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The Sorry State of American Transport

By Aaron M. Renn

We constantly read about the infrastructure crisis in America. I’ll have more to say on this at a future date, but it is pretty clear that we need to spend more money in a whole lot of areas: airports, roads and bridges, public transportation, and more.

Yet it’s very easy to see that so much of what ails transport has nothing to do with a lack of funds and everything to do with a lack of will. I took a train ride on the Northeast corridor last week that really drove it home to me.

Start with the sorry state of Penn Station in New York City, America’s busiest train station. (In fact, it’s the busiest transportation facility of any type in the United States, if Wikipedia can be believed). Yes, the place is a depressing underground dump. Yes, there used to be a glorious train station there that was demolished in the 1960s. Yes, we probably need to invest many billions in upgrades.

Yet is it a lack of funds that make the three agencies that call it home – Amtrak, New Jersey Transit, and the Long Island Railroad – act as though the others don’t exist? The three railroads have completely separate ticketing areas, signage systems, etc. This is hardly the only case in America. For some reason, Amtrak seems to despise sharing ticket agents with other carriers. There are separate windows for Amtrak and commuter lines everywhere I’ve been. Given that many journeys include both commuter and inter-city segments, this seems crazy. If you can’t have integrated ticketing (and actually, I don’t see why you can’t), at least you should be able to have a single agent help you.

The worst example of this I know is in Providence, where Amtrak monopolizes the four ticket windows. If you want to buy an MBTA T ticket, you have to go to a cafe next door. This tiny little coffee shop found a way to sell both pastries and train tickets (albeit from separate registers), so why can’t Amtrak figure out how to sell two kinds of tickets?

Also, as near as I can tell, there’s no way to actually get your Amtrak ticket online. You can book a reservation, but then you need to get a physical ticket printed at the station, either from a kiosk or an agent. (If there’s a way to avoid this, please let me know).

I decided to get my ticket at the window. The line was very short and I was early in any case. When I got there, some guy with his kids was at the window screaming at the agent about a problem with their tickets. I chalked this up to one of those cases where the frustrations of travel just cause somebody to snap. But then as I walked up to the window, the person next to me was also having a similar problem with their ticket and was having an animated discussion with an agent who didn’t seem to care. Fortunately, I had no such issues, but the agent I had to talk to was extremely surly and kept asking me to repeat myself over and over. Who would want to put themselves through such an experience? Customer service is clearly something that should also be within Amtrak’s control.

Amtrak markets themselves as having wi-fi. But on the train itself, as anyone who has ridden the NEC knows, the wi-fi is basically unusable. How much capital investment would it take to get working wi-fi?

In short, though the facilities can somewhat be excused as resulting from insufficient capital funding and bad decisions decades ago, there’s so much that could be done right now to upgrade the passenger experience it’s not even funny.

It’s the same with airports. While a few American cities like Indianapolis and Detroit have upgraded their terminals, too many key gateways remain depressingly dreary and non-functional. While some overseas places like Heathrow certainly would give any American airport a run for its money in the Hall of Shame, the general experience of flying to someplace like Madrid, Singapore, or Tokyo is like night and day versus the US.

Key among the worst offenders again is New York City, especially LaGuardia. Matt Chaban at the New York Observer recently wrote a piece that is a good overview of the depressing state: “Terminal Condition – How New York’s Airports Crashed and Burned.”

This is certainly not news to anyone who has flown to New York. But again, the vast billions it would take to replace these decrepit facilities is only part of the problem. Nobody forces America to put its passengers through the “TSA experience.” Last time I flew I was delayed at security while agents patted down some guy that looked like he was around 85 years old who apparently hadn’t stripped down quite far enough to go through the full body scanner. Somehow other advanced nations manage to run safe air travel systems without resorting to this.

While we are waiting around for funding issues to be resolved, wouldn’t it be nice if our governments and various travel companies actually focused on fixing some of these straightforward problems with coordination, ticketing, and customer service? It’s hard to take their capital requests seriously if they aren’t going to do what they can now.

Aaron M. Renn is a urban policy analyst and consultant based in New York City. His writings appear at his blog, The Urbanophile, and in other publications.

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