9.1.13

FILLING THE GAPS.

Amtrak's long-distance trains are underappreciated alternatives for business travelers.  Last May, I filed this impression of the Texas Eagle.
In Longview, an attorney who remarked on my back-pack (certainly not an accessory to accompany a business suit and a court date) noted that the Texas Eagle was conveniently timed for business in St. Louis. Probably competitively priced, even in the sleeper. I didn't research those fares, but what I paid for the Chicago - Longview round trip came in as less than the Chicago to Longview round trip air fare, and my parking at Elburn and Metra connection to the train is cheaper than a rental car, choose any car in the aisle or not, and a hotel, which a business trip by air would involve. Eighteen hours each way on the train, however, may be a losing proposition commercially, the availability of cell phone service and wireless internet over much of the route or not. But Longview to Little Rock or St. Louis might work for the business traveler, although the Little Rock to Longview is for former members of the military or early risers or devotees of the red-eye, and you avoid the tender mercies of the Transportation "Security" Administration for the most part. As one passenger put it, he'd like the carriers to treat passengers like a guest, not a suspect.
What I wasn't aware of at the time, but what Travel and Trains brought to my attention, is that the airlines have been cutting back on service to smaller markets, and the hub-and-spoke networks have fewer spokes and longer layovers, as Joe Sharkey of the New York Times discovered, in the dynamic Sun Belt, no less.
[T]here were no flights out of Tucson that morning that would have got me to the strangely named George Bush Intercontinental Airport before I had to be there at 3 p.m. on a Sunday.

Instead, I had to fly out the day before, book a hotel room and then spend the next day moping around the Houston airport till 3 p.m. — bored, indolent and increasingly irritated by those annoying constant security announcements threatening arrest to anyone making “inappropriate remarks or jokes concerning security.”
The pathetic, try-weakly Sunset Limited might have been a better option. Seriously.
My Houston itinerary, for example, took about 24 hours from my front door to my destination, including the night’s lodging. It cost $432.79 ($348.60 in one-way airfare and $83.29 for the airport hotel, not counting meals.) By train, the total time would have been about 25 hours on a section of Amtrak’s Sunset Limited, which stops in Tucson and Houston on its long haul between Los Angeles and New Orleans. The train fare, including a private roomette with a sleeping berth, would have totaled $577, all meals included.

It’s almost 1,000 miles from Tucson to Houston, so the train-versus-plane option — though it would have worked for me on that trip — is less persuasive there than on Amtrak routes of roughly 500 miles with overnight schedules, when you’re going to be sleeping anyway.
The newspaper of record reinforces a point I've often made, about the value of intermediate stops.  Here's a short list of recommended trains for business travellers.
Richmond, Va., to Savannah, Ga., on the Silver Meteor route between New York and Miami; Charlottesville, Va., to Atlanta on the Crescent, which goes from New York to New Orleans; Eugene, Ore., to Sacramento on the Coast Starlight between Seattle and Los Angeles; and Chicago to Buffalo on the Lake Shore Limited, which goes from Chicago to New York and Boston.
I'd add Williston, N. D. and the Twin Cities in either direction, Denver to Omaha, and Pittsburgh to Chicago. The opposite direction on some of these routes doesn't always work as well for business travelling. And book your sleeper reservations early: if the boss says "I need you in Pittsburgh tomorrow", the train might already be sold out.

The good news is that some of the Cold Spring Shops wish list is beginning to pay off.
More travelers are considering trains to travel between cities in the Midwest, spurring new efforts to upgrade to higher-speed travel along Amtrak rails.

Ridership of inter-city rail on Amtrak routes in Missouri, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan grew 35 percent from 2007-2012, according to Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission calculations.

In February, the rail service installed new safety systems that allow trains to reach up to 110 mph between the town of Porter in Northwest Indiana and Kalamazoo, Mich. The Chicago-to-St. Louis route began operating at 111 mph in October.

“For any reason people drive up I-94, they could travel the Wolverine,” Marc Magliari, a spokesman for Amtrak, said of the route from Chicago to Detroit that passes through Northwest Indiana and Kalamazoo. “Either for a weekend commute, family business, medical consultations at a larger hospital.

“Some are also just riding for fun or tourism.”

Increased ridership is encouraging more investment in passenger rails from states and federal governments.

The Michigan Department of Transportation is conducting a Chicago-Detroit corridor study that will determine the feasibility of building a double-track passenger mainline for the 50-mile leg between from Chicago and Porter.

Also, Amtrak is weighing plans to purchase new trains that can reach up to 125 mph to run on routes in Illinois, Michigan, Missouri and California.
Some years ago, I posted a picture of a Michigan train detouring on the South Shore Line at Ogden Dunes, Indiana. (Can't locate it expeditiously, sorry.)  That might work as a replacement for the old New York Central: double track the South Shore from the west side of Michigan City to Gary, run on the South Shore to Kensington, get on the old Illinois Central passenger tracks at Kensington, and use the planned reinstallation of the Nickel Plate flyover at Grand Crossing to get into Union Station.

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