Thursday, August 16, 2012

NEC: Beacon for better beyond the Northeast

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It's official: Amtrak's Northeast Corridor rules. The New York Times says so.

acela-hell-gate-viaductThough lacing its pronouncement with a familiar tone of condescension that drives its critics and detractors to distraction (starting with the very first line of its article), the Newspaper of Record formally validated Amtrak's travel dominance in the Northeast Corridor with a page 1 Business Day piece in its August 16, 2012 print edition.

Courtesy of colleague Luther Miller, I was alerted to its website version a day earlier. Part of me was thrilled. Ridership stats are duly reported accurately enough, and the Times even digs out its "would you believe" person, in this case an aviation writer and airline consultant, who opts for Acela service when he can. It also notes with passing skill Amtrak's plans for future improvements, the Perils-of-Pauline funding situation over the years, and the obligatory rejoinders from Amtrak's airline competitors, which vow not to surrender the market.

The article has its missteps; it asserts that the NEC is "virtually the only portion of Amtrak's system that makes money," a dubious claim given NEC maintenance needs, and one that veteran pro-rail advocates shun (and anti-rail partisans love to pounce on). And the piece insinuates that Amtrak's healthy New York-D.C. market share, 75% of the air/rail market, is somehow newly under siege from low-cost bus carriers. Please. I'll return the condescending attitude: Those Westchester County-based editors ought to ride on the Lincoln Tunnel helix on the Jersey side of Gotham once or twice to see the preposterous nature of such a challenge.

Still, the overall article portrays Amtrak as a serious player, no small nod to the carrier in an election year when, once again, Amtrak is the target of scorn on a presidential scale.

The current, more weighty air competitors—and bygone contenders, such as Eastern Airlines—have struggled for at least two decades now in the NEC, as Amtrak grew its market share from what the Times sniffs was "a third of the business"—which, given that there were two major airlines and Amtrak in the mix in past years, isn't all that bad. Not that the Times would focus on that; it instead attributes much of Amtrak's "recent" success to airport security measures, post 9/11, roughly coinciding with Acela's debut.

Here's my newsflash: The NEC began taking it to its air competition when Metroliners were the rule in the 1980s, way before 9/11. Moreover, those summer afternoon thunderstorms disrupting Corridor air travel have long been a staple for Amtrak Metroliner/Acela riders, and not "long a punch line for harried Northeast travelers."

A civilian Navy employee based in New Jersey told me way back in the late 1980s, "You can see the people eyeing the departure board at Washington National [Airport], checking the sky for thunderclouds, turning around, hailing a cab, and you hear them say, 'Union Station.' It happens all the time." He lobbied his naval base commander for a change in travel policy allowing personnel traveling to and from Washington, D.C. (or nearby Virginia locales) to take the train if they wished. The base eventually agreed to the request. "It was cheaper; that's what they bought into," the engineer told me. "But some of us knew it also was often faster. And even when it wasn't, it was simply better." That's a different kind of punch line.

Amtrak's NEC often wins even when one isn't in a business hurry. Years ago I met up with my wife in Washington, she down from New York with a coworker for a business meeting, me coming from a business conference in Chicago. Her business day ended early and we discovered we could take Amtrak's Montrealer (with dinner in the dining car! The luxury!) home to end the day. No go, said my wife's business partner; she was in a hurry, had to fly home, see ya.

So the two of us took the train home, enjoying dinner on the way as we noticed some raindrops splashing across our window. Alighting at Newark-Penn Station, we decided to opt for the relative luxury of a cab ride. "Did you see that rain pour down?" the taxi driver enthused. "Man, what a storm."

Our train had sliced through bad weather along the NEC without incident, so we could only take the cabdriver's word as to storm severity. That is, until the next day, when my wife's colleague finally rolled into the office, late after being stranded on the runway due to the weather. "And after an hour on the tarmac, I turned to the guy behind me and said, 'I could have been eating dinner on a train heading home right now. But no. I'm in a hurry,'" she related.

That story, for me, is a metaphor for Amtrak's own stormy existence, criticized and ridiculed even when it performs (or even, at rare times, when it excels), as if whatever it can do in the NEC—Amtrak's home turf, after all—is a fluke, the exception that proves some rule of rail inferiority. "Trading Planes for Trains" is how the Times frames it—the very idea! How novel!

But it's an idea that we Corridor Kids in the Northeast have run with for quite some time, now not just between New York and D.C. but with Providence, R.I., and Boston in the mix. Even those off the immediate corridor, in Albany, N.Y., Springfield, Mass., Hartford, Conn., or Richmond and Norfolk, Va., now can see the NEC's prowess these days, and are scrambling to tap into it, directly or otherwise. The NEC is flawed and confined, but it is not and has not been static. It's dynamic, so much so that the editors of The Newspaper of Record have now "discovered" the NEC in much the same way they've "discovered" the Brooklyn renaissance—somewhat tardily.

My takeaway offered to Railway Age readers: If the NEC works this well, your part of the country can attain something as good, or better, and maybe even in your lifetime. It need not be true high speed rail, though California seems determined to show the way. It can be what's happening now in Illinois and Missouri and Michigan, centered on the Chicago hub; it can be the step-by-step improvements to the Cascadia Corridor; it can be the imaginative passenger plans being advanced by Florida East Coast Railway.

For, indeed, the NEC's success, while good news, is not new.

Douglas John Bowen

Douglas John Bowen is Managing Editor of RAILWAY AGE. He also served as Editor of Intermodal Age from 1989 to 1991, and has held various positions at Inbound Logistics magazine, High Speed Transport News, The Journal of Commerce, and CNN/Money. Bowen began his journalism career at the Asbury Park Press, a New Jersey daily newspaper. A graduate of Rutgers University, Bowen resides in Hoboken, N.J. He served as president of the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers (NJ-ARP) from 1987 to 2000 and again from 2004 to 2010, serving on the NJ-ARP board from 1984 until 2012; he remains a member of the statewide organization.