Save Cornwells Heights
Friday, April 7, 2006
Homeland Security Wondering “What’s Up With This Cornwells Heights Guy?”
I (Rick Booth) got a surprise call from a staffer at my U.S. Congressman’s office on Tuesday. Apparently “Amtrak Security” was very concerned that I had bought a lot of tickets with the names of politicians on them and they wanted to find out what the heck I was up to and whether I was someone who needed to be put on a government “watch list.” I presume that Homeland Security was notified as well, and I have a hunch that it was actually those guys that told Amtrak Security to figure out what was going on. Whatever.
I hadn’t planned on posting to this site so soon after Monday’s update, but at this point, I figure I’d better put what’s going on behind the scenes out in public as a bit of an insurance policy for myself and the commuter cause. What I did not make public in Monday’s announcement of an 8-day, 6-person, commuter “virtual torch” ride down the Northeast Corridor in August is that the “residents” I chose to represent each of the 8 Northeast Corridor states are, in fact, the U.S. Senators of those states. The voters of those states seemed to think highly enough of them, so I don’t think I could have done much better, and who am I to question democracy?
I bought the 16 senators a total of 30 gift group ride tickets at group ride rates, and it cost me $77.20, an average of $2.57 per ticket or $4.83 per senator, since I bought two tickets for most of them so they could ride both into and out of their states (the exception being MA, which, as the northern terminus, doesn’t take an entry ride). For this, Homeland Security has sprung into action, and I’m sincerely hoping to put them back at ease lest I start filing my reports from Guantanamo. Actually, I threw in tickets for the Virginia senators, too, since they’re also on the Northeast Corridor schedules. And since Washington, D.C., itself doesn’t have any senators, but I’ve got riders coming in from both Maryland and Virginia with four seats to spare, I threw in the four living ex-presidents for good measure. The kicker is that I’ve got a $4.60 ticket for President George W. Bush to ride up from Washington, D.C., to Cornwells Heights on August 31st on train 180, the one that picks us commuters up at 7:38 a.m. and carries us to our jobs in New York City for about $25/ride. If President Bush would prefer to ride all the way through to New York City, instead, I have an alternate ticket for him priced $1.70 higher than the ticket that gets him to Cornwells Heights. That ticket allows him to commute to New York City with us.
Why does Amtrak charge commuters $24.50 per ride from my station and yet sell the same seat for a price differential of $1.70 to a rider coming up from Washington on a group fare? Glad you asked! Actually, full fare on that trip from Cornwells Heights to NYC is $49. In Amtrak’s and Congress’s haste to kill off commuter traffic on the Northeast Corridor, they wrote into law last year a new rule that Amtrak can receive no subsidy funding whatsoever on any route on which they sell any tickets at fares less than 50% of “normal peak fare.” This clause, I have been told, was put in to give last year’s 77% increase in commuting fares the force of law. Unfortunately, it also made a number of Amtrak’s other fare structures illegal, too, and Amtrak didn’t bother changing them because the U.S. Department of Transportation was “expected to look the other way” on the other violations, like the group fares. Amtrak is in flagrant violation of its own 2006 subsidy package funding law, and I bought all these tickets to make that point, and the point that commuters have been severely wronged and harmed by both the railroad and Congress.
Congress needs to fix the law in order to legally fund Amtrak, and I would very much like to also talk to the senators about fixing the wrong that was done to the commuters at the same time.
All I want is for Amtrak to bring Northeast Corridor commuting costs back into the realm of sanity and promise to keep them there, so long as trains still run. At the start of 2005, it cost $6,828 per year in after-tax dollars for a Philadelphian to work in New York City. It now costs $12,096. Amtrak blamed this price hike on increasing diesel fuel costs. Commuters, however, only ride on electric trains. (Do you begin to get the sense that the spin doctors at Amtrak are even stupider than the people they think that they think they’re confusing?)
I’m proposing the following New York City monthly pass prices: $599 from Cornwells Heights; $699 from Philadelphia; and $799 from Wilmington.
