Transportation headlines, Wednesday, May 20

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The 101 with Metro headquarters in  background. (Photo via Instagram user @dtla_everyday)

The 101 and Metro Gold Line with Metro headquarters in background. (Photo via Instagram user @dtla_everyday)

Why Congress can’t solve America’s infrastructure crisis (The Atlantic)

An article explaining the imbroglio surrounding the passing of a long-term federal transportation spending bill. The article was published after Congress yesterday passed a stopgap bill to continue transportation funding until the end of July. Without a long-term spending outlook, it’s hard for state and local governments to plan for larger, long-term projects.

The article notes that the federal gas tax hasn’t gone up in more than 20 years, so using that as a sustainable funding source any time soon is out of the question. But one possible revenue stream could come from repatriated earnings — essentially taxing foreign earnings from U.S. companies.

There are issues with this idea too. Such a proposition may require a complete tax overhaul. And there is the question of whether it would provide enough revenue.

If Amtrak were an airline (The New Yorker)

A good read comparing Amtrak’s customer-friendly policies and comparing them to how the airlines handle similar scenarios. The entire article is worth a read, but this excerpt sums up the comparison well:

In short, if Amtrak were run like an airline, we would see smaller seats, punitive booking practices, baggage schemes, and, quite possibly, higher prices.

Given the dependence some people have on Amtrak to commute, the company is probably failing to extract its monopoly profits. On the other hand, not everyone would lose out.

Amtrak’s C.E.O., with his three-hundred-and-fifty-thousand-dollar salary, is grossly underpaid by the standards of the airline industry. Compare that to the American Airlines C.E.O., who, thanks to a successful merger, took home twenty-one million dollars in 2013.

This article comes after Amtrak was hit with two major blows last week: a derailment that killed eight and injured hundreds and a $251-million funding cut. Since then, there’s been some debate in our own comments about the merits of privatizing Amtrak.

This article seems to suggest if that ever happened, passengers might expect to open their wallets for just about everything, though it really only works for airlines because of the speed they can provide.

Some people do more than text while driving (N.Y. Times Bits Blog)

The results of a survey of 2,000 drivers released yesterday shows that texting is no longer the only thing drivers are doing on their phones. The list of other mobile distractions has expanded to include Facebook, Twitter and even taking selfies, although texting is still one of the predominant activities.

The AT&T commissioned survey reveals that distracted driving and the allure of constant connectivity is still on the rise, despite widespread public safety campaigns reiterating the repercussions of fines and accidents.  The article tries to explain the disconnect:

First, policy and safety efforts to discourage distracted driving are flying in the face of strong social pressure to stay connected. It’s also flying in the face of market forces and new technology that encourage constant connectedness. That’s summed up in the auto industry’s idea du jour: touch-screen Infotainment.

Another reason the article suggests drivers continue to use their phones while driving despite the risks is that they believe they can do it safely. In my own experience, that belief is probably the most prevalent among distracted drivers and is also the hardest to overcome for safety advocates.

Amazon is using NYC’s subway system for Prime Now deliveries (Consumerist)

Amazon confirmed some of its Amazon Prime Now orders are now being delivered using the New York City Subway. The relatively new Prime Now service guarantees deliveries within one or two hours after placing an order. So why would a company choose to use public transportation to make deliveries? The answer is obvious in a city like New York: it’s faster.

Here’s what happened when a neighborhood decided to give up cars for a month (Fast Company)

A story that looks at what happened when an entire neighborhood in the South Korean city of Suwon went car-free by removing 1,500 cars from its streets for a month. I don’t want to give it all away, but I leave you with the article subtitle: “Everyone loved it, obviously. And the world didn’t fall apart.” Imagine that.

I write my own science fiction when I ride (Zocalo Public Square)

Renaud M. Deffence. Photo: Zocalo Public Square

Renaud M. Deffence. Photo: Zocalo Public Square

The latest in the ongoing series of Metro rider profiles by Zocalo.

Feel free to follow me on Twitter for transit and sometimes non-transit related musings.

15 replies

  1. Actually, the point that K Town Commuter makes can be applied here in comparison to other countries’ short/long haul travel choices as well.

