25.8.08

SENATOR BIDEN'S ACELA. Infinite Regress reacts favorably to a frequent train rider on the Democratic ticket. Illinois Review (via Reverse Spin) is less impressed.
Indeed, had it not been for my shortsightedness in getting a regular ticket, Senator Biden would have traveled in what was essentially a private rail car. No wonder he is the number one supporter of taxpayer support of the nation’s bankrupt passenger train industry.
First class as hideaway for the influential may be the reason for Acela. Consider this Washington Monthly article that criticizes Acela for being an expensive way to run a train not a lot faster than the steam-powered Yankee Clipper that yet attracts the Powers That Be.

The bartender says that travelers are choosing Acela Express for other reasons.

Acela draws a different sort of trade, he said, gesturing around, implying that his train was expensive enough for the busy business traveler to escape crying kids, fat guys chomping on smelly sandwiches, or grandmas brandishing an endless ream of photos. Indeed, Acela just doesn't have room for those guys. It has only 304 seats, compared to 700 on the European TGV trains---another reason the tickets cost so much. By granulating its audience through fares that grow to nearly match the airlines,' Amtrak has made Acela a kind of rolling gated community, a clean, comfortable place where business can be conducted.

There's a somewhat longer passage at p. 123 of John Stilgoe's Train Time that makes the same point.
Acela offers an intellectual feast to any sociology-minded passenger, especially in first class. The train is relatively expensive to ride and its food service exorbitant, for all that the food tends to be good. When the train is not full, business-class passengers drawn to each other by visual cues -- similar books, Blackberries or other wireless devices, even upscale shopping bags or European newspapers -- often strike up conversations; they may change seats or walk to the snack car together for muffins or sandwiches or wine. The alert eavesdropper discovers that seat changes often lead to the exchange of telephone numbers or business cards. Certain recurrent phrases float through conversations, usually relating to the decided superiority of Acela trains over ordinary Amtrak ones or the freedoms offered by unassigned seats. Strangers remark to one another how discerning Acela passengers are, something that matters more and more as the sun goes down and windows become mirrors that reveal much about what money buys. Perhaps making connections among like-minded others matters a great deal to passengers in their twenties, not only in terms of career or business but socially. Acela rolls like a private club, its tickets the price of entry, and hosts a definable cohort of well-dressed, upwardly mobile men and women in their late twenties.
I could carp that tax dollars are going to underwrite first-class services contrary to the intent of the original Amtrak legislation, but that's not the point of what is becoming Book Review No. 36. Train Time's subtitle is Railroads and the Imminent Reshaping of the United States Landscape. I'm tempted to suggest that if you want the full review, all you have to do is be a regular reader of Cold Spring Shops, because the ideas in Train Time often turn up in my posts. Sometimes that's been a direct use of the material. John is an O Scaler and we have on occasion compared notes on things that run on 12" = 1' rails as well as things that run on 1/4" = 1' (or on occasion 7 mm = 1') rails. Much of the information in Train Time is in plain sight for the ferroequinologist. But a ferroequinologist with a Harvard professorship is privy to conversations among movers and shakers contemplating, for example, abandoned railway grades that have commercial potential, either for commuter lines or for new freight corridors in a way that a faculty member at a mid-major is not. Thus, one line of analysis in the book. In like manner, access to the Eastern Establishment permits confirmation of hypotheses about the ability of the well-off to buy privacy that can be formulated but not easily tested using public material such as old train timetables. I'll cut John some slack for mis-stating some of the details of the Maine service. (It is no accident that an all-sleeping car Bar Harbor Express ran until 1960, and conspiracy buffs will have to reconsider their belief in a ruling class in that Patrick McGinnis was able to gut that service, first on the New Haven and then on the Boston and Maine, without disappearing.) That quest for privacy also offered the entrepreneurial a chance to identify future sites for residential or industrial development, the observation platform of a private car offering a much better view than that available from a jet.

The first-class train is not the only instrument of reshaping, particularly in an era of rising fuel prices that will pinch regional and local air carriers. There is also the potential for bulk freight and for express, two types of traffic that are incompatible with each other and to some extent with the passenger trains. Train Time suggests (and it's easy enough for a researcher to follow up) that much of the intermodal freight network continues the old railway express business in a new guise. That Penn Central used to have van trains with MAIL symbols and that Chicago and North Western timetabled their Falcon trains as First Class was not for show: these were inheritors of the Overland Mail tradition if without express messengers and armed postal clerks. (These, too, we might see again, if regional airports close and keeping reserve planes up all night just in case a little too much "absolutely, positively" cargo hits the counter in Chico or Chicago gets too expensive. A train with a crew that can sort and set off parcels at intermediate stops, often without stopping, can get it to a lot of places overnight.) Professor Stilgoe concludes by suggesting that many of the dot.com profits are being invested, or being held to be invested, in new railroads.

Now, if we could get rid of those cartel-era speed restrictions (and the book has some insights on who made those happen. Hint: the public roads are not safe for 100 mph driving, and faster trains increase the shortest-possible-profitable-hop for airplanes.)

(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge).

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