Dear Department of Homeland Security, that’s all I want. No me envíe por favor a Cuba.
Northeast Corridor Senators Invited to Carry Commuters’ “Virtual Torch”
My wife, Joyce, and I decided to plan our summer vacation this year around 10 consecutive days of interstate rides on the Northeast Corridor, including the Virginia extension. On August 22nd, we plan to ride from Richmond to Washington on our full fare tickets while bringing along Virginia’s senators and a couple of ex-presidents. Then we’ll scurry up to Massachusetts the next day and take Amtrak from Boston to Providence, Rhode Island, inviting the senators from both of those states to ride along on the cheap seats at $1.10 a pop. The next seven days, we’ll continue down the line to a new city each day, picking up senators as we go: New Haven, CT; New York, NY; Trenton, NJ; Philadelphia, PA; Wilmington, DE; Baltimore, MD; Washington, DC. On the final day, August 31st, we will return home from Washington, D.C. to Cornwells Heights, PA, inviting Pennsylvania’s senators and President Bush along. My 6-year-old son will also be coming with us, and I very much hope he really does get to sing “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” to Senator Edward Kennedy on the $1.10 ride to Providence, as ever since he found out that there’s a bit of the Irish in him , that’s his new favorite song, and he loves to sing in duet.
Telling Northeast Corridor senators about the need for good Amtrak service in their states is a bit like preaching to the choir, and I have no intention of turning this “torch ride” into a series of confrontations with senators, because as far as I can tell, they’re already on our side. Neither do I wish to make any partisan political statements in the process. This is not to say that I in any way wish to not have the senators make as much political hay as possible out of the twisted mess Congress’s and Amtrak’s management of the Corridor has become. It will be two months before mid-term elections, and they might as well make all the hay they can from it, if that’s what they want to do. I don’t, frankly, expect many to show up, but I would be very happy if they each sent a supportive note with someone else riding as their surrogate to discuss rail with me and sing with my kid.
This “torch ride” is, quite obviously, intended as a play for media attention, but I hope to blog it as a wonderful experience traveling down the most historic paths of the greatest nation on earth with those who are blessed-and-cursed to guide it. My middle name, I’m proud to say, came down to me from an old soldier who, as a young sergeant, spent a very cold winter with George Washington in ’77 (that’s 1777, to be clear) and was given a patch of land in Ohio quite near where I grew up as thanks for his services. He did his best to defend Philadelphia from the British that year, fighting at Brandywine, dripping at the Battle of the Clouds, escaping with his life at Paoli, and enduring the tragic near miss defeat at Germantown that left the Continental Army out in the cold and hungry as the British took and held Philadelphia for the winter. So he and Washington and about ten thousand others camped and trained for the spring at Valley Forge instead. Maybe there’s a gene somewhere in the blood for defending Philadelphia. I don’t know. In any event, there’s plenty more to talk about than rail on those rides, and each of the states has a role to play, as I will also try to fill my son in on so much that was and is great in our nation’s history. MA: Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill – RI: Roger Williams’ Providence and the sloops of Newport – CT: Nathan Hale and the subs of New London – NY: West Point and the spaceships of Grumman – NJ: Edison and the victory at Trenton – PA: the birth of our nation; ‘nuff said – DE: Caesar Rodney’s ride for independence – MD: the star-spangled defense of Fort McHenry – DC: the building and burning (1814) and rebuilding of Washington – VA: Pocahontas, Manassas, the Wilderness.
The senators can help with the stories and the songs, too, if they wish. We will send them proper invitations later in the spring.
