Monday, November 10, 2008

Riding the rails

I want to love the Acela. But it just keeps confounding me. Earlier in the fall, I booked a seat from Boston all the way to Washington. I viewed it as an experiment: yes, it takes more time than flying, but you can get work done, and six hours is worth it for the reduced energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. I stacked appointments behind my scheduled arrival at Union Station. Somewhere in Connecticut we came to a dead stop; a drawbridge ahead failed to close properly. OK, I thought, a little mishap, but maybe we’ll make up the time. Not only was that not the case -- when we finally pulled into New York an hour late, we were told we would remain in Penn Station for an hour. I asked a conductor and she said something about "missing our slot." The afternoon's appointments were obliterated. On a more recent trip – ironically to a conference, Re-Imagining Cities: Urban Design after the Age of Oil, on the way to New York we were told we would be late because conditions were “slippery” and slowing things down. Doesn't it rain in France and Japan? Don’t high-speed trains work there in all kinds of weather? Finally, after meeting with my editors at Random House, I went to Penn Station to catch a 7 a.m. Acela for the short trip to Philadelphia. Train canceled. No explanation. Finally, a barely audible announcement: there was an equipment shortage. The Carolina was scheduled to depart at 7:05, and Acela ticket-holders herded toward that platform -- only to get attitude about honoring the more expensive Acela ticket on the less expensive service. Several other people were delayed getting to the conference -- the same gathering Jane Jacobs, Lewis Mumford, Ian McHarg and others attended 50 years ago. One prominent topic was of course infrastructure, and the Northeast corridor service is the model for the rest of the nation -- but it needs to work. The original, perfectly reasonable goal was a three-hour trip from Boston to New York. The train can't seem to make three and a half hours. As a reporter for The Boston Globe I covered the various reasons why there were so many problems with the Acela, but I still don't understand them or why they can't be addressed. The staff seems to have a blasé attitude about being on time and going fast. The traveling public needs to go fast, and we need reliable service, for short-haul regional trips by rail to catch on. As reauthorization of the federal transportation bill approaches, and after voter approval of a $10 billion bond issue for new high-speed rail service in California, policymakers will be asking the question: how does it actually work? By the way, former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis will be at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy Nov. 19 at noon to talk about the future of rail in the U.S., as a more transit-friendly administration prepares to move into office.