It has been a Cold Spring Shops tradition to agitate for faster train timings by drawing invidious comparisons of Amtrak schedules with those maintained by Depression-era steam railroads.

The publisher of Harper's is inspired, upon riding Amtrak from New York to New Haven to view some art at Yale, to make a similar comparison.
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!
Yes, once upon a time a New Yorker could make a midday trip to New Haven and return on the Yankee Clipper, with a dining car that would put the Acela cuisine to shame.   Or one could return later in the evening on the Merchants Limited.


YM2008 said...

What if the rail system operated like the highway system? The government would own and upgrade the rails to modern standards with high tech traffic control systems paid for out of the same transportation budget as roads. There would be separate high speed tracks working like interstate highways and lower speed local tracks and sometimes using the same corridors as highways. There would be competing services which would be running on the same set of tracks offering different services like Megabus vs Coach Lines USA. The money the government spends on Amtrak would just be used for rail system operations.

Stephen Karlson said...

To some extent, public money and public ownership is at work, although that brings complications of its own. First, building separate high speed tracks takes money: imagine the carping of the highway lobby about resources being diverted, and the truckers about subsidized competition. Second, on the New Haven line the Harper's publisher rode, the tracks between New Rochelle and New Haven are Metro-North's (a government agency) with Amtrak as a tenant. From New Haven to Boston, the tracks are Amtrak's, with a commuter rail authority and the Providence and Worcester (freight) Railroad as a tenant. Determining who pays how much for maintenance isn't easy. That arrangement can be less cumbersome than having one owner of the tracks and another owner of the trains. In Britain, all the tracks belong to a government agency, with various train operating companies buying time on the tracks. That's become a mess of late, perhaps it's time for another post on that mess.