Traveling and need to be somewhere on a schedule? Don’t take the train.
It’s not my personal opinion. It’s actually the advice from an employee at the Union Depot station in Downtown El Paso.
I recently had family visiting who traveled from Tucson to El Paso by train.
It’s something we’ve talked about for years. Unfortunately, it isn’t very practical. The schedules are limited, it’s also slower than driving and it costs more.
Still, the idea of kicking back and enjoying a train ride is appealing. I can think of a bunch of things I’d rather do than drive my car.
Amtrak’s southern-most route is the Sunset Limited. It travels from New Orleans to Los Angeles with stops in major cities and towns along the way.
The train travels east through El Paso on Monday, Thursday and Saturday. It travels west Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday.
The Saturday trip from Tucson was a great success. But on Sunday, we experienced the real perils of U.S. train travel.
Amtrak encourages you to sign up for text alerts and to track your train on their interactive mobile map.
You should because a few hours before the train’s scheduled departure alerts for delays began rolling in. For the next several hours the train was on an indefinite 20-minute delay. The interactive map wasn’t much help. While we could track the train, it wasn’t inching any closer to El Paso.
After four hours and no luck getting anyone to pick up Amtrak’s phone, we headed down to the El Paso station. Surely the people working there would have the inside track and know something.
Don’t bother. The only staff member we could find suggested we track our train on the interactive map. Then we’d know as much as them, which apparently we already did.
I pressed. We had someone who really needed to get home for work the following morning.
I asked if this was normal. It’s beyond normal; I learned that it’s expected. You don’t take trains if you need to be somewhere at some time.
I have lived in several countries and cities where the trains are an absolutely reliable form of transportation. This made no sense to me.
Come to find out that passenger train travel in the United States – outside of the Northeast – is notoriously awful.
In fact, one article goes as far as to claim that travel times today are worse than what was possible 100 years ago.
So what gives? Is it incompetence or underinvestment?
The best explanation I can find includes a little bit of all of that, but the biggest issue in the U.S. is that passenger rail takes a backseat to a very successful and privately owned freight rail system. Companies like Union Pacific own most of the rail, and their cargo is priority No. 1.
Amtrak can’t control many of its delays, which clarifies why they can’t explain them either.
So will it ever change?
There are lofty ideas like the build-out of a high-speed rail system in the Green New Deal.
And Amtrak boasts its Acela Express between Washington, D.C., and Boston. There are serious discussions about projects in California, Florida, Nevada and Texas.
Last week, the United States Department of Transportation announced it would move forward the regulatory process required to advance the Texas Central Railway’s High Speed Rail project that would connect Dallas to Houston in 90 minutes.
But I don’t see much changing for El Paso anytime soon or possibly in my lifetime.
Our story concluded with an unused Amtrak ticket and a Sunday evening road trip to Tucson. At least the wait was over.