There's a National Train Day? In America?

"Ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard Amtrak Train 715. We're expecting a smooth ride today and should be moving along right on time," said the voice of the train conductor over the loudspeaker. He then continued, "And thanks for joining us for National Train Day". The loudspeaker then turned off, and was followed instantly by the voice of an incredulous woman a few rows behind who said "What?"

What indeed. National Train Day?

Apparently there is such a thing. The first National Train Day took place May 10, 2008. It was held in honor of the "golden spike" that was driven to connect the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railways on May 10, 1869, in Promontory Summit, Utah – creating the cross-country rail system so few of us use or even consider today.

And so it is. National Train Day in a country that all but abandoned the concept of rail transportation decades ago, and one that seems perpetually on the verge of cutting all funding to the struggling system. The Bush administration has proposed to cut Amtrak's budget by 40% in 2009, and legislators in congress are struggling to stop it from happening. Though ridership has been at record highs for the last five years, the system is still operating in the red.

I hadn't heard about National Train Day until I got on the train that day. Apparently, Amtrak was celebrating by hosting live music acts and events at the nation's four biggest stations: Washington, D.C.'s Union Station, New York City's Penn Station, Chicago's Union Station and Los Angeles' Union Station. Unless you were looking for these events, they were pretty easy to miss.

National Train Day seemed to slip under the radar of many riders on my train that day, the vast majority of whom were just trying to get from point A to point B. Maybe this is a failed holiday, or maybe it's a minor attempt at bringing some visibility to a form of transportation most Americans have never used. Whatever it is, it could stand to be more effective at bringing the idea of train transportation to the masses. Maybe they should have offered some free tickets to get people on board. Or maybe they should spread their promotional efforts out beyond one day to try to change the public's perception of the train from novelty to viable transportation option. Maybe, considering the current political climate, it's too late.

But there were some riders on my train who seemed to know it was National Train Day. They were two older men, presumably a man and his father, and each was toting a toddler, the third generation. This family of men was out for a ride to celebrate America's trains. They were touring the train in wonderment, each with National Train Day buttons stuck to their t-shirts. The two boys were crowned by conductor hats, printed out on cardstock and wrapped around their little heads. The men were holding then hands of the small boys, pointing out the window, stopping to look at the conductor taking tickets, and testing out the collection of empty seats. The men could also be overheard explaining the path of the train to the boys -- in thick British accents.

These four people, probably the only four people celebrating National Train Day in America, were British. If that doesn't tell you something about the role trains play in American life, hop on a train for next year's National Train Day. See if anyone else knows what day it is.

Nate Berg is a contributing editor for Planetizen and freelance journalist.



Why the pessimism?

You seem to have your mind made up that National Train Day was inconsequential.

Yes, 2008 was the first year for the event. Amtrak used the first annual NTD mainly as a marketing tool. It's generated a great deal of press, including a plug from Al Roker on the Today Show. So, I'd say the investment was worthwhile.

Amtrak did offer free companion tickets for the day, a few weeks ago. California routes were also 25% off for everyone for tickets sold through last week. Because Amtrak already attracts high ridership and is under tremendous political pressure to reduce losses, it cannot give away free tickets to everyone. There were raffles at many of the events.

Most importantly, our independent advocacy organization, the National Association of Railroad Passengers, used the day as a call to action for citizens to press lawmakers to strengthen its investment in passenger trains across the country. Dozens of volunteers donated hundreds of hours in the weeks leading up to Saturday to plan events in cities that would not have otherwise had them. We're posting reports as we get them to the NARP Blog. Collectively, our message reached thousands of people.

So yes, more than just four British people knew that Saturday was National Train Day.

The public does view Amtrak as viable transportation. It's the politicians who are behind the curve. The continued record ridership is amazing, especially considering the undercapitalized system's constraints. Amtrak will soon be unable to meet the latent demand once it bumps up against the limited supply of seats in the system.

One more thought: Amtrak's farebox recovery ratio is 68%, which compares favorably to transit systems and highways and is higher than it used to be. The very few passenger train operations that turn an operational profit have done so with high fares and after significant upfront public capital investment (such as $80 billion in Japan).

-Matt Melzer
Communications Associate
National Association of Railroad Passengers

And on the day before train

And on the day before train day I experienced the train trip from hell... From a non-local-rail standpoint, our country does not have a passenger rail system. It has passenger trains that run on the freight train system, and it shows.

I was going from Pittsburgh to DC.... the train was supposed to leave at about 6am and get into DC at about 2pm (nevermind that it's ridiculous that a 4 hour drive takes 8 hours by train best-case)...

There was some freight train issue in South Bend... something derailed or something, i'm not sure... anyway, the train didn't get to pittsburgh until 8am.... An hour or so later, we stopped, because CSX was having a switching issue, and we had to stop to let a freight train pass... Over an hour later, we got moving again, and over the course of the day we repeatedly had to let the freight through.... The trip concluded with the train taking an hour to roll the massive distance between Silver Spring and Union Station, getting passed by a dozen Metros along the way.

Overall, we ended up 4 hours late on an 8 hour trip.

For many people, they will come out of this experience saying: "never again"

But the bigger issue is that rail is very non-fault tolerant... When something goes wrong, it creates a nasty chain reaction of effects, and with the freight people running the show, passengers end up paying the price for any screwups that happen.

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