Why rail is making a comeback

Why rail is making a comeback

One evening in mid-July, Nik Skordilis looked out his window and looked at the landscape. He had just polished off a rich chocolate mousse dessert. Below, he could see the rivers and mountains of Glacier National Park. In the distance, the sunset flashed pink and orange, casting long shadows from the pines.

It was a moment of perfect summer holiday bliss. And it was all the more surprising because Mr. Skordilis was sawing through the park on a train traveling at 40 miles per hour, still 16 hours from his destination.

Finding joy in your vacation destination should be easy—that’s what it’s all about—but for most Americans, the actual journey to reach peaceful vacation spots is more about gritting your teeth than finding bliss. This is especially true this summer, when airports have collapsed, and car rentals scarcely, and the classic road trip under siege from gas prices. But there is one bright spot for American travelers this summer: the rails.

Passenger rail is handling the double whammy of summer vacation and end-of-pandemic travel just fine — or at least better than its rivals. Amtrak, which has a monopoly on long-distance rail, has rushed to restore services it had destroyed during the worst of COVID-19. Ridership is also up, reaching 85% of pre-pandemic levels in the North East and showing a promising pattern elsewhere. The company even opens new lines.

“It’s been a much stronger rebound than even Amtrak predicted in its very optimistic report to Congress earlier this year,” says Sean Jean-Gale, vice president of policy and government affairs for the Rail Passenger Association, which acts as an advocate for the trains. travelers.

“Amtrak has been very resilient,” he says.

Most of the demand has been driven by fresh faces. Amtrak noted that 31% of April passengers were “new riders.” At least some of them seem to be turning to rails to avoid airport chaos and pain at the gas pump.

Daniela Casalino, an architectural designer living in Seattle, wanted to travel in early June to meet a friend in San Francisco, just a 2.5-hour flight away. But when she saw that flights cost about the same as a train ride, she stopped.

A fairly frequent flyer before the pandemic, Ms. Casalino had only flown once since the pandemic began. She did not enjoy it. “I just found it really anxiety-inducing,” she says. “I was like, I don’t want to do this for a while.”

Driving was also prohibited. “I like to drive, but I don’t have a car. And even now, given the fuel prices, I’m not sure I would have driven there anyway,” says Ms. Casalino. “It also sounds really tiring.”

Embracing the luxury of time, she opted for a 24-hour train ride. She did not regret it.

“It was a lot of fun,” Ms. Casalino says. “I met a lot of interesting people and it was very beautiful. That stretch between Seattle and Emeryville is just gorgeous.

Earlier this summer, Mr. Skordilis, a Chicago native who works in recruiting, made a similar choice after realizing he could drive to visit his partner’s parents in Michigan.

Mr. Skordil says that the drive would have taken about the same amount of time, and instead of looking for a turn and dealing with rental cars, I could sit back and open a book and read the whole way.

A few weeks later, he found himself on this much longer, more sublime trip, gliding through Glacier National Park to meet a friend in Seattle.

Ms. Casalino and Mr. Skordilis are the kind of young travelers that Mr. Ginn-Gale, for example, hopes Amtrak can impress on rail travel. “Based on that first impression, you can win a customer for life or lose a customer for life,” he says.

But he warns that there are also real downsides to this summer. Staffing problems reduce the quality of services and sometimes cause delays. “During the pandemic, Amtrak’s leadership was cut to the bone,” Mr. Ginn-Gale says, and the company is still trying to increase staffing.

The labor problems of the freight rail industry are far worse and have an indirect effect on Amtrak passengers. Because Amtrak shares tracks with freight companies in most of the United States, their traffic jams can freeze passengers for hours.

And despite the very strong level of security, train journeys are not without risks. An Amtrak train fatally derailed in June, killing four people and injuring more than 100 near Mendon, Missouri.

“I knew [about delays] dig into it,” says Dione Wigginton-Dupstadt, who took her family, including four young boys, on a road trip from Texas to the Midwest, the Redwoods and Disneyland.

“There was a lot of concern: am I going to catch the next train?” However, she said that in the end everything went smoothly – and her sons turned out to be good passengers.

“The kids did great. The kids loved it. “

James Landrum, who shepherded his family from Indiana to national parks in the West by railroad, says his children felt the same way.

“They loved Yellowstone, they loved the Tetons, they loved being there, they loved hiking there. But when someone asked them what their favorite part of the trip was, they said, “the train.”

Amtrak is currently proving such a solid alternative that trains are full and fares are unusually high for the rest of the season. If you’ve got a train ride on your calendar for what’s left of this summer, Jean-Gale says, “I hope you’ve already booked your ticket.”

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