The End of the Tour

There’s a girl with a crown and a scepter
Who’s on WLSD
And she says that the scene isn’t what it’s been
And she’s thinking of going home.

I’ve been spending a lot of time on trains recently, travelling up and down the country for various family-related reasons. And you know  what? I’m starting to believe that British railways aren’t even in remotely as bad a position as might be supposed.

A couple of summers ago I was in the position to take an Amtrak train from Chicago to Sandusky, Ohio. Sandusky isn’t a big town. The only notable thing there is the Cedar Point amusement park, the reason I was visiting.

The first thing to notice about Union Station in Chicago was the squalour. It felt like a neglected version of a Greyhound bus terminal, which is saying a lot. On board the train, though, things were rather better. Spacious seats, a friendly train conductor, and space downstairs for the luggage. The trouble is, they’re needed.

Amtrak’s top speed trains do about 50 miles per hour. When you consider the sheer scope of the geography involved, that isn’t very fast at all. Almost all trains run overnight. The train I was taking arrived at my destination at about 1am, supposedly. In fact it was nearer 3am local time when it finally pulled in, not exactly the most social hour when the local cab companies (and I use this in the loosest possible sense; there are half a dozen Sandusky taxi companies, all a single driver with a cellphone acting as their own dispatcher) almost all cease operation at 1:30.

So Amtrak’s fares are reasonable, but sticking to the timetable isn’t exactly their strongest point. This is because the rails are all owned by freight companies who prioritise their own trains over the passengers’ (in violation of a toothlessly enforced federal law, but this is by-the-by).

On the other side of the Atlantic, we have the deregulated remains of British Rail. Fares are higher, per mile, but on the other hand we have daytime trains, that run (pretty much) to schedule. Compared to Japan, the lateness is terrible, but it’s bearable. I can sit back, watch a movie, and get there in about the same time as if I drove, for the cheap-as-chips price of twice the cost of petrol of I were to drive there.

That’s the trouble. If two of us travel, it’s a cost of four times that to drive. And while I’d love to take the train, it just doesn’t make economic sense for us  to do so. The ever-escalating cost of petrol will take care of that, but not fast enough. The economic argument is far and away against it and will continue to be for the next ten years at least.

Give me East Coast, Virgin Trains or even South West Trains any day over Amtrak. Just price it at a point that means I actually have a choice between the car and the train.