    If I were to use Europe as an example as a comparison to the US, if I were to get between the two major cities of London and Paris, I’d rather take the Eurostar than take a flight on British Airways or Air France because it’s so close together, can be done via rail in a reasonable time at a reasonable cost and it avoids the hassles of going through airport security at Heathrow or Charles de Gaulle and be in a cramped passenger jet.

    But if I had to go from London to Athens, Greece which is quite far apart and at the opposite ends of Europe, I wouldn’t take a train over multiple days when I can fly on British Airways or Aegean Airlines or any number of low-cost budget airlines which is cheaper and a faster option. The same would apply if I had to go from Aeropuerto de Madrid Barajas Adolfo Suárez to Moscow–Domodedovo or Moscow–Sheremetyevo. But if I’m going from Madrid to Barcelona, the AVE HSR is a much better option to travel 386 miles than flying.

    Or let’s say even in the case of a small country like South Korea. If were to get between two major cities like Seoul and Busan, I’d take the KTX instead of taking an intra-Korea domestic flight on Korean Air or Air Busan for the sake of the hassles involving going to Seoul-Gimpo or Busan-Gimhae.

    However, if I were to be travelling from Seoul to Hong Kong, I wouldn’t contemplate taking the train if it even existed, and would rather fly on Korean Air, Asiana, Cathay Pacific, or any number of flights out of Seoul-Incheon’s superb airport hub to get to HK. For all I care, they can re-establish commercial rail travel past the Dorasan Station at the DMZ to North Korea for a future rail link from South Korea to the rest of Eurasia, I still won’t take the train. The only viable aspect of a future rail link past Dorasan is for freight rail which undoubtedly is what South Korea wants for the export driven market economy.

    Being said that, the above are fine examples that are similar to how I make my choices of taking Amtrak between short intra-city routes like LA to San Diego or Boston to NYC, whereas I would never consider Amtrak as my top pick to get to long distances such as LAX-SEA or LAX-ORD. Being said that, it’s also quite impossible to do LAX-ANC or LAX-HNL by rail either; we sure haven’t perfected building rail over large bodies of water or have yet to reach an agreement with the Canadians to establish a long distance rail travel link between the US and Canada (and the Amtrak Cascades is quite a joke today despite having a great opportunity to focus on a potential Vancouver-Seattle-Portland HSR corridor).

  2. “Yes, the train takes longer. I relish the opportunity to relax, enjoy the scenery, read a good book or just generally chill out. That way I am way happier and content upon arrival. No stress involved.”

    What you want and expect trains to be like:

    What reality is like in the real world:

    Get back to me when you experienced train travel on the Seoul Subway system at peak commuting hours and do that for a week. Then imagine doing that for the rest of your life on your daily commute. The joy will be sucked out of you, and your perspective of trains will be downgraded to a mere “meh, it gets me from point A to point B, nothing more, nothing less.”

    • Everybody’s got a complaint. We were talking about longer distance train rides, not urban commuting on a subway, two very different things.

      • Depends if one’s definition of “longer distance” train rides differs from mine.

        LA Metro seems to not know the difference. It’ll soon be possible to travel almost 40 miles from Santa Monica to Azusa on one single line once the Expo Phase II, Regional Connector and Gold Line Foothill Extension is all built.

        One can also take Metrolink from Simi Valley to LA Union and that’s also roughly 40 miles.
        One can also take Amtrak from LA Union Station to Irvine, CA too and that’s also 40 miles.

        Tell me, if they are all 40 miles, is 40 miles on Metro “shorter” than 40 miles on Metrolink or Amtrak? What’s the difference? Please elaborate your logic.

        • That’s easy. The original correspondents on this thread were not discussing urban subway commutes or Metro at all, but rather Amtrak versus airlines for long-distance business travel. The specific examples used were LA to San Diegp – 120 miles. LA to Seattle – 1100 miles. Etcetera. None were less distance, some were more.

          Apples and oranges.

      • “The specific examples used were LA to San Diegp – 120 miles. LA to Seattle – 1100 miles. Etcetera. None were less distance, some were more.

        Apples and oranges.”

        So you think there is no such thing as overcrowded trains for long distance travel? Discuss Bangladesh and India:

        • Another irrelevancy. The discussion thread was about train versus air travel within the United States, not other countries.

