Greetings from East Glacier, Montana! I hope everyone back in Greater Philadelphia had a good holiday weekend, and that the weather I hear you’ve been having hasn’t been inconveniencing you too badly. The scenery here is breathtaking, and the weather has been mild and cooperative.
I want to tell a few stories about Frequency Anxiety and its opposite, Transit Freedom. It’s been the theme of this week so far.
The first story takes place on Amtrak. I woke up on the Capitol Limited with a bit of a rash on my neck, a bit irritated, but nothing major. Thinking it a reaction to the strong disinfectants used on the bedding in sleeper cars, I resolved to treat it with antihistamines and get on with the trip. The Cap arrived at Chicago Union Station only about 90 minutes late, and after lunch with friends in Chicago, we made our connection to the Empire Builder. I went to sleep somewhere along the Mississippi River south of St. Paul.
When I woke up near Minot, North Dakota, the rash had spread, and I was in agony. As my wife was snapping photos of my neck to send to medical professionals back in Philly, I was looking up medical care options along the route. There is basically nothing in the way of health care infrastructure in East Glacier, with the nearest doctor’s office in Browning, and the westernmost full-service hospital along the Empire Builder route before reaching East Glacier is in Havre, 4h16m and 174 miles away. Fortunately, the word back from my doctor was that I didn’t need hospitalization, but I did need prescription meds. The nearest contactable pharmacies to East Glacier were in Cut Bank, an hour east and the previous stop, and Whitefish, three stops west, but a similar driving distance.
Of course, with evening pressing in, I couldn’t just get off in Cut Bank, even if I was guaranteed to get across the small town to the pharmacy before it closed. The Empire Builder only runs once a day, and with no way for me to self-transport between Cut Bank and East Glacier until the next day’s Empire Builder, we rode through to East Glacier, rented a car, and drove to Cut Bank the next morning. Had there been another Amtrak schedule available in that 24 hours, getting off the train might have been a more viable option. (For what it’s worth, my case of shingles has been comparatively very mild, quite possibly due to timely treatment. Still, please, vaccinate your kids against chicken pox, because this has been pretty damn miserable.)
We only rented that car for one day. Our primary plan for the week was to rely on shuttle buses from East Glacier to trailheads along Going-To-The-Sun Road via connection at the St. Mary Visitor Center. This turned out to be a terrible plan; you can count the buses to or from East Glacier in a day on one hand, and the Eastside shuttle between St. Mary and the Continental Divide at Logan Pass only runs every 45-60 minutes, and with frequent random delays due to the roadwork. We spent as much time waiting for buses as hiking. And the uncertainty in trip times and the paucity of connections meant that we had to make our problem worse by building in large amounts of buffer time to ensure our connections. We were back on the phone with the car rental company before we even left St. Mary.
In both cases, the transit system that we wanted to use, and might have served us, couldn’t because it ran too infrequently, and we had to fall back on an expensive car rental to bail ourselves out of the jam.
The third story is about wider effects, and not just our anecdotal experience this week. It’s this post that Matt Yglesias apparently phoned in to Vox, about the distribution of Amtrak ridership. Now the fact in the headline is unquestionably true: half of the passengers that stepped onto an Amtrak train in 2013 did so at New York Penn Station, Washington Union Station, or our own 30th Street Station. So far, so obvious. But Yglesias turns that into a conclusion that Amtrak’s “geographically expansive service” is “smart politics … but it makes very little business or transportation sense.” This is only true if you see Amtrak’s one-a-day service on its long-distance service as inevitable. The difference can be seen in the states where there are state-sponsored corridor trains complementing the national long-distance network: California, North Carolina, Upstate New York, Illinois, Virginia, Michigan. Denver is the same size as Seattle, but with only one train east and one train west, to Seattle’s five trains south, two trains north, and one train east, the aspiring transit capital of the west can only scrape up a sixth of Seattle’s ridership. Denver finds itself lagging much smaller cities like Syracuse, which has four daily trains, and sends about half of its ridership to the New York City area, six hours away.
Now, is all of the anemic ridership at Amtrak stations along long-distance routes due to Frequency Anxiety? Of course not. Nor is there a good case to be made for blindly increasing frequency on long distance trains, as long as we don’t have a plan to fix its most glaring problems, like the financial hemorrhaging of the diner car service. But on routes with clear latent demand, like the Empire Builder, the Lake Shore Limited, and the Capitol Limited, Amtrak should clearly be thinking about expanding frequencies along the entire route. At least on some of these routes, I firmly believe that increased revenue from ticket sales will grow even faster than the near-doubling in cost. Additionally, Amtrak should increase the number of corridor trains or point-to-point sleepers that supplement and support long-distance trains on short segments, like Washington-Lynchburg for the Crescent, Chicago-St. Paul on the Empire Builder, and Oakland-Sacramento-Reno on the California Zephyr.
And closer to home, these stories are strong arguments for increasing service on the Pennsylvanian, as has been discussed here before. The argument for increasing service on low-frequency commuter rail lines where ridership is being suppressed by an obviously sparse schedule, like the Atlantic City Line and the Wilmington/Newark Line beyond Marcus Hook, is closely related. But mostly, it’s just a recapitulation of what we should all know by now: Transit, on the block scale and the continent scale and everything in-between, is about our freedom. Hobson’s Choice is not freedom. We need to encourage the growth of freedom by increasing the usefulness of transit in smart ways. The best and easiest way is to grow frequency.
We’ll be back in the Cradle of Liberty next week.