.

    I say what you have exposed here is a rationalization that the rail system may come of age, and just might do so with President Obama’s push to get rail service back on track. The airlines might want to read this column with interest.

    Good points, Scott!!

  7. Robert Mark Says:

    Part of the life line most airlines reach for is market share. As Scott said, I don’t think there’s much chance the airlines are going to disappear soon, but on some routes, like those in the northeast corridor, rail travel just keeps chipping away at the carrier’s market share.

    Sounds crazy to even be talking about this, but I do recall when they laughed at the low cost carriers and their paltry 5% market share against the majors.

    What is it now, 30% I think?

  8. Dr. Boyd Falconer Says:

    I’m with Julien. Ahh, le TGV.. un train magnifique, n’est pas?

  9. Robert Mark Says:

    Although my daughter is the French expert in the family – and of course she’s not here when I need her – I’ll just interpret Boyd’s comment to mean that the TGV is about three times more impressive than Biz class on United?

  10. Julien Says:

    The French TGV is a great train, I find the German ICE more comfortable in second class though. With a commercial speed of 170mph, the French TGV helped transform the economy of regional cities in France by enabling a one-day business trip between Paris and cities such as Marseilles, Nantes or Lyon without getting near an airport.

    Price-wise train fares are marginally cheaper than air fares as far as I remember, but I haven’t travelled domestic in France for years so please don’t quote me on that.

    Off the top of my head, I think that train has 90% market share for short-haul travel in Europe, which includes most journeys between capital cities in Europe. Air France for example stopped flying Brussels to Paris when the high-speed train network reached the Belgian capital. The airlines also took a hit for example when a high-speed train link started operating between Madrid and Barcelona in Spain.

    Interoperability between train and air travel is starting to happen, with long-distance train stations built within large airports used as airline hubs such as Paris CDG or Frankfurt. In Germany some ICE trains even have Lufthansa flight numbers as a code-share which allows travel agents to book integrated air+train tickets. You still have to lug your luggage from the luggage belt in the airport terminal all the way to the train compartment though.

  11. Scott Says:

    I’m overwhelmed at the response to this post in such a short time, and it is way more positive than I expected. It seems like it awakened the silent majority who’ve just about had it with the course the airlines have been following since the feds deregulated them. If I remember correctly, that was also about the time that corporate czars took over from the “airplane guys” who started the lines from air mail routes.

    The lack of a viable transportive competitor also fed the airline’s arrogant behavior, but seems that this, too is changing, and we’ll all benefit from it no matter which mode of travel we use. Perhaps the TVG-like high-speed train they are working on in California will be the rebirth of inter- and intra-city trains that once connected American towns large and small.

    I’d give anything to explore Europe, or any place else, for the matter, by train. Until I get that assignment, however, I guess I must settle for the Paul Theroux books I haven’t yet read.

  12. robnrun Says:

    Closely connected rail and air travel is one of the key features in Europe, fly in to Schipol (Amsterdam) and you can get on the train without leaving the terminal, and from there any major city in Northern Europe is accessible by high speed rail.
    I think Baltimore International is close to that, fly into Baltimore and take the Acela into Washington or NYC, less onerous security, as fast as both Penn and Union Stations are right downtown.
    If the US could build high speed rail in the areas around its major metro centres you could have rail take the place of any airplane journey under 2-4 hours, and out compete due to easier access to city centres and comparable (or better) travel times. Oddly, the designated airline shuttles are in a sense an embyronic (very embryonic) stage of this in that they acknowledge the concept of a transportation system instead of a transportation mode.

  13. Bengt Says:

    Robnrun is correct. I am befuddled when we call for taxi at Kennedy and are told we are number 70 for takeoff. Some of those 69 ahead of us are going to places like Boston, Philadelphia, and DC. A closely connected air-train alternative could take some of the load off our overcrowded airports.

  14. Patrick Flannigan Says:

    I’ve never considered travel by rail in the past, but based on this article it sounds like a pretty good deal. And just look at those pictures – when have you seen an airport as elegant and classy as that Philly gate.

    Maybe if rail lines take enough market share, airlines might realize that something needs to be done in terms of the customer experience.

  15. Rodney Says:

    Thanks for the article. People forget in this day sardine can spaced and no frill airline seats, quest for speed, take off your shoes anti-terrorism check-ins how much a hassele travel has become. A good and properly funded rail passenger system is vitial to the USA, and trains are a relaxing way to travel more people are rediscovering.
    Merry Christmas

  16. John M. White {JetAviator7} Says:

    What a refreshing view of travel in the U.S. My wife and I have traveled quite a bit in Europe, and other than the Italian trains, the rail system, service and on-time performance give the airlines a real run for their money.

    Who ever heard of being stuck on a train for 12 hours with no food, restrooms or relief?

    Great post, but let us not forget that aviation is still a leader in technological advances and if we could just reduce the government’s interference perhaps air travel would improve.

  17. Liz Lowe Says:

    WE LOVE AMTRAK. We decided four years ago that if we cannot get there by train, we are not going !! We had a great relaxing trip from NYC to Williamsburg, VA. Best 8 hours of staring out the window from my comfy seat. Next was NYC to Montreal (11 hours) in October. No better leaf peeping anywhere !! We have done “short” NY to Philly, Baltimore and DC trips. Next we want to go to Chicago and experience an overnight trip. A PLANNED overnight trip, not like the time we had “our vacation at the Miami airport”. Airplane = NEVER AGAIN. Why be abused by airlines and then stuffed like a sausage into a way overpriced seat ? NEVER again. WE LOVE AMTRAK !!! Write your senator and congressman and demand more funding for Amtrak.

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