March 31, 2005

Slow train coming ...

Why can't New Zealand and the United States have a decent rail network?

If you think Amtrak is a joke, it's not like it's unique. Taking the Overlander between Wellington and Auckland a few times was great preparation for yesterday's journey on the Empire Builder from St. Paul to Chicago.

I just knew that the train would be delayed, and that the right mental attitude was to assume that the journey would take about 2-3 hours more than scheduled. Then if it was just 90 minutes late it would be a bonus. Was I ever right!

We were half an hour late leaving St. Paul, and mysteriously stopped in the middle of Wisconsin for 40 minutes. From my Overlander experience, where the train would stop in the middle of the Waikato ("New Zealand's dairyland"!) it all felt so familiar. On the Overlander they would mumble "there's a freight train ahead of us," and give you a wildly inaccurate estimate/guess of when we'd be moving again. Amtrak didn't even bother to get our hopes up about when we'd resume our journey ... We just sat there looking at the cows.

Chicago, at least, has a nice station. It wouldn't be hard to improve on the Minneapolis/St. Paul station. Again, this was all familiar from the Overlander journey, which took you from the impressive, well-maintained Wellington station to the shed beside the tracks one mile from the city-center that has been Auckland's inter-city rail station for years.

Having safely (slowly) arrived in Chicago we then waited 40 minutes for the baggage to arrive. At least they have decent baggage service on Amtrak. They even check you aren't stealing someone else's bags when you leave the baggage claim! Retrieving your bags on TranzScenic in New Zealand meant wandering down to the baggage car and waiting until they chucked yours out onto the platform ...

I'd be tempted to make this a generalization about trains in English-speaking countries. But that would be a little unfair ... While the trains in England are a national joke for being late, I actually had a pretty good experience on them last year. In a week I took 5 inter-city trains, none of which were more than 5 minutes late. They also drop you off pretty much in the center of town, making connections to buses and subways easy.

It wouldn't be easy to get a functioning passenger rail network in the United States. It would just take political will. Building a network of interstate highways wasn't easy either, but it got done.

But that train too might be slow coming, coming round the bend ...

Posted by robe0419 at March 31, 2005 01:53 PM | TrackBack
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