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The joys, and costs, of Amtrak

If you follow the news these days, you're hearing a lot about Amtrak. The government committee that oversees the passenger rail service says Amtrak has no chance of making a profit by 2003, the deadline Congress set five years ago to stop the federal subsidies that keep the system alive.

Amtrak last year ran $1.1-billion in the red, the biggest deficit in its three-decade history.

In the congressional debate that has ensued, some have suggested that passenger rail is obsolete in the United States and that few would mourn its demise. Amtrak carries only one-half of 1 percent of all "passenger miles" on intercity routes, compared with 50 percent for auto and 48 percent for airlines.

Even buses, with 1.5 percent, carry more people, according to the Bush administration's proposed budget for 2003.

But for vacationers, the train is a bit more popular than those figures suggest. About 6 percent of U.S. leisure travelers took the train in the last year, according to a 2001 survey by YPB/Yankelovich Partners. I'm one of them.

Rail travel is fun and ecologically sound (at least compared with autos), and it relieves me of driving. An America without trains would disappoint me and, I suspect, many of those 6 percent.

The Pacific Surfliner, which plies 347 miles along the California coast between San Diego and San Luis Obispo, is Amtrak's second-busiest route, after the so-called Northeast Corridor, which serves Boston, New York and Washington, D.C.

Last year the Surfliner carried 1.7-million riders, 11.4 percent more than two years earlier. On a day trip one Saturday in February with my partner, I was reminded of what keeps some people traveling by train _ or avoiding it. We found plenty to love _ and hate _ on our trip.

On the negative side, let's start with the fare: $34 per person round trip. Pretty expensive considering we could have driven the 180-mile round trip for about $12 (assuming $1.35 per gallon of gas and an average of 20 miles per gallon), or $6 per person for two. (Of course, this doesn't figure in the additional cost of owning and maintaining a car.)

We finessed the fare problem by taking advantage of a two-for-one sale that was to expire Feb. 28. There was no finessing the parking fee at Union Station in downtown Los Angeles, though: $10 for the day.

Then there's the time. The train takes about two hours, 40 minutes on a trip we could have made by car in an hour and a half.

Once aboard, we found the bathroom in our car out of order. For a few nervous minutes, the door between our car and the cafe car refused to open, trapping me in the cafe car until a crew member rescued me.

As for the return trip, we never got on the southbound Coast Starlight. It was 10 hours late because of bad weather in Oregon, the agent at the Santa Barbara station said. Passengers were being bused south from near San Francisco.

The northbound train was tardy, too, 13 hours and counting, having arrived late in Los Angeles because of the same weather. We caught a later Surfliner instead.

While our experience may have been extreme, Amtrak's long-distance trains were on schedule only 56 percent of the time in 2000 (the most recent data posted on its Internet site), compared with the 77.4 percent on-time average posted by major U.S. airlines in 2001.

Still, the trip had positives: the relaxed pace, an amiable crew, comfortable seats with ample legroom and the opportunity for both of us to view the passing scenery, including some spectacular beaches. The trains ran on time, typical for Amtrak's short-distance trains, which were on schedule 81 percent of the time in 2000.

Amtrak supporters are fond of pointing out that more than $14-billion in federal funds is going to support air travel this year in the FAA budget, and more than $33-billion is earmarked to support car travel in the Federal Highway Administration budget.

I empathize with Robert L. Coffman, a self-confessed "train nut" from San Diego who wrote the Los Angeles Times a letter in February about his recent cross-country train trip. He braved "double-deck sleepers with no in-compartment lavatory or wash basin," no working toilets or shower in his car from Albuquerque and other annoyances. But equipment east of Chicago was better, and "the service crews were tops," he adds.

He concludes: "Everyone should see our wonderful country at ground level at least once. It is not just empty ground to fly over, stuffed in an aluminum tube."