Getting Right Down to Basic Rights.
I really hate it when people casually throw ridership numbers around: this train is up 2 percent; that train is off a half percent. We all do it and, most of the time, it’s all (just for fun) kapakahi and a lot of ho’omalimali. (Very free translation: ass-backwards and bullshit).
Here’s what I mean, with two hypothetical examples.
Joe is going from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to New Haven, Connecticut, where he goes to college. He boards train 646 in Harrisburg and gets off at Penn Station in New York, transfers onto a Northeast Regional train and in less than two hours, he arrives in New Haven. For this he paid $67.
Then there’s Chuck. He’s traveling from Galesburg, Illinois, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, on the Southwest Chief to see his elderly mother. He boards the Chief at 5:45 in the afternoon, enjoys a nice meal in the dining car about the time they cross the Mississippi River, and has a good night’s sleep in his roomette. They get to Albuquerque on time at 4:00 the next afternoon. The cost of Chuck’s ticket was $692, more than ten times what Joe paid.
OK, so which passenger is of greater value to Amtrak? Well, it sure looks like that would be the guy they hauled all the way to Albuquerque, but well-meaning people get into real arguments over questions like that.
For example, what did it cost Amtrak per mile to transport those two guys? What did it cost per hour? But wait . . . Amtrak made a little extra money on Joe because he bought some food in the cafe car, but the three meals that Chuck had in the Chief’s dining car were included in his fare. Here’s another wrinkle to factor in: Amtrak counts Joe as two passengers even though he paid just one fare.
Among the insiders, tempers really flare when there’s a media report that refers to what it costs Amtrak “per passenger”. Just a damn minute, say the people who know something about all this, the real question is what it costs “per passenger mile”. And on and on it goes.
My father-in-law used to say, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” But it sure seems like that’s what we’re doing—getting bogged down in the details and forgetting that Amtrak is literally the only practical, affordable public transportation for about a third of all Americans . . . the only means of visiting family, or of getting specialized medical treatment, or of just taking a break and getting away? Isn’t the real question … whether or not all Americans should have the right of access to affordable public transportation?