Report: Amtrak’s Growing But Bleeding Money On Long Trips

Vice President Biden is hardly alone on the rails these days. When the sequester sparked the return of Amtrak Joe (as a senator, Biden famously made about 8,000 trips between Delaware to D.C. on the train), it coincided with a report from the Brookings Institution that says Amtrak ridership is up 55 percent in the last 15 years.

The report from the venerable left-leaning think tank (accompanied by this interactive map of each route’s ridership and revenue) includes another rosy number: 31 million people now take Amtrak each year, an all-time high, it says. More than 80 percent of riders travel on routes of 400 miles or less. Longer routes are bleeding money, according the report, to the tune of $614 million in 2011.

The report, issued March 1, created a flurry of positive tweets and articles about Amtrak repeating the Institution’s message: “American passenger rail is in the midst of a renaissance.”

But the Cato Institute, another think tank, quickly chimed in with a different train of thought and theories. Its reality check noted quite a few downers:

-1997 marked the “bottom of a trough in Amtrak ridership,” so it’s easy for today’s numbers to look impressive. Compare them to 1991 instead and the growth is 8 percent, not 55 percent. Air travel, by comparison, grew 68 percent in the same period.

-Population has grown 25 percent since 1991, so more riders might not reflect a growing preference for Amtrak.

-Amtrak ridership may be up, but intercity train travel is still so miniscule – accounting for just .36 percent of total intercity travel on all modes of transportation – that it’s nearly irrelevant.

-Bus travel between cities is growing faster than train travel.

-Amtrak twists its numbers. By categorizing maintenance as a capital expense instead of an operating expense, the organization can claim that its operating costs are half of what they really are. Cato says none of Amtrak’s lines are profitable when maintenance is taken into account.

-Amtrak counts its substantial state subsidies as revenue.

Sounds like average Joes still aren’t as excited about Amtrak as Biden is.

[Photo credit: Flicker user Russell Sekeet]

Photo Of The Day: Southern Cross Station

Train stations around the world all have their own personality. Often, they are great works of architecture. This photo from pkorsmok gives a different view of the lines and design of Southern Cross Station in Melbourne, Australia, capturing a quiet moment in a station that serves over 40,000 passengers a day.

Makes you want to get on a train, doesn’t it?

Have your own great travel photos? Submit them to the Gadling Flickr pool for a chance to be featured on Photo of the Day.

[Photo Credit: pkorsmok]

France Launches New Low Cost, High-Speed Train Service

Low cost
isn’t just for the skies anymore. This week, French rail service SNCF launched its new low cost service Ouigo, a no-frills option for the traveler that wants a more moderately priced ticket but wants to take advantage of the high-speed service that France is known for. The new train service will link Paris and Lyon to Marseille and Montpellier on the southern coast of France.

Service will commence April 2, 2013, but in an attempt to woo travelers, SNCF is offering up tickets for as low as 10 euros. Eventually tickets prices will go up to 85 euros. Regular TGV tickets can often be booked for much less if you happen to score a good promotion, but French travelers will tell you that often that means booking far in advance. Have a low cost option for last minute travel is always a good thing.

As is common with low cost airlines, room for baggage aboard the new Ouigo trains is limited, so if you’re planning on taking advantage, pack light, because after your first bag, your luggage will cost you.

Sound too good to be true? As with any low cost carrier, there are some catches:

  • You will have to catch the train in Marne-la-Vallée, where Euro Disney is located, just east of Paris.
  • You can only book on the Internet.
  • There is no bar. But don’t worry; you’re in France. You’re sure to find a bottle of red wine and a corkscrew at a local market.

[Photo Credit: Train Chartering and Private Rail Cars]

Welcome To Hell: Chinese Lunar New Year Travel Madness

Looking for a nice, quiet place for a late winter holiday this week? Then why not celebrate the Lunar New Year in China, along with a billion plus new friends, many of whom will hit the road to see family members during the chunyun or spring festival travel season that runs from about 15 days before Lunar New Year’s Day, which falls on February 10 this year, for 40 days.

Chinese New Year is the one time of year when everyone returns to their home villages to see family members and it’s been called the largest annual human migration in the world. If you think Disney World is crazy at Easter, you’ve never tried to get anywhere in China during the height of the chunyun season.

According to Xinhua, China’s state news agency, the Chinese will make 3.41 billion trips during the holiday season this year, up from a paltry 3.16 billion last season. In 2012, China’s trains carried more than 80 million passengers across a two-week span during the chunyun. Years ago, I spent a month traveling by train across China, from Urumqi to Shanghai in the summer, and the boarding procedures seemed like chaos personified to me. But during the New Year season, it’s not uncommon for serious melees to break out as harried travelers scramble to board and exit trains.

According to the Financial Times, train tickets are in such high demand during the holiday season that whole trains can sell out in seconds on the Internet. So companies have developed “ticket snatching” plug-ins that help Chinese travelers game the national railway ticket website. Why? According to NPR, the ticket site got 1.4 billion hits in a single day last year and crashed several times.

Some Chinese who can’t get train or plane tickets find creative ways to get home for the holiday. China Daily reports that one adventurous soul took a scenic route home, using “48 buses, a ferry, a free ride and his own feet to carry him 660km to his home town.” And a Ph.D student at Fudan University in Shanghai managed to cobble together a route home by buying eight separate train tickets.

But scoring tickets, fighting the crowds and breathing in near-toxic pollution is just part of the hellish Lunar New Year travel experience. Legions of young Chinese who have moved to cities also face social pressures when they return home to see their families.

