Mention the name Amtrak and you might be on the receiving end of some unexpected hostility. Tales of delays or strange transfers or even outright anger at high prices will likely ensue. In fact, for most people in America, the idea of a national rail system is a myth and like any good tall tale, everyone has a story. I picked up my own after a recent trip to Madison, Wisconsin.
My task was simple. Figure out a way to travel from Madison to Milwaukee. It is a 79-mile straight shot between the two cities. My traveling companion figured out a solution instantly using local sources. “Take the Badger Bus,” people told us dispassionately. Badger is a private bus company that operates a fleet of buses notable only for the cartoon picture of a badger splashed across the side. $20 bucks for the trip.
This, of course, was not enough for me. Buses spew out fossil fuels, are stuffy and seem like the least efficient way to move people from place to place. Unlike the buses I had encountered during a trip to Mexico that feature drinks, food and a movie, American buses are dreary utilitarian places – cartoon badger aside. So, of course, Amtrak came to mind.
After a bit of wrangling about my “ridiculousness,” we plugged in our info into the Amtrak webpage. Out came the news. The trip would cost $98 per person. Worse yet, we would have to first take a bus 151 miles south to Chicago before boarding an Amtrak train to Milwaukee. There was no direct train access between Madison and Milwaukee.
Obviously, I boarded a Badger Bus headed to Milwaukee the next morning, dashed expectations in hand. But, my search revealed a barely hidden truth – we don’t actually have a national rail system. Despite throwing tens of billions of dollars in public funds at Amtrak since its organization in 1971, the train system is an inefficient, poorly organized, barely coherent mess.
While travelers in places like Europe and Japan enjoy high-speed rail travel, Americans are forced into a continued dependence on fossil fuel. Amtrak trips are either exorbitantly priced or entirely illogical such as the jaunt from Madison to Chicago to Milwaukee would have been. Even when travelers catch a bit of luck and get a discount price and a direct route, there is no guarantee of service since Amtrak has to share tracks with freight cars. Since commerce is king in American capitalism, Amtrak departure and arrival times are more like a best guess than a schedule.
And even if all this goes well, rail passengers still have to rely on a sorely outdated train grid. New York City bound passengers found this out the hard way recently when a rain-soaked train control tower containing equipment made in 1913 exploded, resulting in the suspension of travel along the Northeast corridor. Just another day of delays for rail passengers and even more motive to head out by car or bus.
The solution to my Madison problem is exceedingly simple. Make a serious national commitment to create high-speed rail service. Not a public-private joint venture or an outsourced pastiche of private lines, but a national public rail service. If given the choice between the green efficient trains and a pollution belching buses, I am sure millions of Americans would hit the rails. Just to make it a bit more attractive we might even slap a cartoon badger on the side.
BILLY WHARTON is a writer and activist whose articles have appeared in the Washington Post, the NYC Indypendent, Spectrezine and the Monthly Review Zine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org