Why rail is making a comeback

Why rail is making a comeback

One evening in mid-July, Nick Skordilis looked out his window and enjoyed the scenery. 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 blazed pink and orange, casting long shadows from the pines.

It was a moment of perfect summer bliss. And it was all the more impressive as Mr. Skordilis clumsily navigated 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 the whole point—but for most Americans, actually traveling to peaceful getaways is more about gnashing your teeth than finding bliss. That was especially true this summer when the airports were in meltdown, the rental cars scarce, 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 coping well with the double whammy of summer vacation and bumpy travel at the end of the pandemic — or at least better than its rivals. Amtrak, which has a monopoly on long-distance rail travel, hastily restored services it froze during the worst of COVID-19. Travelers are also increasing, reaching 85% of pre-pandemic levels in the Northeast and showing a promising pattern elsewhere. The company is even opening new lines.

“This was a much stronger rebound than even Amtrak predicted in its very optimistic report to Congress earlier this year,” said Sean Jeans-Gale, vice president of policy and government affairs for the Rail Passenger Association, which acts as protector of passenger trains.

“Amtrak is very resilient,” he says.

Much of the demand is due to fresh faces. Amtrak noted that 31% of passengers in April were “new passengers.” At least some of them seem to be turning to the rails to escape the chaos of airports and the pain of the gas pump.

Daniela Casalino, an architectural designer living in Seattle, wanted to take a trip in early June to see a friend in San Francisco, just a 2 1/2 hour flight away. But when she saw that flights cost about the same as a train ride, she shut up.

A fairly frequent flyer before the pandemic, Ms. Casalino has only flown once since it began. She didn’t enjoy it. “I just found it really anxiety-inducing,” she says. “I thought, 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 also with the fuel prices now, I’m not sure I’d go there anyway,” Ms Casalino says. “That sounds really exhausting too.”

Taking advantage of the luxury of time, she opted for the 24-hour train journey. She had no regrets.

“It was super fun,” Ms. Casalino says. “I met a lot of really interesting people and it was super beautiful. That stretch between Seattle and Emeryville—it’s just beautiful.”

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

The drive would take about the same amount of time, Mr. Skordilis says, “and instead of having to look at where to turn and deal with the rental car, I could sit down, open a book and read the whole way there. “

A few weeks later, he found himself on that much longer, loftier ride, gliding through Glacier National Park on his way to see a friend in Seattle.

Ms. Casalino and Mr. Skordilis are among those new passengers that rail advocates like Mr. Jeans-Gale hope Amtrak can impress. “You can either win a customer for life or lose a customer for life based on that first impression,” he says.

But, he warns, there are also real downsides to this summer. Staffing issues degrade service quality and sometimes cause delays. “Amtrak’s management was split to the bone when the pandemic hit,” says Mr. Jeans-Gail, and the company is still trying to increase staffing levels.

The labor problems of the freight rail industry are much worse and cause indirect consequences for Amtrak passengers. Because Amtrak shares tracks with freight companies in most of the United States, their traffic jams can freeze passengers in place for hours.

And despite very high safety indicators, traveling by train is not risk-free. An Amtrak train fatally derailed in June, killing four people and injuring more than 100 others near Mendon, Missouri.

“I knew [about delays] getting into it,” says Dionne 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 worry: Will I make it to my next train?” But, she said, everything went smoothly in the end — and her sons turned out to be good passengers.

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

James Landrum, who took his family from Indiana to the national parks of the West by rail, says his children felt the same way.

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

Amtrak is proving to be such a solid alternative right now that by the end of the season the trains are full and the fares are unusually high. If you’ve got a train journey marked on your calendar for what’s left of this summer, Mr Jeans-Gail says: “I hope you’ve already booked your ticket.”

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