It’s traditional to exchange red envelopes with cash inside and there’s pressure to demonstrate one’s status by laying down the yuan equivalent of Benjamins. And according to The West Australian, single Chinese career women with no imminent marriage plans have taken to renting proxy boyfriends to take home for the holidays, to avoid the awkward, “when are you going to get a boyfriend” questions. In Jiangsu province, male escorts were commanding as much as 2,000 yuan ($308) per day for their services.

The Chinese zodiac calendar works in 12-year cycles and the Year of the Dragon will give way to the Year of the Snake on February 10. The Year of the Dragon is an especially lucky year; the BBC reported last year that births would likely rise 5% in China during the auspicious year. There is some speculation that China’s economy could falter slightly this year from a post-Dragon hangover.

But the Year of the Snake might not be as dicey as it sounds. In the West, the snake is a symbol of deceit but not in China. People born in this year are said to be intuitive, graceful, introspective and refined. However, they are also viewed as manipulative and scheming and can also be excessively proud and vain. The last two snake years were tumultuous ones, in 1989 there was the Tiananmen Square massacre and 9/11 came during the last one.

Huffington Post Canada consulted Paul Ng, a philosopher and who opined that the Year of the Snake will be a great year for the travel industry.

“This year is favourable to [travel by water] because it’s the [year of the] water snake. I’ve said that cruise boats will do well this year and the aviation industry will do well as well,” Ng told HuffPost Canada Travel.

If you’d rather not brave the crowds to experience Lunar New Year madness in China, my colleague Reena Ganga has written a nice piece on where to enjoy this holiday Stateside.

[Photo credits: Harald Groven, Padmanaba01, and rickyqi on Flickr; AP]

Train In Vain: Four Days With A Pair Of Uzbek Prostitutes, Part Four

Read parts one, two and three of this story.

Day Four

I woke up in a sweat and was told by Marina that we had crossed into Turkmenistan, a country I had no transit visa for. The compartment was a white-hot crucible of heat that was exacerbated by the fact that none of the windows would open.

The train stopped at a dusty little outpost and the conductor, Ermat, already drunk at 10 a.m., came by with a hammer and began smashing out an entire large windowpane. I stepped out onto the platform to take some pictures of the train for posterity and was immediately accosted by a soldier. Marina rushed over and interpreted for me.

“He says you took a picture in a military area – you must give your film,” she said.”But all my pictures of this train trip are on this roll,” I said. “And I just took a shot of the train, not a military area. Tell him I’m keeping it.”

“Dayveed, please give it to him – you will be in trouble!” Marina protested.

Noticing that some kind of brouhaha was taking place, a crowd began to form behind me. After 70-some odd hours on the train I was in a foul mood, and almost didn’t care what happened to me. A small entourage formed behind me as I was asked to follow the soldier into an office in the station.

“Marina, tell him we don’t have time for this, our train could leave,” I protested.

“Just give him the film and we can go,” she pleaded.

“I am NOT giving him my film!” I insisted.

We were led into a large room where four other soldiers stood around below a framed photo of Turkmenbashi, the country’s mad dictator, who named days of the week and months after he and his mother, and banned opera, ballet and the circus, among other things.

After I refused once more to cough up my film they asked to see my visa for Turkmenistan. I handed them my passport and pointed out my Uzbek visa as well as my ornamental Kazakh one. It seemed logical at the time, but was probably akin to a Guatemalan showing up at Kennedy Airport with Mexican and Canadian visas and demanding to be let in.

“Day-VEED,” Marina said with a greater tone of urgency. “They say you must give them the film or you cannot leave!”

I opened up my camera and pulled out my film, stretching the whole roll in a highly theatrical manner and then spiked it down into a garbage can at one of the soldier’s feet and stormed away leaving the circle of onlookers shocked and speechless.

I stalked out of the office and back towards the train half expecting to be clubbed from behind, or placed into a gulag, but nothing happened. As I sat in my compartment a few witnesses came in and just looked at me as though I were a mental patient, and I began to think that perhaps I would be if we didn’t get to Bukhara soon.

A very well dressed young man who turned out to have been from Tajikistan approached me, and said, in flawless English, “I think you just did a very foolish thing. You have to realize where you are and be more careful. These people will put you in jail – they don’t care if you are American.”

A few hours later, our train passed across the Uzbek border and a couple of moneychangers began working the train. Marina explained that if I changed money at a bank I’d get only 200 Uzbek Som to the dollar, compared to 700 or more with a moneychanger. The rub was that the largest denomination was a 200-som note, so if you wanted to change $100 on the black market, you’d have to be ready to carry a huge bundle of notes. Changing money on the black market was technically illegal, so one needed to be discreet and have a big bag to carry the notes in.

An hour after my neighbors tricked me into believing that we’d arrived in Bukhara, we did in fact pull into the station, but I didn’t believe them until I actually saw Marina alight onto the platform. Aliya and Dima, who seemed like a married couple by this point in the trip, still had several hours to go until Tashkent, but joined us out on the platform to see us off.

I felt utterly exhausted, like some starving, island castaway who’d just been rescued. We had boarded the train on Monday at 11:30 a.m. and it was 3:40 p.m. on Thursday as we arrived in Bukhara. We had spent almost a full workweek on board.

I wasn’t sure whether Marina was going to share a cab with me into town or if she didn’t ever want to see me again. Dima and Aliya hugged me goodbye, and I felt like I’d miss them. I hardly knew them, but I felt as though we’d been through a terrible ordeal together. Aliya, who had the top button of her Al Pacino Couture jeans unbuttoned, Al Bundy style, said, “Dayveed, can you fax me a visa to America?”

“Fax you a visa?” I asked incredulously.

“Yes, I want to come to America – Cal-eee-forn-ya.”

This is a five part series that will run in installments this week. Check back tomorrow for the final part of this story.

Read part one, two and three.

Click here for the final part to this story.

[Photos by peretzp and David Stanley on Flickr]