Amtrak: Enjoy the Journey

Amtrak is back on the air with a new commercial that uses children’s toys to make the point that taking a long distance trip via train is far less stressful and more enjoyable than either driving or flying.  While I personally never lined all my matchboxes up in three parallel lines to create a traffic jam in the living room, I guess it’s a sign of the times.

The bulk of the commercial shows young boys playing with their toy cars and planes while uttering adult complaints about life trapped in car culture and airports.  The last couple seconds of the ad show another youngster happily playing with a model train zooming around happier toys and proclaiming, "The train has now arrived."  From there, a narrator takes over, "The train has arrived indeed.  Amtrak, enjoy the journey."

Personally, I laughed at one kid glumly wondering, "I wonder how much gas costs today" as his toy car pulled into a plastic gas station.  The chortle was matched followed shortly by another going "An extra bag costs WHAT?!?" as his plastic figurine put on a shocked face.

Over the past year we’ve seen a spate of advertisements about how
wonderful traveling by bicycle is compared to car from health insurance
companies, banks and others; so it’s nice to see train service
promoting itself likewise.  We’ll know we arrive when well meaning
celebrities shoot commercials about turning off your lights on trains instead of airplanes.

h/t Carfree USA

  • It’s only going to take me 11.5 hours to get from LA to Oakland in a few weeks! Thanks Amtrak!

    Seriously though, I love trains and transit and what not, but Amtrak beyond 150 miles is really just not convenient or affordable, it’s a novelty. I used to take the Amtrak to visit my parents in Flagstaff, it’s a 10.5 hour ride, overnight so you don’t even get to see any scenery, for $74. I don’t care how comfy train seats are compared to airplane seats, trying to sleep in one all night is not really the definition of comfort. On more than one occasion the train has been over an hour late, once it didn’t show at all and we had to pack into Amtrak buses which ironically got us there about 4 hours faster. Horizon Air recently started service from LAX to Flagstaff, it takes 1 hour 40 minutes, $74 with taxes and fees, and they serve free beer. There really is no reasonable argument to choose Amtrak over it.

    For my trip to San Francisco in a few weeks, I’m taking the Coast Starlight up to Oakland and then taking the BART over to San Francisco. The ticket is $52 and the trip takes 11.5 hours. Am I taking the train back? Hell no. Virgin America fly directly out of San Francisco, gets to LAX in 1.5 hours, and costs $60. Is the $8 savings worth an extra 10+ hours of travel time, no matter how scenic?

    If Amtrak wants to spend the stimulus money wisely, they should concentrate solely on short trips like LA to San Diego/Santa Barbara where the time differences between plane/car travel are significantly less pronounced and the inconvenience of those modes is greater due to the short nature of the trip.

  • Spokker

    I think it’s a cute commercial but it should’ve really focused on corridors like the Surfliner, the Capitol Corridor, and the San Joaquin, to name a few in California.

    Long-distance train travel is only for those who like long-distance train travel and those who live in rural areas with an Amtrak station and have few alternatives. I don’t think transcontinental routes should ever go away, but the focus should be on those corridors where the train is or would be competitive.

  • Any train promotion is good because it gets people thinking about trains as a mode of transportation period, which is a big deal in this country because I bet the majority of people have pretty much forgot intercity passenger train travel even exists here.

    That said, Fred and Spokker are totally right. At current speeds, it makes zero sense to take a train any farther than 200 miles or so in this country. I have taken the surfliner between San Diego and L.A., and between San Diego and Santa Barbara, and it is tolerable since it only adds about an hour and a half to the car-drive times. But if you are traveling with family, even just as a couple, it still costs you less in gas money to transport the two of you in your car (and in less time) than the money you spend on two or more train tickets.

    Fred, the 10+ hour train rides you talk about do remind me of a Rome-Paris train ride I took a couple of years ago. It wasn’t a high speed train, but you get a “couchet”, a little room with 6 bunks, and each person basically gets their own bed so you don’t have to sleep in a train seat. It was actually great because you could relegate your travel time to your sleep time, and wake up in a new city ready to explore.

    Still, the commercial makes a good point about the hassle associated with airports, especially if you think of L.A.X.. Try to take public transit to/from L.A.X. to make your flight, and compare all that hassle with going to the train station 15 minutes before your departure and strolling onboard, and trains definitely are the less hectic way to do it. But time = money, and you need to beat the time if you want the system to catch on.

    High speed rail is the only real train solution that has the kind of future that could actually change people’s habits in relation to rail travel. L.A. to San Diego in 90 minutes (takes me 2 hrs and 15 minutes to drive that without traffic) = fantastic. I’m proud that California is moving forward with its plan, and I am quite confident that Obama and LaHood are thinking in the right direction on HSR. I think the CA system is going to become the flaghship HSR system in the United States, and other states will follow suit.

