For business travelers, taking the train used to be only slightly more popular than hitchhiking. Unruly passengers, dilapidated stations and slow service made rail travel extremely uncomfortable.
But times are changing. With Northwest and Continental planning to merge, and Delta eyeing US Airways for purchase, airline ticket prices are bound to continue orbiting into the stratosphere. Corporate agency Rosenbluth Travel predicts an almost 10 percent jump in unrestricted coach fares this year.
Meanwhile, Amtrak is getting its act together. The National Railroad Passenger Corporation is making improvements to its facilities and adding new high-speed links between major business-travel cities.
Attitudes are changing along the way. You can hear it in travelers like David Stephen of Duluth, Minn., who was so disenchanted by a recent flight from Minneapolis to New Orleans that he vows, “Next time, I’ll take the train.”
He might save some money. Flying generally costs more than twice as much as the train, and in some cases, like Chicago-Detroit, way more than that. How much? Try $545 more.
Amtrak suggests there are a lot of road warriors like Stephen out there, and that more of them are riding the train. On stretches such as Oakland- Bakersfield in California, for example, traffic was up 21 percent last year over 1996.
“If the price of airfares get high enough, people will take the train,” says University of Portland (Ore.) finance professor Richard Gritta, an expert on the economics of the transportation business. “I’m just not sure when the American public is going to wise up.”
Perhaps when the trains get back on track-and air fares soar even higher. At the rate the airlines are hiking prices, it looks as if flying on business will be prohibitively expensive by the turn of the century, giving trains an easy opening to attract hordes of angry travelers.
It’s all a question of money and time. Amtrak is getting a much-needed $344 million in federal subsidies in the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30 and has asked for $376 million for fiscal 1999. It recently persuaded Congress to earmark $2.3 billion in capital funding for upgrades to its trains, tracks and other equipment.
What’s more, trains are getting faster. And when the trip between Milwaukee and Chicago takes about an hour by rail, what’s the point of schlepping your stuff out to O’Hare?
“I think there’s more interest in high-speed rail projects than there ever has been,” says Mark Dysart, president of the High Speed Ground Transportation Association in Washington. “Maybe we’re just becoming more aware of our options as we suffer more gridlock and winglock.”
Could it be that the harder the airlines squeeze business travelers, the more high-revenue passengers they lose? We’ll see.