More Frustrated Fliers Taking to the Rails

By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 29, 2008

Jada Golden stood in the waiting lounge at Union Station, explaining why Amtrak is a better way to travel than an airline.

"It's as heavy as we want," Golden said, pointing to an oversize suitcase. "We can put it on a rack in the rail car and get things out of it."

Golden, 36 and a Boston schoolteacher, pointed to another bag -- a large paper grocery bag filled with sandwiches, salads, water and fruit. "You can bring food," she said.

She continued. On the train, she's free to pick her own seat and doesn't have a flight attendant telling her when to use electronics. And then there's the airline stress factor -- the security headaches and the delays.

"You're always delayed in the airport," Golden said. "You always have connecting flights."

With delays, airport congestion and sky-high jet fuel prices draining the romance and convenience out of air travel, Americans have increasingly turned to Amtrak for summer travel.

Amtrak's systemwide ridership climbed to 7.9 million passengers from May through July, compared with 7 million in the same three-month period in 2007. The railroad expects 322,000 riders over Labor Day weekend, a 10 percent increase from last year. The airline industry is projecting a decline of 6.5 percent in domestic travel over the holiday period. And AAA expects the number of people who travel by automobile, who account for more than 83 percent of all holiday travel, to dip 1.1 percent.

Alexander Kummant, Amtrak's president and chief executive, said the rail line has had "very, very strong numbers around the country" since spring on routes connecting major cities. The biggest growth is outside the heavily traveled Northeast corridor. California, which has some of the nation's highest gas prices, has posted the biggest gains.

The Pacific Surfliner -- which runs between San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo -- carried 301,000 riders last month, a 12.3 percent increase compared with July 2007. Traffic on the line between Oakland and Sacramento was 162,000 in July, up 33 percent.

In the Northwest, riders on the line connecting Portland, Seattle and Vancouver climbed last month to 78,000, a 12.5 percent jump. In the Midwest, the Chicago to Milwaukee route carried 79,000 passengers in July, up 38 percent. And in the Northeast, trains between Harrisburg, Pa., and Philadelphia, and between Boston and Portland, Maine, have also had double-digit gains.

The high-speed East Coast Acela service grew to 273,000 travelers in July, a 5.5 percent increase. Kummant said Amtrak has reached capacity on the popular service and is considering adding cars, an option that won't be cheap or easy.

Even the most basic cars, he said, typically start at $1 million apiece. He also described an expansion as an engineering challenge that might entail upgrading power units and braking systems.

Amtrak receives an annual subsidy of about $1.3 billion from the federal government, and the Government Accountability Office has consistently complained about the railroad's poor financial condition. The GAO in the past has blamed federal leaders, faulting them for failing to set national policy goals or stable funding for the rail service.

Kummant said Amtrak's recent growth doesn't mean the service is ready to shed its federal subsidies. He said most of the new revenue from growing ticket sales is eaten up by inflation and higher costs for energy, materials and labor.

Amtrak's growth has come as airlines are retrenching, trimming flight schedules primarily in response to high energy prices. The flight cuts started showing up this summer and will intensify through the year. Airlines are trying to recover higher fuel costs with higher fares and charging for snacks, luggage, in-flight entertainment, even pillows and blankets. The fees aren't likely to go away soon either, analysts say.

John Heimlich, chief economist of the Air Transport Association, the airline industry's Washington lobbying group, said the changes represented "positive steps" for carriers working their way back to profitability. He said airlines are sacrificing volume to focus on the profitability of remaining flights.

"We simply can't afford to carry every passenger who wants to fly," he said.

Mikhael Garver, a theater director from New York City, was traveling this week from Washington to Philadelphia to see family before heading home to New York. She used to catch shuttle flights between cities on the East Coast, but recently dropped the short-haul flights for Amtrak.

An Acela round-trip ticket from Washington to Boston can range from $290 to as high as $482 for tickets purchased for peak periods (though regular, slower service can cost as little as $87 each way when bought in advance). An airline ticket between the two cities, purchased two weeks in advance, costs about $427. Purchase the ticket a day in advance and the cost could rise to $1,600. Of course, the plane takes about an hour and 45 minutes and the Acela could take 6 1/2 hours.

"Every plane I've taken in the last two years has been at least an hour delayed if not seven to nine hours," Garver said. "It's just not worth it when I'm doing East Coast travel."

Ceola Chandler, 59 and from Atlanta, was making her way through Union Station with her husband earlier this week. After a few days of sightseeing in Washington, they were planning to take the train to Trenton, N.J., to visit family for the next leg of their trip.

She complained about having to weigh bags before leaving home and being unable to pack gifts for family members when flying.

"Things that were free in the past you have to pay for," Chandler said.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company