Back on Track?


After studying the federal security hassles that American travelers have been enduring since September 11, an Israeli anti-terrorism expert told The Christian Science Monitor that "the United States does not have a security system, it has a system for bothering people."

People, however, prefer not to be bothered if they decide that they're being hassled to little purpose. Waiting while some poor elderly traveler waits at security for help in removing his shoes, or watching a grandmother being led off at the gate for a full-dump search—not to mention the legendary nail-clipper threat—has persuaded plenty of people that the system is inane. The result is that travelers are quietly reorganizing the nation's travel industry on their own.

Business travelers on short trips have been switching to rail—especially Amtrak's relatively speedy Acela line from Washington to Boston—in such numbers that one airline, Delta, has used its recent ads to target rail travel. As The New York Times puts it, these spots "do everything but imply that train passengers have to watch out for Jesse James and his gang shooting up the lounge car."

Indeed, American Airlines Chief Executive Donald J. Carty has called for a decrease in airport security measures, suggesting that security screenings at gates be dropped. Carty recently told businessmen in Tokyo that, "It will be a hollow victory indeed if the system we end up with is so onerous and so difficult that air travel, while obviously more secure, becomes more trouble for the average person than it is worth."

How do the airlines know that travelers are using trains out of disgust rather than out of fear? Because the travelers said so. A recent survey by the Business Travel Coalition found widespread frustration with airport security practices and low levels of fear. Only some 23 percent of those responding to the survey indicated they were worried about safety.

Thus, the burgeoning new market for rail—and not just Amtrak. According to the Times, states and private investors are building or planning high-speed rail lines from San Diego to L.A. to San Francisco, from Chicago to cities in nine different states, from Houston to Dallas, and from Orlando to Miami. Private investors have attempted to build some of these routes lines before, but Amtrak reportedly managed to veto the effort. Amtrak seems not to be a factor anymore in making these decisions.

Until now, rail outside the Northeast corridor has been riding on its old-time romance. Not anymore. One hotel executive told the Times that the rail revival "has nothing to do with romance." Rather, "It's about business and the vaunted American productivity. In the United States, you can simply no longer justify the economic costs and lost productivity of traveling short distances by air." Meanwhile, The-Idler.com is pushing a volume called The Art of Travel as "a book to help explain to a weary voyager why waiting for three hours to be scanned, wanded, x-rayed, patted down, quizzed, cross-examined, eyeballed, only to be eventually admitted into a small metal tube that is hurtled into space, to consume reheated unidentifiable pressed vegetable matter in tasteless sauce with plastic forks and knives, should not be seen as a hassle, a worry, or a burden, but rather as a truly privileged experience, travel being transcendental and sublime."

In other words, the payoff for flying may be becoming . . . romance. That should really have airline executives worried.