  • Spokker

    “I think the CA system is going to become the flaghship HSR system in the United States, and other states will follow suit.”

    I don’t think it will because I’m a cynical bastard, but I hope it does! I personally feel that CAHSR is going to be severely retarded in its final form similar to the way the Acela Express was a glorified regional train.

  • MarkB

    @Fred: you sound like a typical motorist in many auto vs. bicycle discussions!

    I’m sure Amtrak mgmt is well-aware of the time differences in travel. This ad doesn’t say they’ll get you there faster, it says they’ll get you there less-stressed, whether that stress is short distance (the clogged freeway) or longer distance (the clogged airport). I’m sure that focus comes straight from customer research.

    Myself, I don’t think the ad is talking about long distance service, nor is it talking about corridor service. It’s just an ad to say, “Hey, we’re here!” Considering how many people seem to think that passenger service ended 40 years ago, raising public awareness of Amtrak as an alternative is something that’s long overdue.

  • fred, if you are complaining about spending 11.5 hours on the train before you even take it, then why bother? and don’t thank amtrak for that, thank america. take a bus if you don’t want to fly. it’s what, 6 or 8 hours and you get to stop at mcdonalds in the central valley, woohoo.

    i travel cross country by train at least once a year. yeah, it’s got it’s problems, but so does everything. a friend recently had an experience where he was flying from dc to jfk and sat in the terminal for two hours after the departure time and in the plane for one. do the math, what’s faster, plane or amtrak? and i’m not talking acela. the biggest thing that sucks about riding long distance trains is all the complainers, going on about how slow it is and how they’ll never do it again. please don’t.

    could amtrak be better? shit yes. does it suck? well, yes and no. could there be a better system? sure thing. but, being that this is the united states and not japan or france, we have to settle for second best. we simply have to deal with what shortsighted, half-assed options are given to us.

    my only complaint about the commercial was the train they used. if they had a shot of the acela going full speed, folks, regardless of how far away from the northeast corridor they are, would be curious about amtrak. and plus, it would probably get more people behind hsr in their area.

    and spokker, the two reasons why the acela was crippled at birth is one; there was never enough money to fully upgrade the catenary and tracks for the stretch of the northeast corridor that it runs on. and two; connecticut severely restricts the speed of the trains traveling through it, making the trip to boston a waste of time and money. these problems *should* not exist on a brand new system that exists in a single state.

  • Totally agree with you guys that train travel over 200 miles is relatively impractical. But the views are nice.

    Funny to consider that in LA, where trains are supposedly nonexistent, the Pacific Surfliner is the 2nd busiest rail corridor and LA Union Station is the 5th busiest intercity train station in the US.

    Speaking of the Surfliner, does anyone know if there is any consideration being given for the high speed train to follow that same route? I heard the main plans were for an LA-Inland Empire-San Diego high speed train, but it seems like a direct OC-San Diego route would be just as viable if not more so. Maybe upgrading those tracks for HSR would be too expensive?

  • Justin Walker

    Drew:
    The High-Speed Authority looked at using the existing LOSSAN corridor all the way from LA to SD in the Statewide EIS/EIR but threw it out because of community and environmental concerns.

    Amtrak and Metrolink have tried to double track the line through San Clemente for years but the locals have refused, instead demanding the line be completely moved to a tunnel corridor underneath the I-5.

  • Regarding HSR on the surfliner route: just to add to what Justin said, I remember reading that one of the environmental concerns was that the surfliner travels on some winding track in the northern part of San Diego county that weaves close to some somewhat unstable dirt walls/cliffs. IE: the train goes through some canyons, and the right of way is too narrow to double-track and would probably not be stable enough for a train to move though at high speed. Apparently it’s just not a good right-of-way for HSR, which is why they opted to go inland instead. I agree that it should probably be looked at again, as a direct route between Irvine and San Diego would make a lot more sense on a map, even if they ran the track just to the east of I-5, instead of to the west of it as the surfliner goes. With that route, you could get from L.A. to San Diego in under 1 hour on the HSR, instead of the 90 minutes it’ll take to get from L.A.to S.D. through the inland empire.

  • Marcotico

    Justin is correct. Locals in San Clemente have and will continue to politically block any widening of the LOSSAN corridor along the beach. While we may bemoan the nimbyism of that, it is also a demonstration of the power of the EIR process in ensuring local participation. The tunnel they got included in the EIR is an incredibly expensive solution which virtually guarantees that nothing will happen with that corridor unless there is a huge influx of cash into the Amtrak system.

  • Totally forgot about that beachside section there. I’m not as familiar with the right of way through the IE, but I guess anything would be cheaper than drilling under the 5. Thanks for saving me a google search, guys.

  • Your right a train ride is a novelty. I did ride a train from FT.Worth Tx. to Dallas Tx. For the State Fair which was fun and a lot less head ache than driving over there to the State Fair But trains for long distance business is not worth it

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