  3. “Amtrak’s C.E.O., with his three-hundred-and-fifty-thousand-dollar salary, is grossly underpaid by the standards of the airline industry. Compare that to the American Airlines C.E.O., who, thanks to a successful merger, took home twenty-one million dollars in 2013.”

    If American Airlines shareholders believe boardmembers are doing a good job in making money for them, they will allow the Doug Parker to rake in $21 million per year.

    Conversely, if Amtrak were privatized, and if shareholders see that Amtrak is doing a good job in posting profits for them, they would allow salary increases for Joseph H. Boardman as well.

    “This article seems to suggest if that ever happened, passengers might expect to open their wallets for just about everything”

    If privatization for Amtrak happens, the decision to raise fares, make other necessary adjustments to their operations and rewarding the boardmembers will also be shared by Amtrak shareholders as well. And unlike government owned Amtrak where input is vague, anyone can become a shareholder and provide direct input.

    In the end, shareholders have only one motive: making money. Just because Amtrak raises fares doesn’t mean it will end up making money for shareholders. You already see that with Metro (raising fares, less passenger ridership, less revenue). If Kellogg’s suddenly jacked up a box of Raisin Bran cereal to $20 in hopes of making more money, do you think Kellogg’s is going to be making any money? Most likely their competitor, General Mills will be posting record profits because consumers decide to buy their Raisin Nut Bran at $4 per box than paying $20 for Kellogg’s Raisin Bran. And shareholders of Kellogg’s will be angry at Kellogg’s boardmembers for doing a stupid decision to raise Raisin Bran to $20 per box.

    Furthermore, it likely that the potential shareholders of Amtrak are those who are supporters of mass transit and believe that Amtrak can be a good long term investment for retirement. If you like mass transit, see it as a good investment for our nation’s infrastructure, and can post good profits to help fund your retirement, why wouldn’t you want to purchase Amtrak stocks and own a piece of Amtrak yourself? I know I would, I have $50,000 in my IRA account that I would happily buy Amtrak stocks with as I see it has good potential and believe it to be a good investment. My $50,000 would be used solely for the benefit of Amtrak that Amtrak can use immediately as capital. But as it stands today, since Amtrak is government owned, I cannot give directly fund and invest $50,000 to Amtrak. The only way that I can do is to give $50,000 to our federal government who’d likely waste it in fighting some stupid war or something.

  4. “though it really only works for airlines because of the speed they can provide.”


    Speed is not the only factor that I look at when I consider to use Amtrak versus plane. The other, more important factor IMO in my choice is whether the distance involved between the two cities I intend to travel is worth it to involve the hassles of said travel or not. I look at the overall picture, the time it takes me to leave my house and be at my destination, including all the factors involved in said travel, to give me an estimate on what method of transportation provides with a comfortable experience in a reasonable time.

    As I’ve stated several times, I would not contemplate taking a plane between LAX-SAN or BOS-JFK when Amtrak provides a better service in such short intra-city distances. The only way I would take a flight between LAX-SAN or BOS-JFK is when there is a long haul flight involved before those flights and I’m connecting to that hub to the final destination, like ICN-LAX-SAN or HKG-JFK-BOS.

    Balancing it out, if I were to take the plane for the reason of getting between LA and San Diego or New York and Boston, the plane would involve me getting to the airport 2 hours early, going through the joyous benefits (sarcasm) of TSA security, taking a shuttle to a commuter terminal, waiting for boarding onto a dinky commuter jet, waiting for other passengers to board, waiting for pushback, the dreaded “we’re number X for takeoff,” all for 15 minutes in the air to do the same thing again upon landing, and hearing the dreaded words “there’s still a plane at the gate so it’ll still be a while before we pull into the gate.” The Pacific Surfliner and Acela are far more easier in that there are less hassles involved and that when I factor all the “wasted time” involving air travel, it’s much less of a hassle to take Amtrak instead between LA and San Diego or Boston to NY.

    Being said that, again, I do balance out what works best for me for long distance travel. I would never contemplate in taking Amtrak between LA and NYC, or LA to Seattle either.

    Planes have their place in transporting many passengers over long distances in a reasonable time.
    Planes however, suck at transporting many passengers over short distances in a reasonable time.

    Trains have their place in transporting many passengers over shorter distances in a reasonable time.
    Trains however, suck at transporting many passengers over long distances in a reasonable time.

