Riding the train is a fine way to travel. No worries about freeway traffic, parking or lousy weather derailing your trip.
Instead of narrow, confining airline seats that have you rubbing shoulders with passengers next to you, train seating is plenty wide with generous leg room so you can kick back, relax and enjoy the scenery. If you need to stretch your lower limbs, you can get up and walk around, stroll to the dining car and get yourself a sandwich or some liquid refreshment.
A friend and I recently took Amtrak from Mineola to Dallas and back. We thought it would be fun, and the ticket prices were reasonable – just $34 each for a roundtrip. The train rolled along smoothly and quietly, gently rocking here and there as it chugged nonstop between Mineola and Union Station. The trip took about an hour and 45 minutes.
Although riding the train was enjoyable, waiting for it was not. We’re not talking half-hour delays; we’re talking waits that stretched for hours. Our train was scheduled to depart Mineola at 9:25 a.m. Friday. It left close to 12:30 p.m. On Sunday’s return trip, it was supposed to leave Union Station at 3:40 p.m. It pulled out nearly five hours late at 8:30 p.m. During our brief three-day trip, we spent about eight hours of it waiting for the train. In talking to fellow passengers, we learned that – at least in these parts – long delays are the rule, not the exception.
It got me to wondering why Amtrak has such trouble running on time. I understand that each case of train tardiness is unique; still, there remains a common thread that accounts for much of the problem. In most of the United States, Amtrak operates on tracks owned by freight railroads, and those tracks are becoming more congested. According to the Rail Passengers Association (RPA), 70 percent of Amtrak delays are caused by host railroads, whose trains interfere with Amtrak.
In 2008, Congress passed the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act (PRIIA), and Amtrak’s overall on-time performance went from 75% in 2008 to nearly 85% in 2009. The Texas Eagle (the train we took) shot up from a 22% on-time rate to 96%! But passenger train protections in the PRIIA were struck down by the courts in 2014, and freight interference incidents subsequently tripled. Amtrak’s on-time performance plummeted, according to the RPA.
I’m not inclined to wade into the dense legal underbrush when it comes to the PRIIA and its court challenges. All I know is that Amtrak can be considered reliably late. At least it issues text updates on the degree of its lateness.
I still consider riding the rails a good way to go, but some words of advice: Don’t be in a hurry.