Plane Pain

As we near exam period, conversations about summer plans proliferate faster than outstanding course assignments. Harvard’s annual summer diaspora is just around the corner. As is the ordeal that makes it happen: travel.

Traveling is full of potential pitfalls. But in the U.S., it seems like those pitfalls are more difficult to avoid than in the EU. The airlines and airports here are a mess, and there is no real alternative. It is only a matter of time before Americans realize—as their European counterparts have—that, with Amtrak privatization, transport by train on the East Coast could be vastly more efficient and convenient than taking a plane.

The potential is clear. A one-way journey from Boston to Washington DC on Amtrak’s Acela Express takes 9 hours and 15 minutes, but over roughly the same distance from Frankfurt to Munich, Germany’s InnerCity Express (ICE) takes one-third the time and costs $30 less. For the same journeys, flights take approximately the same amount of time as ICE, but are cheaper in Europe than in the U.S. because airlines have to compete with train fares. After adding time for transport to the airport, security and check-in, ICE is very time-competitive with planes, whereas Amtrak doesn’t even come close.

In addition, travel on Western European trains is very reliable—ICE reports punctuality rates of 94 percent, just ahead of the pan-European Eurostar train’s 92 percent. European train operators have realized that few things annoy travelers more than transport delays. Amtrak has not. Its 77 percent on time rate puts it roughly on par with European and US flight punctuality. European trains also provide less quantitative benefits, including wireless internet, uninterrupted cell phone services, and something that planes will never have: Windows that open and fresh air. Unsurprisingly, while Amtrak stagnates in the U.S., more and more people are choosing trains for short or medium-distance jaunts instead of flying in Europe.

Given its mediocre service, consistent record of losing money (a debt of $3.5 billion as of this year), and insufficient federal investment proposed by President George W. Bush, the U.S. Congress needs to do what Britain did in the mid-90s: Privatize the national rail system. Historically, nationalized rail systems have often been trainwrecks. Before privatization, France’s national rail was 200 billion francs in debt, and the UK’s rail system was a heavy burden on tax-payers. Ten years down the track since privatization, the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) reports that the British National Rail currently holds Europe’s highest growth rate of passenger kilometers. Amtrak could do the same.

There are two major obstacles to privatization. Firstly, European governments used to own both the passenger service and the infrastructure it ran on, but private freight companies currently own most of Amtrak’s tracks. This issue could be overcome with long-term lease agreements between the freight companies and whichever private corporations buy Amtrak.

Secondly, the current demand for Amtrak’s services is too low to make trains profitable in most mid-western areas. The fact is, trains are unable to compete with planes on speed over very long distances, and with a tightened budget, service is no longer an incentive to customers. In this context, it is true that privatization could lead to cuts in Amtrak’s long-haul services and other currently unprofitable lines. If there are cuts, it will be a necessary cost for highly efficient and competitive, shorter journeys in the most used regions, the east and west coasts.

If Amtrak is privatized, the current, rather pathetic, state of train service in the U.S. soon will be a thing of the past. With private investment—and private sector standards of efficiency—Amtrak will finally be able to compete with planes on prices, reliability, service, and, over shorter distances, time.

In the meantime, the weather is getting warmer, and summer travel beckons. Come June, students will trek to an inconveniently located airport to stand in long queues and move heavy bags. After the usual questions (“Did you pack your own bag?” “No, my mother did.” “Right, step this way for a bag-search.” “But my mum’s not a…”), their reward will be to crouch for a few hours with legroom barely sufficient for the small child sitting behind them, happily kicking the seat. It’s probably best to take a few sleeping pills and nap on a paper pillow.


Emily C. Ingram ’08, a Crimson editor, is a English and American literature and language concentrator in Eliot House.