Trains

ToolboxThe train station in Zaragoza was quite impressive — modern, clean, well organized, international signage, and easy to read information. There was a security screening station with passport check and luggage scanning just before going down the escalator to board the train. First class assigned seating was just 10% more than eoncomy. The train left exactly on time and the ride was extremely fast and smooth. The food was excellent.
Unfortunately, I have to contrast this with this morning’s train expereince with Amtrak from Washington, DC to Stamford, CT. There was no luggage or bagage security check — none. There was a single agent who was controlling access from the waiting area to the escalator down to the train. Even though the outbound train had been at the station for at least a half hour, all the passengers were queued up in the crowded waiting area. The agent opened the door to the escalator at 10:25 for a 10:30 train. She then called for families with children to board first. Business class was called next but after a few got through the crowded doorway, the agent called for all passengers to board. It was nothing less than chaotic. Not surprisingly, the train left ten minutes late. The conductor collected tickets onboard and asked for photo ID’s — on the train after the train had left the station. The train ride was comfortable but not nearly as smooth as European trains. I would gladly give up some comfort and convenience for better security. The lack of any security was stuning. There was a line of large suitcases at the rear of the railcar and none of them had been scrutinized in any way.
There have no doubt been graduate degrees granted for in-depth studies of the differences between the American and European train systems but I could not find them with casual searching. There is a definite difference in the staffing levels and that seems to account for part of the on-time vs. not-on-time. At least as large a factor was organization — allowing passengers to board as they arrive instead of having them all wait until the last minute is a basic of queuing theory.
The trip from Stamford to Washington is roughly 300 miles. From Zaragoza to Madrid is roughly 150 miles. The fare for CT/DC was $226 for business class — $.75 per mile. The Spanish fare was $210 for first class — $1.40 per mile. Not exactly apples to applies since the Spanish train was first class with full meal and beverage service. The Amtrak service was "business class" and it included free water or coffee. A further adjustment for the weakness of the U.S. dollar would close the gap a bit, but no matter how you look at it, the European rail service cost was quite a bit higher. As far as I can determine, all railroads around the world lose a lot of money.
It would be very interesting to see the financial performance of Amtrak versus the various train systems of Europe in some detail. At a high level, I discovered that the National Railroad Passenger Corporation and Subsidiaries (Amtrak) Financial Statements for September 30, 2003 showed revenue of $1+B (down 10% from prior year) and a loss of $1+B. Looks staggering — until you compare it with Europe which I read provides annual subsidies to railway systems of $50B.
The bottom line may be political. European politicians see rail service as fundamental to life on their continent whereas the U.S. political leaders may expect Amtrak to operate efficiently and be self-sufficient (+/- a $billion). It may be a chicken-and-egg problem. "Do better and we will invest in you". "We can’t do better because there is inadequate investment in the system — it takes more investment to make faster trains and that can compete with airlines". It is a very complex topic and I don’t claim to have figured it out. Most reports I have read say it is a management problem.