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Riding on a Train

This is the first post in the Ultimate Planes, Trains & Automobiles Trip series.

Last Friday I rode Amtrak's Lake Shore Limited from Cleveland to New York City. It's something I've wanted to do for a while, and now that I've done it, I have seriously mixed feelings about the experience.

(from Flickr user JohnGreyTurner)

My train departed from Cleveland at 5:50 am last Friday morning - right on time; and it arrived in Penn Station around 6:15 pm - slightly early, amazingly. In that sense, Amtrak did exactly what it promised. The coach section was comfortable, with seats similar to what you would find in first class on a plane. It was relatively inexpensive (about $60) and it wasn't an uncomfortable ride. Ultimately, Amtrak got me to where I wanted to go.

Even so, there are a number of things about riding the train that make me seriously question whether I would ever want to do it again.

The Schedule
The problem with the Lake Shore Limited schedule is that it's extremely limiting and inflexible. If you want to take the train from Cleveland to New York, you have to depart at 5:50 am - hardly the most convenient time for most people. But you also don't arrive at Penn Station until after 6:00 pm, so if you are traveling for business, you've already missed the entire business day. If you need to get to New York earlier in the day for any reason, the only option, if taking the train, is to arrive the evening before. This isn't as much a problem on Amtrak lines that have more frequent service; but on those that don't, it can be a deal breaker.

The Waiting
If you think riding a train means boarding and then cruising along the tracks to your destination, you will be in for an unpleasant surprise. There were at least four significant waiting periods during my trip. 1) Immediately after departing from Cleveland the train pulled into a CSX railyard in Collinwood. We stopped and sat for about 20 minutes before rolling east through Cleveland's suburbs - I never figured out exactly why that was necessary. 2) Between Syracuse and Utica the train approached a 'single track' portion of the line. We sat and waited as a CSX freight train crawled through the single-track section. 3) About five miles west of Schenectady we approached another single-track section and waited for an Amtrak train to pass through before we were able to continue. 4) Immediately before entering Albany the train split, with half of the cars continuing to New York and the rest to Boston - the process took about 15 minutes.

All the waiting makes riding the train an extremely frustrating experience. There is nothing worse than sitting there and thinking that if the train were moving efficiently, maybe the trip wouldn't be 12.5 hours long. Maybe you could get to your destination in a reasonable amount of time. The fact that Amtrak has these delays essentially built into the schedule suggests that they are the rule, not the exception.

The Stations
I've said my piece about the location of Cleveland's Amtrak station and I'm going to say it again: it's an awful location. It's inaccessible by public transit (now that RTA's Waterfront Line is defunct), it's not easily accessible for pedestrians, and even if you have a car or someone to drop you off, it's not easy to find. The other stations along the Lake Shore Limited aren't much better. the Buffalo station isn't in the city of Buffalo. The Albany station isn't in Albany. Rail travel is theoretically superior to air travel in the sense that it can deliver people from downtown to downtown, as opposed to suburban airport to suburban airport, but when you don't actually have stations in convenient downtown locations, this benefit goes out the window.


JEFF9K said…
Thanks for the valuable and informative post.
John Morris said…
You are officially invited to post on my blog which is supposed to be about issues like this in the Cleveland, Akron, Youngstown and Pittsburgh region. Great, more free labor opportunities but if done right, perhaps an open door and worthwhile effort.

P.S. What is your list of must read Cleveland blogs? Cross posting would be fine.

Feel free to pass this so called opportunity along.
B. P. Beckley said…
Well, that's the Amtrak experience for most of the country. A lot of people experience this and conclude that Amtrak is run by bozos, which may or may not be true, but considering how underfunded they are, it isn't really the simplest explanation. Most of things you complain about come down to money, one way or the other.

if the train were moving efficiently, maybe the trip wouldn't be 12.5 hours long.
This caused me to actually look up some historical running times -- I have some good resources available. In 1949, the entire route (excluding the entrance into Penn Station in NYC) was owned and operated by the New York Central, and the fastest schedule (out of a dozen possibilities, maybe) I can find for Cleveland->NYC is 11 hours. The New York Central cared a lot about its passenger service even then -- they made an enormous investment in passenger equipment in the late 1940s -- so you can assume that they ran those trains as fast as was practical, and they didn't let the freight interfere to the extent that CSX does. Also, no single-track!

So, how much additional traffic do you think the LSL would gather if it was 11 hours instead of 12.5?

This is the painful reality for passenger train travel on the freight rail network -- even at the relatively short 500 miles, it can't compete with air travel on time, even when you're talking minutes door to door, and even if the (profit-making tax-paying) freight railroads weren't delaying the passenger traffic to conform to their own needs. It's debatable whether it is or could be faster than travel by car.

High speed rail would be a different story, but that requires 100% new infrastructure, and we seem reluctant to put any money into infrastructure any more, especially non-auto infrastructure. We'll see what happens when the price of oil goes up again.

Also: I note that Amtrak might be able to fill up more Cleveland->NYC trains, and we won't really know unless they try. That's something they could do, but every passenger-mile is subsidized by tax dollars, and they're already short on equipment (also purchased with tax dollars), and the passenger trains are a giant hassle for the freight railroads so CSX (and Norfolk Southern, west of Cleveland) wouldn't really be in favor, etc. etc.
You should try riding an economy classed train in Indonesia: it's awful!

It's mostly very crowded that you can't move. There are even sellers in the train too!

Never ever take the economy class when you travel here.

No offense to Indonesians, because I'm an Indonesian too :-)

Just want to share.

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