Now That We've Left United Twisting…

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… Can we expand the hardnosed approach to other means of transportation?

Fired by patriotic resolve to help stanch the $1.1 billion annual bloodletting Amtrak costs my government, I checked the train monopoly's website for prices on a San Francisco-Los Angeles trip. Here's my first option:

Catch a 6:50am bus from the Wharf to Emeryville train station. From there catch a 7:40am train that arrives in Bakersfield at 1:46pm. From there, catch a 1:55pm bus that arrives in the City of the Angels at 4:15pm. Total travel time: nine hours, 25 minutes. Total cost: $99.

But where's the romance of arriving in LA on a bus? If I actually want to ride Amtrak's rails all the way to my destination, I can:

Catch a 7:25am train to Oakland's Jack London Square. From there, catch an 8:50am train to Los Angeles Union Station. This train arrives at 9:00pm. Total travel time: 13 hours, 35 minutes. Total cost: $126.

If I choose to fly instead, I can get a $70 ticket on Southwest. Including getting a $30 Super Shuttle ride, my total travel time is three hours, 15 minutes. Total cost: $100. I can also rent a car with unlimited mileage for about $35. With $30 to $40 gas, total cost is $65 to $75. Total travel time: Six hours.

There are extenuating circumstances: United cancelled its famously frequent SFO-LAX route, so I can't do a subsidy-by-subsidy comparison. Also, San Francisco and Los Angeles are remote provincial backwaters between which few Americans ever travel. But it's worth bearing in mind that United only wanted $1.4 billion.

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  1. You missed out on a key extenuating fact about Amtrak service – service fit for a king (or at least a prince). Go to the sign up page for their frequent traveller program at https://www.amtrakguestrewards.com/Enroll/EnrollForm.cfm

    You don’t have to fill anything out, just go to the first box for “title”. In addition to Mr and Ms you will find gems like “admiral” and “princess”.

  2. Hmmmm. Maybe Tim Blair was right.

  3. Have fun bashing Amtrak. Just remember that once you get rid of it, the freight railroads will never give out a sweet heart trackage rights deal like Amtrak got when it took over their passenger trains 30 years ago.

  4. That’s pretty hilarious! What kind of masochist would sign up as “Sgt.”? I guess “Spc.” was taken?

  5. lcb:

    Try AI or A1 rentals on McAllister street. They’ve got rentals in the $29-$50 a day range.

  6. I can definitely concur, I go back and forth between SF and LA all the time and I?ve traveled in every way possible. The Amtrak 13 hour trip was outright hilarious when I found out about it a couple of years back. Fast service between LA and SF is almost redundant, especially with the beautiful scenery between the two cities, this could be a gold mine for anyone who could do a good job implementing it.

    But I don?t think governmental bureaucracies think in such terms or know much about ?service?. So Southwest, and now JETBLUE will get my $100 and if I have the time, Hertz will benefit from Amtrak?s failures.

  7. wow, how do you get a rental car for $35? I usually end up paying $70 just to go to Santa Cruz.

  8. Me too… I wanted to travel from SF to LA
    last year. After checking out the travel
    times on the Amtrak website… off to
    Travelocity it was.

  9. Here in New Haven I get to choose between Amtrak or NYC Transit Authority’s Metro North if I want to get to New York. Amtrak: $36 one way, Metro North: $15.25. Of course, the Metro North Trains are only a bit nicer and cleaner than the subways, but for a hour and forty minute ride it doesn’t matter much.

  10. If Amtrak’s total subsidy is $1.1 billion, wouldn’t it still pale in comparison to the total benefits our airlines get from taxpayers, in the form of everything from air traffic control to tax breaks for airplane manufacturers to federalized security? Don’t forget airport expansion, which is heavily subsidized in the name of economic development. I don’t mind some good-natured criticism of Amtrak, but don’t you think the airlines have gotten their share from the public trough as well?

  11. About ten years ago, one-way air fare Los Angeles to San Diego was $75. Round trip Amtrak was about $35.
    Amtrak doesn’t charge more for non-advance ticket purchases. Subsidies are wrong, but not all price comparisons are as one-sided as your example.

  12. The San Francisco – Los Angeles line lacks the online traffic base for corridor operation, and the existing routes have to cross some demanding hills (the Bakersfield service ends there for that reason, running a train on to Los Angeles would be really slow.) The policy puzzle you face is getting rid of the other subsidies for airways and roads … perhaps then a high speed rail line would be able to attract capital, although I’d suggest looking at Los Angeles-San Diego first.

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