Save Cornwells Heights
Wednesday, September 14, 2005
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Late breaking statistics appear to indicate that Cornwells Heights used to generate over 140 monthly pass riders before Acela collapsed in April, causing half our trains to disappear in order to plug the hole in Amtrak’s dike. This is believed to be greater than the number of Amtrak monthly passes sold out of Trenton (since NJT monthly passes, which are much cheaper than Amtrak’s, allow Trenton riders to take the main Amtrak commuting trains, the Clockers, at super bargain basement prices). Since the current Cornwells Heights monthly pass pool seems to hover near 50, it appears that Amtrak may be using the enormous ridership damage done by April’s semi-abandonment of the station in order to justify total abandonment. (One might ask, is “kicking a guy when he’s down” the new Amtrak business model?)
Another late breaking statistic indicates that pre-Acela-collapse Cornwells Heights ridership was experiencing about 10% annual growth and had exceeded an average of 100 passengers per day throughout calendar 2004, vs. the current 40.
I would like to find out if the numbers I have mentioned ring a bell with Amtrak, or if I am passing along inaccurate hearsay. Amtrak doesn’t like to release its numbers, but these are the best I have, and I suspect they are right.
In preparation for Thursday’s meeting with Congressman Fitzpatrick and Amtrak’s Mr. David Gunn in Washington, I decided to do some homework on Acela, Amtrak’s vaunted flagship line, income leader, and bright shining hope for tomorrow. After all, it was the total collapse of a whole fleet of those puppies that put Cornwells Heights on Amtrak’s death wish list in the first place. If Cornwells Heights was to be sacrificed upon the altar of Acela, I figured I should better understand what all the worship was about. So I took a ride.
Normally I take a 5:30 train home to Cornwells Heights, but a quick online check of the schedule showed that I could take an Acela to Philadelphia at 5:00, then mosey back home on SEPTA instead. I made the reservation online without any trouble around 3:30, which seems to indicate that Amtrak has adequate capacity on that particular run.
I also noticed something a bit unusual in the online schedule. If I took the next earlier “normal” train to Philadelphia, leaving at 4:30 instead of 5:00, I would only get to Philly two minutes slower than I would by taking the later Acela. In other words, normal trains can get to Philly in 75 minutes, but the Acela bullet train can do it in 73. Looking at the price differential between the two trains, $53 regular vs. $102 bullet, I realized that the good business people of America who ride Acela are for some reason willing to pay at a rate of $((102 – 53) / (75 – 73)) * 60 = $1470/hour for the time they save by riding on Acela! Now, not that I don’t make a decent wage myself, but that’s the kind of money that – prorated for a day – can get two or three of America’s living ex-presidents to your kid’s bar mitzvah. What could it be? Were all those business people really that pressed for time? Or was it something else (liquor? lap dances?) that got them to ride? I had to find out.
Turns out, it’s the overhead luggage racks. That plus a really good sound system. They all pretend they’re on an airplane.
That’s what Acela is. It’s a pretend airplane. And everybody who gets on it pretends it’s an airplane, too. And they dress the conductors suspiciously like bellhops (admittedly a bit of an odd mixed metaphor). They don’t have a stewardess doing the takeoff life vest dance, but they make up for it by using their great sound system to drone on and on with nonsense about reading your emergency escape instructions in the seat pocket in front of you. This cloying, annoying prattle also gives the impression you’re on a plane.
Although the Acela has a slight speed advantage on a short stretch of track in Connecticut between New York and Boston (the only place it can ever reach top speed), between New York and Washington, it’s pretty much a Disney ride. On the Northeast Corridor, south of New York City, riders are no more traveling on a bullet train than riders on Disney’s Space Mountain are either in space or on a mountain.
What’s more, Amtrak intentionally juggles schedules on the Northeast Corridor so that no regular train beats an Acela train on a given station-to-station run. There are a few ties, and some that come within one or two minutes, but the hard and fast rule is that regular trains, even if given the opportunity for a fast shoot between stations, get held back to make Acela look like the fastest thing going. Engineers I’ve talked to have confirmed this. In train talk, they hold up and sit on the side tracks to let what they call the “Big Shot” go by and set the speed records. Perhaps Amtrak would like to release an analysis of how much of the Northeast Corridor’s carrying capacity is lost in order to keep up the charade that Acela is fast. It is only fast when the rest of the trains aren’t allowed to compete with it, being told to slow down or stop.
In talking to the engineers, there’s a pride in their eyes when they tell stories about beating Acela all the way up the Corridor with an old engine that nobody even cares about anymore. The Big Shot may be hot stuff for people with too much money and too little sense, but the pride of Amtrak’s engineers is in the old and older “engines that could.” Too bad they never get the credit.
Maybe it’s time that Amtrak just admits that the Acela is merely a form of expensive entertainment, and then let the real workhorse trains of the Corridor cut loose. They could even dress up a Metroliner car or two with cool overhead luggage racks and a great sound system and call those cars the “Metrocela.” Heck, they can even dress up one of the 14 cars in the 6:55 a.m. Clocker that comes to my station as a fake airplane. It’s a small price to pay to keep the service running. Whatever.
I’m now, in fact, considering that it may be less effective to argue the merits of keeping the Cornwells Heights station open (because so far I’ve been nothing but completely ignored by Amtrak) than to argue the embarrassing waste and stupidity of the Acelas charading up and down the line every day. If I can get national press (maybe some Leno jokes or a Letterman top ten list, for instance) out of the fact that our station is being sacrificed so Amtrak can play Disney with Acela, maybe the $10,000,000 they make each month off the charade will give Amtrak pause to reconsider.
I think maybe I’ll work up some much more polished material, maybe a five-part series.
Stick a Fork in It: When Turkeys Ride the Rails – The Acela Story
SMACK!!!: The “Accidental” Design of Acela… Just Four Inches Too Wide
Cooking the Books: How Amtrak Artificially Slows Down The Northeast Corridor to Keep Acela On Top
Acela: The Bullet Train Only a Mother Could Love
Defenestration: A Fresh New Approach To Amtrak Management Reform
Then again, if things start to go very well very soon, I’ve got a backlog of work to do in New York, and I won’t have the time or energy to publicly eviscerate Acela.
I’ve got to run off to Washington now. I’ll report back ASAP, probably Friday.