With the U.S. Congress consumed with a tortured debate over how to make commercial air travel safer again, I had a different concern last week: Why should it take our country's fastest passenger train 3 hours and 15 minutes to take me 249 miles from New York City to Washington, D.C.?
In the answer to that question may lie a tipoff as to whether our nation will once again be seduced by the siren song of socialism.
Not that my time is all that valuable. To slip out of Penn Station through the tunnel into New Jersey, and then to glide smoothly south toward Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington at 90-100 m.p.h. suits my needs just fine. But the ultimate question is whether it suits the needs of enough travelers to unscramble the crowded airways. The evidence suggests that a three-hour trip won't do it. To compete with the air shuttles, the trains will probably have to make the trip in a dependable two-hour time frame. That goal is still a long ways down the track.
Travel on the ground will never compete with travel in the air if all you think about is time. But travel on the ground can compete if it gets reasonably close on the time issue, and simultaneously offers three things you don't get in the air anymore: easy access and security, dependable schedules, and a few amenities like something more than pretzels to eat.
On the Acela last week from New York to Washington (the Acela is Amtrak's sleek new answer to the fast trains so prevalent in Europe and Japan) two of those three advantages were squandered.
The access-and-security part was good. Center-city to center-city almost always beats a cab or a limo from the airport-and nobody suggested we had to get there two hours early. Best of all, neither Penn Station in New York nor Union Station in Washington had metal detectors or security checks. The sense of freedom was bracing and nostalgic.
But when the train was 15 minutes late out of the station, and then lost another 15 minutes en route, doubt set in. Folks in Europe and Japan set their clocks by their trains; we sit watching our clocks while waiting for the trains.
You can eat on the Acela. But if you want dinner included in your fare, you'll have to cough up an extra $75 for first-class (which my wife and I were given as a complimentary upgrade). But service was mediocre-and when the woman behind us complained, she was rudely chewed out by her waiter.
If ever transportation on the ground had an opportunity to make itself a compelling alternative, this is it. The awful events of Sept. 11, along with the Nov. 12 American Airlines crash in Queens, N.Y., have given pause to thousands of skittish fliers. But if the folks who run the trains can't do better than what I saw last week, they don't deserve the opportunity they've been given.
So what other choices do we have? In God's unusual scheme of things, a Greyhound bus had earlier last week become a highly attractive mode of transportation for a 300-mile trip from my home in Asheville, N.C., west to Nashville, Tenn. I was too weary to drive, and a $375 one-way air fare seemed exorbitant. So I paid my $62, climbed on the Scenicruiser along with 51 migrant workers, retirees, military enlistees, and single moms, and happily slept most of the next seven hours to Nashville-except for a 90-minute layover in a grungy Knoxville station to switch buses. But I couldn't help thinking what an advantage the bus companies have if only they took advantage of it. The roadbed is already laid, nationwide; the interstate highway system is in place, allowing 70 m.p.h. travel anywhere you want to go. A few more creature comforts in the buses themselves, along with some more disciplined scheduling to keep the buses rolling instead of sitting in the station-and this old dog might be taught some new tricks. But Greyhound's management seems as sound asleep as that of the airlines and the railroads.
So why should all this matter when the nation is at war with terrorists both in the Middle East and in our own cities? If you can afford to pay 75¢ a mile for poorly served food on Amtrak, $1.25 for no food on USAirways, but can still get a slower ride for 21¢ a mile on Greyhound if you need to, aren't things pretty much the way they've always been?
To the contrary, I would suggest that we are in for upheavals in American transportation of a sort we may never have faced before. A stalwart carrier like United Airlines has announced it may not survive for another six months, in spite of the fact that taxpayers have just paid through the nose to boost its fortunes. All the airlines are threatened by wildly escalating insurance premiums. On the other hand, Amtrak was told by bankruptcy officials last week to prepare to sell off its equipment. Better spiff up those Greyhound buses!
If you thought this month's congressional battles over nationalizing the screeners at airports was tough, get ready for what's just ahead. There's no time like an emergency for the suggestion that Uncle Sam should take over the planes and trains as well.