How to Buy Senators for $1.10 to $3.40
I suspect that part of Homeland Security’s concern about my gift tickets for senators has to do with Washington’s current raw nerve over the Jack Abramoff senators-and-congressmen-for-sale scandal. To be clear, though, what I’m spending isn’t even close to being in the same league with Indian casinos and golf trips to St. Andrews. It’s more like the cost of a few cookies or the better part of a Happy Meal. These cheap Amtrak interstate rides all fly right under the $5 radar that Congress will probably have passed as its lobbying gift-spending limit by the end of this year. In fact, they’re all less than $4, and most are under $3. Hillary Clinton is pricey at $2.90 minimum, more than Edward Kennedy ($1.10) and John Kerry ($1.10) combined! Less is more, and here’s how I did it:
Up until March 31st, Amtrak allowed groups of up to 6 people riding the same train on the same day to buy two tickets at full fare (minus AAA discount if applicable) and up to four more at 90% off. What’s more, the “full fare” could be even the lowest non-peak fare on a route, if that’s the train you were riding on. Travel could be booked for as far out as the end of August. Relative to “peak fare” on their routes, these tickets were sold to me at typically about 7% to 8% of peak fare. Congress, however, legislated that Amtrak loses its subsidy funding if it sells any ticket below 50% of peak fare on any given route, but the U.S. Department of Transportation has apparently been told that as far as actual enforcement goes, that rule only applies to commuters like the ones from Philadelphia who are expected to pay about $56/day to get to and from their jobs in New York City, a little over an hour away. That’s roughly $24/day more than they had to pay about a year ago. But for most of the last year, if a New York City company wanted to send 6 of its employees to a meeting in Washington and could purchase the tickets three days in advance, it could pay 10 cents on the dollar for most of those tickets, and even the average price of the whole group of six would be 63% below full fare (with ubiquitous AAA), and quite possibly 70% or more below peak. Go figure.
The loss-of-funding clause in the Amtrak subsidy legislation didn’t actually kick in until March 1st (the day the Philadelphia monthly commuter passes hit $1,008), but I warned Amtrak about their other areas of violation multiple times before that date hit, and they chose to ignore my warnings and to ignore Congress’s subsidy rule. “Weekly specials” at 70% off lasted well into March. Kid fares still drop well below 50% of peak when they ride non-peak trains. But the group discount rate, having been in effect for almost a year, was set to finally expire at the end of March. So on March 31st, I bought a boatload of tickets for my hopefully soon-to-be friends, the senators. It cost me $77.20 for all 16 of them north of the Potomac!
Like they say, only in America!
Here’s an alphabetical price list, including the Virginia senators for whom the price break didn’t work (a possible leftover from the Civil War?):
Peak Off-Peak Senator
$24.00 Allen , George - (R - VA)
$3.20 $2.30 Biden , Joseph R., Jr. - (D - DE)
$3.20 $2.30 Carper , Thomas R. - (D - DE)
$2.80 $1.10 Chafee , Lincoln - (R - RI)
$3.40 $2.90 Clinton , Hillary Rodham - (D - NY)
$2.90 $2.80 Dodd , Christopher J. - (D - CT)
$1.10 Kennedy , Edward M. - (D - MA)
$1.10 Kerry , John F. - (D - MA)
$3.40 $2.30 Lautenberg, Frank R. - (D - NJ)
$2.90 $2.80 Lieberman , Joseph I. - (D - CT)
$3.40 $2.30 Menendez , Robert - (D - NJ)
$3.20 $1.30 Mikulski , Barbara A. - (D - MD)
$2.80 $1.10 Reed , Jack - (D - RI)
$2.30 Santorum , Rick - (R - PA)
$3.20 $1.30 Sarbanes , Paul S. - (D - MD)
$3.40 $2.90 Schumer , Charles E. - (D - NY)
$2.30 Specter , Arlen - (R - PA)
$24.00 Warner , John - (R - VA)
Out of Contact for a Few Days
For the next week, until April 15th, I’ll be out of contact on vacation. My wife, my son, and I will be heading up to Boston on Amtrak tomorrow morning for a brisk New England vacation. The little boy has already got the one-if-by-land and two-if-by-sea thing down pat, so we’ll be heading right away for the Old North Church. And in reverence for Paul Revere, we’ll ride from there again – in August.
Take care, best wishes, and be well.
– Rick Booth, firstname.lastname@example.org