What does Amtrak need more than high-speed rail?

The opinions stated here are my own, not those of my company.

Last month I took a refreshing vacation. I headed out of New York to see great American sights like the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls.

I decided the best way to travel was through Amtrak, taking advantage of their USA Rail Pass. For a flat $500, you get ten trips anywhere you want over the course of a month. With a bit of time and research I meticulously planned out my trip all around the country, heading all the way to Seattle, through Arizona, and up to the top of New York on trains.

I created a short video montage every day of my travels, set to a relatable song for my location.

My several-week trip gave me a great look at the state of Amtrak today and areas of improvement. With Amtrak set to receive around $66 billion in infrastructure funding, it would be good to analyze where this money could best be put to use.

High-speed rail is great for the northeast corridor, given its high usage and profitability, but Amtrak is not profitable elsewhere. While profitability alone shouldn’t be a reason, it seems unlikely that people will prefer going from New York to Seattle by train if they could get there faster by air.

My trip took three days, and I chose that intentionally because I wanted to chill on a train. With that said, it would be great to double-down on what Amtrak does well and fix what it does not.

Wi-Fi improvements

I had a really difficult time connecting to the Wi-Fi. While my phone had service more often than not, we went through plenty of areas where I had no service at all. The Wi-Fi was flaky the whole way.

Taken in North Dakota

I can understand why there aren’t many cell towers in the middle of North Dakota, but that doesn’t mean the Wi-Fi needs to be unreliable. Extra investment in satellite Internet options, perhaps working with Starlink, could improve bandwidth and reliability no matter where in the country we were headed.

Improve the luxury experience

The rail pass gives you a seat in coach. You don’t get a sleeper car. This meant that I had to sleep in that seat overnight. It’s actually not bad. Unlike a plane, you get a lot of leg room. There’s a footrest in front of you. You can lean the chair back without disturbing your neighbors. I did not find it difficult to fall asleep.

But the rest of the experience felt much less luxurious. While I brought a few snacks, most of my meals came from the café car. We would order some hot meal that they’d microwave for a minute. The food would be taken upstairs to one of the magnificent viewing cars to eat.

The food served and drinks could stand to be improved. The service as well could be changed to give more of an inviting feel.

Rum and coke. Some assembly required.

For example, I ordered a rum and coke, as they have a number of alcoholic options for adults. They gave me a single-use bottle of rum and a can. I went back to my seat to pour it myself.

Imagine if they had more of a professional bar that made riding on a train fun. I’m on a train the whole way, I’m not going to drive anywhere. I can just go right back to my seat and sleep. They’re serving drinks anyway, but it feels like the bare minimum. They could’ve mixed my drink. They could have beers on tap based on local breweries rather than the same bottles everywhere I went.

For people travelling cross-country, it makes sense to invest in the experience because they’re not taking Amtrak for the speed. Why take a train? Making it more appealing than flights could be an easy sell.

Find delays and implement climate resiliency

On one leg of the trip I had to hang out in the middle of a station at 1 in the morning to wait for a bus to take us to the next train stop. Two hours I waited for that bus, for a trip that was going to take about as long. I called Amtrak and spoke to a representative who didn’t know where the bus was. It left its origin and they couldn’t track it or provide an ETA.

I tell that story as an outlier, as the majority of my travels were on-time. However, on the 14th there were heavy storms in Virginia. Trees fell onto the tracks. Some parts flooded. Passengers had to sit there on the train and accept being stuck.

Six and a half hours late

Instead of coming into the station at a reasonable hour, the ride dragged on into the middle of the night. Nobody on the train was happy about this, but nobody was really at fault.

Climate change is going to make trains worse without resiliency efforts. While cars can easily detour, a train can’t go anywhere if there’s downed trees ahead. Tracks in flood-prone areas can make hundreds of passengers stuck there without any mitigation.

Just like how New York’s subway system flooded from Hurricane Ida, it’s clear that efforts need to be taken to shore up our transit system from these effects. Reducing the ability of tracks to flood and improving the effectiveness of emergency response teams are two critical steps to ensure the resiliency of travel in the coming decades.

Improve the frequency of trains

Some people regularly share idealistic maps of nationwide high-speed rail that would be costly and time-consuming to build. But I don’t think that’s as critical as improving the service of existing lines.

When scheduling my travels, I had to do it around Amtrak’s schedule, not mine. When I was in Flagstaff, Arizona, I had to be at the station for a train that would arrive at 4:30am.

A sunrise in Arizona

I didn’t want to be up that early, but I had no choice. There is only one passenger line that comes through Flagstaff every day, and it was at that time. If I missed it, I would be stuck for another day. I’d have to go back to my hotel and try to reserve an extra day. It would be quite frustrating.

Amtrak could put some of that funding just to run more trains. Do it twice a day or three times. The lack of frequency certainly must play a role in the number of riders. In the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak runs much more frequently. My travels to upstate New York were much more reasonable.

Trains are fun. More people should have fun.

High-speed Wi-Fi, luxury bars, resilient infrastructure, and frequent trains are all expensive endeavors. Yet I’d argue that they would do much more to improve the quality of the average passenger than nationwide high-speed rail.

For the Northeast Corridor, where people are actively commuting every day, yes we should improve travel speeds and fund high-speed rail projects. Yet for the rest of the country the benefits are less clear.

In my experience, Amtrak is not going to compete and win with airlines. They’ll be faster. The real competition is with cars, and the goal should be getting people to drive less and take trains when going cross-country. In pursuit of this endeavor, Amtrak can create a vision of luxury line that lets you relax instead of drive and feel more comfortable than a plane.

Social Media Expert -- Rowan University 2017 -- IoT & Assistant @ Google