Amtrak: What am I Missing Here?

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Aug 30th, 2006, 08:45 PM
  #1
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Amtrak: What am I Missing Here?

The new airport "security" rules have now exceeded my tolerance for hassles, so I've been exploring some alternatives to flying. I thought Amtrak might be a great place to start. I live in Los Angeles, so the Coast Starlight sounds like a wonderfully pleasant way to get up the coast to Seattle. I can afford the two days each way (possibly three, given the six to 14 hour delays due to track construction) since I'm not in a hurry and the scenery is so spectacular. But when I checked the fare, I found that a round trip with the cheapest sleeping compartment is over $850 (with a AAA discount, no less). For that kind of money I could fly to Europe and back (in the autumn)! Or rent a comfortable car and spend several more days on a leisurely solo drive up the coast, stopping overnight wherever I want.

Then I looked at some shorter trips that don't involve overnight travel. There's the San Joaquin to Sacramento (for the Gold Rush country, perhaps?). But it only runs from Bakersfield, so that means a bus from Los Angeles to Bakersfield. And unless I want to either leave Los Angeles on the first bus/train at 4:10 in the morning or the last bus/train that arrives at 11:25 at night, the train only goes to Stockton, which means another bus to Sacramento. And then I'd probably have to drive to Union Station and park there, as a Super Shuttle or cab is over $45 each way.

Just about every other Amtrak itinerary involves a similar inconvenience of one or more feeder buses, or overpriced overnights. And that doesn't even consider that car rentals are at airports (or perhaps in city offices) that are nowhere near Amtrak stations. I begin to see why Amtrak isn't the popular option you might expect given the ordeal that air travel has become.

Or perhaps I'm missing something. Are there some secret itineraries they don't publish that are actually usable. Is there some sort of deal on affordable sleeping arrangements to which I'm not privy? Is Amtrak really just for "rail fans" who are so in love with train travel that they're willing to pay ridiculous prices or put themselves through inconvenience? Can someone who has experience with Amtrak perhaps clarify things a bit?
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Aug 30th, 2006, 10:26 PM
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Don't blame Amtrak for expensive fares. They have been neglected by the US Congress the last decade or so, and some powers in the Senate like Sen. John McCain want to kill Amtrak completely. This in my opinion is a completely foolhardy stance to take. While train travel cross country hardly makes sense anymore except purely for recreation, shorter distance train travel makes a lot of sense. It's a travesty that our government and Congress don't have the vision to combine an expanded rail network with air travel. This would reduce future congestion and of course be much simplier for dealing with security hassles, as you point out.

Amtrak struggles to get funded every year, and Congress is always trying to force it closer to profitability, which probably isn't possible. The airlines are heavily subsidized by taxpayers (notice how much you pay in taxes to fly?), and they got a major bail-out after 9/11 (Amtrak kept running those few days while the planes were grounded, by the way). Meanwhile, Amtrak struggles to stay around. You can imagine that in an environment where Amtrak is trying to pinch pennies they are going to charge high fares where there is high demand, and you shouldn't expect fast, efficient train travel as a result.

I love train travel and find it very sad how Amtrak has been so shunned . This is one reason I enjoy travel in Europe, where trains are efficient and relatively cheap. Many Amtrak tracks are owned by freight companies and Amtrak trains sometimes must pull over and let freight trains pass them, even if it costs hundreds of passengers lost time. I find train travel much more pleasant than flying (not to mention less need for security hassles) but with Amtrak enjoying such a second-class status on the tracks its much less pleasant to travel that way.

Andrew
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Aug 30th, 2006, 11:17 PM
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Hi JBHapgood, knowing how Amtrak works I would put up with the hassles of flying from LAX (or which ever airport you are near) to Seattle. That is just my two cents worth.
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Aug 30th, 2006, 11:20 PM
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Train travel on the East Coast is much more common and easy to do. I travel to Washington, from NYC and to Boston, in fact will be going to Boston on Monday, and the fares are very reasonable. Given the difficulities with air travel, I would bet you will see a resurgence of train travel as a good alternative and I would think there will be more demand to train travel as well.

Have you tried the Amtrack website for more info on what travel is available to you?

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Aug 31st, 2006, 07:05 AM
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It should also be mentioned that sleepers are considered a first class accomodation aboard the train, and are priced as such. Discounts apply only to the rail fare (ie coach class) portion of the ticket, and not to any accomodations. Too often people compare airfare coach to the sleeper prices, without factoring in the difference in price categories.
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Aug 31st, 2006, 07:28 AM
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Hi JBH - Andrew is right on the mark. We could spend hours discussing the issues he's raised, but the mind-set of politicians won't help with your questions even though it does provide some valid insights. WICT is also correct. One can't compare sleeping accommodations with coach air fare. Also keep in mind that the sleeping car fare includes all meals. In effect, you're paying for first class seat (and hotel), 6 meals and beautiful scenery on the Starlight. BTW, I found a fare of $780 without discounts (still not cheap and not sure why the difference in what you found - but remember to compare it with FC airfare). RT in coach is $180.
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Aug 31st, 2006, 07:46 AM
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For all the reasons mentioned above this is true everywhere with Amtrak.

