"Live tweeting Boston-Vancouver train trip starts now. The view from our window after first announced delay"

"30 mins later, movement all around. We remain."

"We're off! Only 2 hours late. Since we're scheduled to leave Albany at 7:05 we've got some elasticity."

"One reason to travel by train- rail ROW is far more interesting than highway. Sunset over railyard Palmer MA"

"Thanks for the memories Albany Renselaer train station."

"Amtrak's overworked and antiquated engines can't take the cold."

"Idled outside Sandusky, OH. 13 hours behind schedule. Nice view of some tumbled down cottages on Lake Erie. "

"Farewell train #449. Can't say we hardly knew you."

"Crew and passengers board buses together. Considering no one has eaten since lunch, spirits are high."

"A mirage? 34 hours after leaving Boston, the view from our non-train window."

Now on the west coast: "Have serious case of train envy. Sleek cars built in Spain within past decade. Cafe car"

"More cafe car"

Seattle train station. Wow.

Amtrak crew just handed out complementary snacks so we know we're screwed.

"So long, train#516. It was nice while it lasted."

"Second bus rescue in 3 days. This one in Bellingham WA. "

2014-01-29

Co.Exist

This Live-Tweeted Cross-Country Amtrak Journey Shows What's Wrong With America's Trains

Urban designer Julie Campoli just wanted to take a continent-spanning Amtrak journey. Turns out, Amtrak doesn't work as well as advertised.

If ever there was an argument for investing in improvements to America’s crumbling rail service and infrastructure, urban designer Julie Campoli’s epic Twitter rant about her journey on Amtrak over the last week might be it.

Her saga began on January 23, as she embarked on a train journey intended to take her across the continent, from Boston to Vancouver, to give a scheduled January 27 lecture at the University of British Columbia.

She originally had high hopes:

But the snags started coming quickly. She tweeted about the first announced delay at 10:38 a.m. on the morning she left, and her intention to live tweet her forthcoming adventure. Two hours later, the train finally left, but stalled again in Albany:

And it stopped again in Buffalo, with a broken horn. There, staff told her that because the engines are more than 50-years-old, it’s hard to get replacements when parts break. Eleven hours behind schedule, she crept into Cleveland as the crew served free lunch. Thirteen hours behind schedule, she made it to Sandusky, Ohio.

Then the switches failed because of the cold, with temperatures lower than had ever been seen before on that line. To be fair, Campoli was traveling during an unusually cold and snowy week across much of the country. She wonders whether her story is a lesson about Amtrak or is really about climate change.

By this point in the journey, she was feeling poetic:

She was forced to abort her goal of a cross-country trip through low-carbon travel in order to get to her lecture in time in Vancouver. From train 449, still en route, she reluctantly booked a flight that would take her from Chicago and arrived in Vancouver 34 hours after leaving from Boston. (That’s a distance that would take less than three hours to fly and 15 hours to drive in no traffic.)

President Obama has said that in the next 25 years he wants to connect 80% of the country’s population on a high-speed rail line. But Amtrak is headed in the wrong direction to achieve that vision. Despite carrying a record 31.6 million passengers in 2013 on more than 300 daily trains (at speeds "up to" 150 mph), Amtrak perennially loses money and operates under deficits that have caused it to defer needed improvements (the Acela corridor, from Boston to D.C. makes money, and is where the trains are the fastest). The latest federal budget entirely omits federal high-speed rail funding.

In the last few days, Campoli, ever optimistic, has been trying out Amtrak while she’s still on the West Coast, traveling from Portland to Vancouver again. The amenities proved nicer, with trains manufactured in the last 10 years and assigned seating that made the experience more pleasant. She even arrived early in Seattle, but then her luck ran out again. Just short of the Canadian border headed north, a freight train traveling ahead died and blocked the track. In most of the country, passenger and freight trains share the same rails; freight trains always have the right-of-way.

By then she knew the signs:

Soon, she was leaving train 516 and boarding a bus that had been sent to the rescue (her second bus rescue in two days). She’s not done yet, however, and plans one more trip out of Vancouver later this week. Follow her @juliecampoli if you want to see how she fares.

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4 Comments

  • Erin Crowe Conklin

    I agree that east of Harrisburg, PA, Amtrak is unreliable at best. The bit comparing the Amtrak trip to flying and driving is a bit misleading. "...she reluctantly booked a flight that would take her from Chicago and arrived in Vancouver 34 hours after leaving from Boston. (That’s a distance that would take less than three hours to fly and 15 hours to drive in no traffic.)" The writing makes it seem that those are the respective travel times from Boston to Vancouver, but the flying and driving times from Boston to Chicago.

  • Try Eurostar from London to Paris, Brussels et al.

    Super-smooth, eerily quiet and FAST.

    Nearest thing to riding a magic carpet this side of 1001 Nights.

  • Traveling by any means during the winter is likely to include delays, detours, and other non-trivial inconveniences. Amtrak only owns track on the east coast, which means slower rail speeds, delays due to freight traffic, and limited control over the many variables that contribute to a lot of the stoppages and delays that Ms. Campoli experienced. It might be better to think of Amtrak as 3 different rail networks: DC-Boston (the "Northeast Corridor"), everywhere else east of Chicago ("rural rail network"), and the western US (more scenic routes than high-speed transit). In the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak owns the rails and has very reliable service. In the rest of the east it is more of a 'lifeline' service, and out west it is a mix of a 'lifeline' service and tourism service.

    Also for some perspective, Boston to Vancouver is a shorter distance than Lisbon, Portugal to Moscow. I doubt many people in Europe (where the trains "work") would travel that distance by rail.

  • Matt Suppelsa

    Most people don't travel those distances in Europe, but I did. I went from London to Croatia, the Balkans, Eastern Europe, and then Moscow-Vladivostok on the Trans SIberian. The Russian leg was over 6,000 miles. And the entire rail system is operated by RZD, a state-owned company (like Amtrak).

    Not once did a train arrive more than 5 minutes late, and some of the journeys I took were over 45 hours. The same goes for all of my experience in Europe. I've travelled extensively on Amtrak and experienced the same thing as Julie Campoli most of the time.