Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Boon for Amtrak?

"If you touch my junk I'll have you arrested!"

That latest airport catchphrase is unlikely to echo throughout an American railroad station, at least today and maybe forever. Why?

Even though detonating a bomb on a concourse of Chicago Union Station during rush hour could kill hundreds of people, today's terrorists have rarely been interested in going after railroad passengers, notwithstanding a few terrible incidents in Europe.

Disaster aloft is psychologically more devastating than disaster on the ground, and Al Qaeda terrorists want to make the boldest statement possible -- to kill people in the thousands and disrupt air travel. Let's face it: they have done just that last.

For the time being, the average commuter train or Amtrak passenger will rarely if ever see evidence of Homeland Security on the job. From time to time and just for show, agents will spot-check luggage and patrol platforms with dogs, but most TSA efforts on the rails are modest and take place behind the scenes.

This has not gone unnoticed among travelers. It goes almost without saying that the increasing tension and bother of flying commercial is going to be good for Amtrak's numbers. Riders between Chicago and Washington and Chicago and New York, for instance, are going to think about choosing eighteen relaxed hours aboard an overnight train rather than four agitated hours in an airport and aboard a packed airplane.

Aboard a train they can carry what they want (within reason, of course) in their luggage without worrying about setting off X-ray machines, alerting checked baggage searchers or running up overweight charges. They can get up from roomy seats and move around and interact with their fellow passengers rather than submit themselves to full frontal video viewing or the indignity of genital groping.

When they consider the choices, many passengers will very likely choose train time over airplane rage.

There would, however, be a downside to increased popularity: a huge jump in the numbers of railroad passengers is bound to strain Amtrak's limited capabilities. It barely has enough cars and locomotives to handle its present loads. Increased demand for already expensive sleeping car accommodations could well result in sharply higher prices for roomettes and bedrooms. Amtrak may be a government entity, but it follows the laws of supply and demand when setting fares.

Retirees, vacationers, foreign tourists, the obese and/or disabled, those fearful of flying -- all of which make up most of Amtrak's clientele -- might find themselves priced out of a mode of travel that has been both comfortable and affordable.

I hope that doesn't happen but worry that it will.


  1. One of those "incidents in Europe" happened at Bologna Station in Italy in August 1980. A terrorist bomb went off in the passenger waiting room killing 85 people. More than 200 additional people were injured, some very badly. The result was a significant drop-off in passenger numbers on the Italian railways for some years. I would encourage anyone visiting Bologna to view the memorial which now stands in the new waiting room. Thank goodness, as you say, these incidents are few and far between. Unfortunately, when they do happen they can, of course, be devastating both in personal and economic terms.

  2. Stephen, you are absolutely correct. I did not intend to dismiss train bombings as insignificant. There have been quite a few -- see this site.

    Surprisingly, Al Qaeda seems to have been involved in comparatively few of them -- as an organization it does seem to prefer aerial terror.

  3. No worries - it ain't gonna happen. I'm still waiting at the Green depot to catch the train to Ontonagon.

  4. Green Lantern, are you Green Hermit in another guise, or a different person entirely?

  5. Not sure - probably just an alter ego.

  6. A year ago, I flew from my home on Maui to Honolulu for surgery. Two days later, with the added inconvenience of a catheter, I flew back home. At Honolulu International, I sailed right through security despite the plastic bag strapped to my leg in which there were at least 12-14 ounces of ... well, it could have been gasoline or something even more flammable. I understand the health concerns being raised over these new devices, especially by airline crews, but clearly the system isn't foolproof. The question, of course, is can it ever be?

  7. As a frequent traveler on Amtrak's CZ between CA and DEN I can suggest that between the mid-90s and today the trains are usually near capacity today. Just how much of a boom Amtrak will have to experience to make a real dollars and cents difference probably will never happen cause the means to expand exponentially are just not there, either politically or financially. Amtrak is a wonderful mode of transportation and if we want to expect anything beyond that we're waving our wands in the wind of over expectation. Amtrak is like the post office, it's not there to be profitable, it's there to provide a means of safe transport. Chuck

  8. Agreed, Chuck. About all we can expect in terms of expansion is an extra sleeper and coach on the long-distance trains, an extra coach on the short-hauls. That will help, but not a lot.

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