    What is “reasonable” depends on service, the overall experience (less hassle the better), their speed, and the distance between the two cities. I consider Acela between Boston to NY, or even from Boston to Washington DC a reasonable travel that can be done over air travel. It is a good service that links close intra-city distances without the hassles of post 9/11 over-reaching security like planes. It is less prone to weather delays especially in the winter time. I don’t feel cramped in a dinky commuter jet and can avoid the hassles of wasted time like boarding, pushback, sitting on the runway, etc.

    On the West Coast, I consider LA to San Diego on the Pacific Surfliner my first method of travel over plane or driving between two major CA cities barely 101 miles apart. Now if there was a HSR service between LA and SF, whenever it’s built and promises to deliver the speeds, it would too would become my first choice rather than the two crappy choices of driving on the I-5 or taking the dreaded LAX-SFO flights that are prone to many delays due to the fogs in the Bay Area.

    But that does not mean I will take the Southwest Chief as my main choice to go between LA and Chicago or the Coast Starlight between LA and Seattle either as the distance involved and the speeds are too slow, even adding in the hassles of air travel. The plane will get me faster between LAX-ORD or LAX-SEA than Amtrak. Those travels, my main choice is American Airlines (LAX-ORD) or Alaska Airlines (LAX-SEA).

    • Personally, I very much enjoy traveling on Amtrak long distances as well as short. I visit San Diego a few times a year and would never consider flying, as Amtrak provides reliable and, most importantly, comfortable service. I cannot overstate the importance of comfortable. Evidently there are many others who agree, for on my last trip to Seattle the Amtrak train was very long, with many train cars holding many people, yet the ride remained comfortable. And being comfortable means we arrive feeling at ease and refreshed rather than worn out, rushed and harried, as is often the case after flying. In my extensive experience of traveling, flying is almost always a royal pain, which has grown ever worse with the advent of the TSA nonsense that doesn’t even serve to protect anyone. Yes, the train takes longer. I relish the opportunity to relax, enjoy the scenery, read a good book or just generally chill out. That way I am way happier and content upon arrival. No stress involved.

      • Bruce,

        Your travel seems to be mainly personal. My travels are mainly business. Business travel needs are different from personal travel needs and is a large market in itself that many in the transportation business cater towards. Business travelers are the biggest spenders in transportation due to business contracts and the constant need to be on the move.

        For business travelers, multiple factors need to be taken into consideration than just things like comfort. Time, distance, speed, hassle, stress, all needs to be balanced out to see what works best.

        I do not have the luxury of wasting time on Amtrak to go from LA to Seattle or LA to Chicago when the plane is quicker. I choose to fly for such distances. If my job requires me leave LA at 5:00AM and be in Chicago before 2:00PM, the only way to get there is by flying. And if I have to leave Chicago to Tokyo two days later, I can’t do that on Amtrak either.

        I do not have the luxury of wasting time or dealing with the hassles of flying to go from LA to San Diego or Boston to New York. I choose Amtrak for such distances. If my job requires me to be in San Diego by afternoon, I can catch the 9:50AM train and be in San Diego before 1:00PM. The stress is less here than flying from LAX to SAN. If my job requires me to be in New York the two days later, I’m taking the plane from SAN-JFK. And if I need to be in Boston the two days later after that, I get on Acela than flying.

        Business is business, and business travel is a lot more different to personal travel.

        • That is a curious leap to a wrong conclusion based on false assumptions. Remember the old rule about “to assume…” Such a rush to judgement would have the potential to cause no end of grief in my line of work, in which facts, precision and accuracy are paramount.

          About 80% of my extensive travel has been for business, sometimes on short notice. Of course there is the occasional (rare) need for some element of speed. Otherwise, in my experience, “haste makes waste” and the push to do things quickly or without deliberation is usually a mistake. Most things do not really require such haste. I live by the creed that if something is worth doing, it is worth doing well, and that means taking care to get it right.

          Likely we are in very different businesses. I have a very loyal long term client base who have come to see that if they want the consistently high quality completely reliable results for which I am well regarded, pushing for haste is not part of the equation unless absolutely necessary. Most people demand haste out of habit rather than need.

