There’s a reason that economics is called “the dismal science.” And no economist better lives up to that definition than the often snarky, always morose, Robert Samuelson.
In a recent op-ed in The Buffalo News, Samuelson aimed his sarcastic barbs at Amtrak, decrying what he views as the outlandish federal subsidies lavished upon the railroad, never mind that Amtrak “consumes” only a microscopic sliver of the federal budget.
But for a moment, leave aside the matter of the dreary balance sheets so dear to the green eyeshade crowd. Let’s say that you’re planning a trip to Chicago, and you have decided to fly.
You’ll have to arrive at the airport well in advance of your flight time, perhaps an hour or more. If you take the train, as my wife and I did recently, you could breeze into the Depew station a half hour prior to the train’s arrival, even less if you are not checking baggage.
If you fly, you’ll have to park your car somewhere, possibly in the airport parking lot, which could become prohibitively expensive if you expect to be away for more than a day. Or, you could deposit your vehicle at one of the area pay lots, which necessitates waiting for a shuttle to take you to the airport entrance, because it’s much too far to walk, especially if you have luggage in tow. But no matter which parking option you choose, you pay.
If you take the train, you simply leave your car in the station’s parking lot. No charge. Shuttles are not necessary, because the parking spaces are all within easy walking distance of the station.
If you fly, you have to subject yourself to the indignities of the security system. You wait in sometimes interminably long lines. You then empty your pockets, remove your shoes and place all of these personal items onto a conveyor belt, while you, the human in the equation, pass through a metal detector. Slowly. Arms upraised. And let’s not even mention the possibility of a body scan, or worse.
If you take the train, you simply board when it arrives at the station. No security checkpoints. No conveyor belts. No scanners. No detectors. No authority figures demanding that you proceed in your stocking feet. You might be asked to display a photo ID, but that’s about as invasive as the boarding process gets.
If you fly, you’ll likely be crammed into a seat that would make even the slenderest of passengers feel claustrophobic. If you take the train, your seat will provide generous leg, arm and hip room.
If you fly, your in-flight meal usually consists of not much more than a bag of peanuts. If you take the train, you have access to a dining car where you sit at a comfortable table, and you look over a full menu that offers a variety of invariably tasty breakfast, lunch or dinner choices.
If you fly, you will probably land at O’Hare, and then face the prospect of a pricey cab or bus ride to downtown. If you take the train, you are already downtown when you arrive in Chicago’s Union Station.
What we really need to do is to invest more money in Amtrak, not less. In particular, Amtrak should have its own tracks, so that it does not have to share the rails with slow-moving freight trains. Of course, an upgrade like that would cost money, and lots of it. There’s an idea that would really make Samuelson dismal.