When I'm going to Washington on business (and don;t drive) I take Amtrak - but just because it's more comfortable and easier to work. It takes just as much time as flying (Acela is a joke - it can go faster but the tracks can't handle the speed) and often costs more.
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Aug 31st, 2006, 08:21 AM
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Paying $850 is no more unreasonable than tolerating a three-day trip to avoid 30 minutes of "hassle."

If you didn't have a sleeper, it would be much cheaper. Think abuot how much you would pay for two nights in a hotel when factoring in whether it's a good deal or not.
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Aug 31st, 2006, 08:32 AM
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Don't want the hassles of LAX?

Fly out of a smaller airport.

Alaska Airlines has nonstop service out of all five LA-area airports. Ontario (ONT), if convenient to you, is so underutilized that getting in and out is super-quick.

Right now, I'm seeing nonstops for less than $250 roundtrip.
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Aug 31st, 2006, 09:33 AM
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Welcome to the wonderful world of West Coast Amtrak . I'm in the SF Bay area and would love to take the train to/from Tahoe, but every possibility on the Amtral schedule has some ridiculous inconvenience built into it. Also, passenger trains enroute must yield to freight trains (Federal regulation, I think), so lengthy delays are very common. It's a shame, because the train goes through some beautiful areas.

JBH, check the on-time record for the Coast Starlight, should you decide to take the train. Also google "Amtrak discount codes" for possible discounts. If you decide to take the train, please do a trip report for us.
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Aug 31st, 2006, 09:41 AM
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Freight takes precedence over AMTRAK because the freight haulers own the routes.

If you want great scenery, a staff who really CARES, really GOOD dining car food, and equipment that is in good repair, take the Canadian across Canada on VIARail.

I gave up on AMTRAK long ago except in the Northeast Corridor.
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Aug 31st, 2006, 09:53 AM
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Dukey, my dad used to worked for Norfolk Southern and said they used to maintain the tracks so travellers could enjoy the scenery - so they didn't have the thick growth we now have up and down most tracks in rural areas (not in the plains, of course). Can you see enough to enjoy the scenery along VIArail?
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Aug 31st, 2006, 11:24 AM
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Hey BayouGal! MY dad worked for the NS (when it was the Norfolk & Western) in Roanoke! It's a small world. Where did your dad work?
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Aug 31st, 2006, 11:29 AM
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Betsy, I took Amtrak to/from South Tahoe several times. I think the bus runs 3 times a day, including holidays.

Maybe you've overlooked something? If you want to e-mail me: [email protected]

And I agree with the original poster, the trains are highly ovepriced and always late. BUT the bus connection, unlike the trains, works perfectly and always on time (or a bit early to the trains)
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Aug 31st, 2006, 11:35 AM
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Hiya Faina. Would love to take the train to (North) Lake Tahoe, not the bus. Almost every connection has a bus bridge and/or takes forever to get there. The last time we wanted to do this was in March when we went to Reno. There was no Amtrak itinerary I would have considered. We drove up and kept our eye on the Amtrak station (easy to do in DT Reno) where the train headed west stood in the station for more than 12 hours. We were relieved to have driven, to say the least. Is this any way to run a railroad?
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Aug 31st, 2006, 11:45 AM
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WOW! 12 hours!

Oh, by the way, do you know there is a "snow train" to Reno, some special tour?

We usually go to South Tahoe, I think it's 5.5 hours from SF. There is a train to North Tahoe AREA probably Truckee, and yes, it's inconvenient.

Never took Amtrak to Reno, but I think it's the same drill as to Tahoe: train to Sacramento, then the connecting bus.

There is also a direct train, but expensive. Another alternative is Greyhound. Out of SF we usually go with Lucky Tours.
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Aug 31st, 2006, 12:21 PM
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Looked into the snow train. Schedule was no better than those offered by Amtrak on its regular runs .
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Aug 31st, 2006, 12:47 PM
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Betsy, I have no doubt that the folks who run Amtrak would love to have the money to run it much better than the way they are able to run it now...

Andrew
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Aug 31st, 2006, 09:12 PM
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Andrew, you're describing a typical "death spiral." As the convenience and quality of service deteriorates and the price rises, they get further away from profitability as potential passengers decide it's not worth the bother. And then the Republican zealots can "starve the beast," turn the few profitable rail lines in the Northeast over to a favored donor to operate, and the rest goes away.

Believe it or not, Los Angeles once had a very usable electric trolley system (the Pacific Electric Railway, commonly called "the Red Cars"). Then the oil companies, the tire companies, and the automobile companies "persuaded" politicians that the right of way would be better used as a road. And so we have an entire region based on the automobile and (formerly) cheap oil, with no other alternatives.

It may also be significant that important campaign donors seldom if ever ride trains or buses, prefering the convenience and comfort of first-class air (or private jets) and limousines. So people who depend on trains are effectively unrepresented in our "one dollar, one vote" version of democracy.
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Aug 31st, 2006, 09:32 PM
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Betsy, you seem to have defined the problem. Amtrak can apparently work in the Northeast, which is somewhat like Europe in its size and density. But distances on the West Coast are so long that train trips become too lengthy compared with the (former) convenience and speed of flying and the flexibility of driving. People here don't think much about trains. At least I didn't, until the new hassles of flying prompted me to make the effort to find out about them.
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