          But seldom must I play hopscotch from place to place, as you describe needing to do. Mostly I will remain in one place from two weeks to three months to get the job done, sometimes six months. My most recent trip to Seattle was for three months work, for example. For such extended stays, I prefer to arrive relaxed and unhurried, with prep work done on board, in peaceful frame of mind, which is how I work best. Many of the other passengers on that train were also business travelers with a similar goal.

          Thus Amtrak often serves the needs of long distance business travelers as well or better than airlines. We all have different needs and expectations.

      • Both have provided good reasons to take Amtrak or airlines, so I did a compare/contrast analysis by doing a price booking online for early June.

        Long distance travel:

        Amtrak LA Union Station to Seattle: $181.00 one way and takes over 34 hours
        Alaska Airlines LAX to SEA: $79 one way and takes less than 3 hours

        It’s cheaper and faster to fly. I’d assume when picking between spending over twice as much to get to a destination that takes over one day, the obvious choice most people will choose will be Alaska Airlines than taking Amtrak.

        Short distance travel:

        Amtrak LA Union Station to San Diego: $37.00 one way and about 2.75 hours
        American Airlines LAX to SAN: $271.00 one way in 56 minutes (plus, factoring in the time wasted in the “hassles of air travel”)

        The plane seems like it’s only 56 minutes, but as LAX Frequent Flyer has said, for 56 minutes in the air, there’s also hassles and time wasted getting to the airport, clearing security, etc. etc. And to spend $271 for a flight to San Diego doesn’t seem to be worth it when Amtrak can get you there for $37.00 in about 2.75 hours, which is probably the amount of time spent anyway when one were to count all the time spent getting to the airport to make the 56 minute flight to SAN anyway. Also, the plane to San Diego is on a small commuter jet called a CRJ which barely seats 50 passengers. Too cramped for most people, even if it’s only a 56 minute flight.

        If time being spent is equivalent, I think most people will take the service that costs only $37.00 and is more relaxing than and commuter plane. However, one also would consider that most people living in LA would also rather drive to San Diego also, especially if they are a family or a group of friends.

  5. “In short, if Amtrak were run like an airline, we would see smaller seats, punitive booking practices, baggage schemes, and, quite possibly, higher prices.”

    Biased media and incompetent article writers who do little fact checking and writes articles based solely on “gut feeling” strikes again. Any person who has spent many times on both trains and planes in many countries all around the world would say that this article writer does not understand anything about travel.

    The article writer fails to see that Amtrak were run like an airline, it would also be in direct competition with airlines so they will need to offer something better than what airlines provide to gain market share. What the article writer states is mere conjecture without providing examples that such has ever taken place anywhere else in the world where trains do operate like an airline. It has not lead to smaller seats, or outrageously high prices.

    If you look at how the intra-city rail lines in UK, France, Germany, Japan or Korea are in direct competition to their domestic airlines whether it be from London to Paris, Stuttgart to Munich, Tokyo to Osaka or Seoul to Busan, just because the Eurostar, TGV, ICE, Shinkansen or KTX is in direct competition with British Airways, Virgin Airways Air France, Lufthansa, Ryanair, JAL, ANA, Korean Air, or Asiana has not meant smaller seats. What does a train offer better than a plane? Bigger seats, relaxed atmosphere, the less hassle of the wonderous airport experience.

    The idea of “punitive booking practices” cannot be done as most airlines operate point-to-point and their entire reservation systems are based on city-to-city pricing and passenger demand on each particular route.

    On the other hand, trains aren’t point-to-point, they are are a route based system where they make multiple stops along a particular route. It’s much more difficult to create a “punitive booking system” based on a travel option where passenger A is going from LA to Chicago, whereas passenger B is only going from LA to Alburqueque, whereas passenger C is only going from LA to Barstow, while passenger D gets onboard Barstow to Chicago, but passenger E is getting on at Kansas City heading to Chicago.

    “Punitive booking practices” are more easier to do on airlines because you really can’t hop on an American Airlines flight from LAX-ORD while picking up/discharging passengers at ABQ and MCI along the way. Many airlines have ditched that practice of multiple destination airports in preference to direct routes and if needed transfers/connecting flights are only done at major hub airports (i.e. ORD, DFW, MIA, JFK, LAX, etc.).

  6. Terrific articles you have provided links to! You guys are doing a great job. I love reading the stuff you post. Sometimes I read while on the bus or train… just have to make sure I don’t miss my stop! Many thanks for your good efforts.