Working on the Railroad: Uncle Sam? Not Much

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The Providence Journal

Working on the Railroad: Uncle Sam? Not Much

I’ve been reading a lot lately about massive government investments in high-speed rail — in Britain, that is. It seems that Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives agree with their Labor predecessors that despite the huge public expenditure — estimates of $52 billion to $72 billion — there’s something to be gained from shortening the time it takes to get from London to various points north.

Such bipartisan, non-ideological cooperation would be unthinkable in Washington, where politicians are content to let Amtrak creak along on a starvation budget, appropriating just enough money for members of Congress to claim credit for keeping the train station open in Dogpatch. But I don’t live in Dogpatch — I live in the great metropolis of New York City — and I remain flabbergasted by the poor quality of train service in the Northeast Corridor as well as the political indifference of politicians who “serve” the region.

Obama says that we need more middle-class jobs. So why not put tens of thousands of people to work — for $15 an hour instead of the meager $9 minimum wage proposed by the president — upgrading the tracks and roadbeds?

I don’t think that it’s too much to ask for decent, European-style train service in what is not only the most densely populated section of the U.S. but also probably the world’s richest stretch of urban geography. I take the chronically mediocre, supposedly high-speed Acela fairly often to Boston, Providence and Washington; no one needs to tell me how much faster and better it could be. But to refresh my knowledge, I recently made a round trip to New Haven, just to remind myself of what we’ve lost and of the potential benefits if we took trains seriously again.

New York’s acoustic-tile-ceilinged, fluorescent-lit Penn Station remains what has to be among the worst, most dispiriting major transportation terminals in the world, though my latest visit, post-rush hour on a Thursday morning two weeks ago, was relatively painless. My ticket seller was cordial and patient in explaining the differences between a $76 round trip on the Northeast Regional and a $140 round trip on the Acela. Further, I learned from my ticket folder that May 12 is National Train Day.

Waiting under the train board for the track to be announced (there’s no space for benches), I was tempted to jump on the glamorous-sounding Silver Star to Miami, scheduled to leave at 11:02, two minutes after my Northeast Regional #172, but I stuck with my plan. Whatever the ugliness of Penn Station, I was happy to be spared the airport-security drill and even happier when my train lurched into motion exactly on time. The café car was staffed by a kindly soul, and my $4.75 fruit-and-granola yogurt parfait along with my $2 coffee made for an adequate meal. As we moved east, then north through Queens, over the spectacular Hell Gate Bridge, then across Randall’s Island and past the New York Post printing plant, I started to think that maybe “regular” Amtrak wasn’t so bad, even when it bumps along at 50 to 60 mph.

On the advice of my editor, I had invented an itinerary, including a quick tour of the Yale University Art Gallery, so I began to watch the clock very closely. Only if the train were on schedule could I see some paintings and catch the returning Acela to New York to make a 4 p.m. appointment. The train arrived right on time at the hollowed-out wreck known as Bridgeport, then four minutes early, at 12:34, at New Haven (Paris by comparison to Bridgeport), whose handsome beaux-arts, Cass Gilbert-designed Union Station puts New York City’s hideous 1960s Pennsylvania Station to shame. Ten minutes later I was admiring Thomas Eakins’s “Taking the Count,” after marveling at Van Gogh’s “Café de Nuit,” Trumbull’s “Washington at Trenton” and Bonnard’s “Place Pigalle at Night.”

A great university gets the art, the romance and the train station it deserves. Why not the trains and speed to match?

Returning to Amtrak blandness on the frigid westbound platform, I was pleased to observe a crew pre-emptively de-icing the eastbound platform with liquid calcium chloride, in anticipation of the coming blizzard. Still, what’s the point of the Acela and the extra $32? It couldn’t be my $8 “Tuscan Panini,” which turned into a soggy mess after microwaving. True, I skipped Bridgeport in a bit of class-conscious scheduling. But my front-end-of-the train coach car made a squeaking sound every time that we jerked a little and at 2:10 a last call was announced in the café because of a “scheduled break,” even though we weren’t due into New York for another half hour. Shabbiness, thy name is Amtrak.

My Acela did arrive on time (one of 85.4 percent such rides in the past 12 months), but so what? While the train briefly hits 150 mph north of New York, it averages somewhere in the 70s range between Manhattan and Bos-ton because the tracks can’t handle anything faster. The telling comparison is not with the Northeast Regional but with Metro North’s New Haven Line commuter train out of gorgeous Grand Central that takes the more direct route through upper Manhattan to New Haven. The 10:03 Acela takes 1 hour 27 minutes to reach New Haven, for $70. The off-peak 10:07 Metro North takes just 33 minutes longer and costs $22. Shocked? Not enough. In 1963, when New York’s magnificent old Penn Station was demolished, the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad ran its fastest train from New York’s Grand Central to New Haven in 1 hour 20 minutes, seven minutes faster than the present-day Acela!

President Obama has acknowledged the menace of global warming, so why did his 2009 stimulus package contain only $8 billion for railroad-infrastructure improvements, including high-speed rail? According to the World Land Trust’s carbon-dioxide transit calculator, a medium gasoline-run automobile produces .03 tons of carbon dioxide over the roughly 80-mile journey from New York to New Haven, while a train will produce one-third that amount per person. Obama says that we need more middle-class jobs. So why not put tens of thousands of people to work — for $15 an hour instead of the meager $9 minimum wage proposed by the president — upgrading the tracks and roadbeds?

In a flight of fancy, Amtrak announced in December that beginning in 2017 it intends to replace the Acela with new, faster trains. But to build tracks and new tunnels in the Northeast Corridor that would truly justify buying more modern equipment — imagine Philadelphia to Boston in 2½ hours and New York to Washington in 94 minutes — would cost a $151 billion and take until 2040, according to Amtrak’s estimate. So far, the administration has proposed spending only $47 billion for a “National High Performance Rail System” over the next six years.

Monet did wonderful renderings of Paris’s St. Lazare train station. When I next visit Yale to see his “Camille on the Beach at Trouville,” I might make the journey in a car instead of on Amtrak. It’s cheaper and it might save time.

John R. MacArthur

John R. MacArthur is the president and publisher of Harper’s Magazine. An award-winning journalist, he has previously written for the New York Times, United Press International, the Chicago Sun-Times, and the Wall Street Journal. Under his stewardship Harper's has received eighteen National Magazine Awards, the industry's highest recognition. He is also the author of the acclaimed books The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America: Or, Why a Progressive Presidency Is Impossible, The Selling of Free Trade: NAFTA, Washington, and the Subversion of American Democracy, and Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War. He lives in New York City.

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