Joe Brancatelli and Larry King on Rail Travel

March 26, 2001

[Joe Brancatelli wrote in to comment on Larry King's commentary which appeared last week]:

What your American ex-pat scribe doesn't know (or has forgotten) is that Americans know nothing about trains. We don't condescend; we're amazed they work. As I told some Brit friends last month, while they were whining incessantly at the pub about Railtrack, the government-run infrastructure in the UK, Americans would KILL for Railtrack's problems. The British system, by American standards, remains a marvel. So does the French, German and Italian systems. For a whole variety of reasons, we've let our rail system wither. It's fallen and it doesn't know how or why to get up. So when Americans encounter a rail network that works--and can actually get you somewhere--we are at first stunned, and then amazed, and, finally, embarrassed. After all, we think, how dumb are we?

That said, your ex-pat American friend should remember that everything about trains confuse Americans. Most of us can't even read a timetable. I include myself in that--and I live on a commuter line. If it weren't for the little station-specific cheat sheets my line stocks, I'd never know when the trains leave. The full schedule flummoxes me. And, you know it often flummoxes Europeans, too. For that, I give you Paris-based Roger Collis in the International Herald Tribune:

"Drop me at any airport and I'll be able to cope. There is always stress, anxiety, but a familiar kind of anxiety. My antennae are tuned to telltale signs that a flight will be delayed - long, agitated lines of perplexed people; dissembling airline staff drip-feeding misinformation, etc. Airports are a predictable nightmare.

"Drop me at a train station and I'm a candidate for dementia. At the Gare du Nord in Paris or at Waterloo International in London, waiting for the Eurostar, I have had to ask little old ladies how to interpret the departures signs. Once onboard, I check with my neighbors (as many other passengers do) that I am indeed on the right train."

And Collis, like me, is supposedly a travel expert. But airlines and airports are our lingua franca now. Trains confuse the hell out of us.

In fact, that is why more Americans don't ride trains when they go to Europe. I had coffee last week with the marketing director for Rail Europe in the United States. He's a former New Yorker, inexplicably based in Denver for Rail Europe. He says he has all the numbers to show corporate travelers: how it is cheaper to take rail under 300 miles in Europe; how it is faster to take rail under 300 miles in Europe; how it is more comfortable to take rail under 300 miles in Europe. He says, eventually, the sticking point becomes fear and knowledge. Corporate travel buyers end up worrying whether their highly paid executes can figure out the trains!

One final thought: Rail employees, especially in the United States, talk in jargon and expect everyone to know it. Last month, for instance, my wife and I were going to Philadelphia for the weekend. Instead of driving, I went to the Amtrak website and bought two tickets.

When I went to NY/Penn Stations, I strode confidently to the ticketing machine, entered my rez code, and the machine spit out four tickets, one for each direction for both of us. Oddly, I noticed, the NY-Philadelphia tickets were marked "business class." The Philadelphia-NY tickets were not. (I have no idea how I bought business-class tickets. The option was never offered on the site and I was never informed I was buying anything but coach!)

So I went to a human at the Amtrak desk to ask about business class. That human asked another human who asked another human. The response: "Back of the train."

Okay, I figure, I can find the back of the train. Maybe I can't figure out how to buy a coach ticket, but I can sure find the back of the train (It's the end with the little red caboose, right?) When they call the train, my wife and I (and our luggage) go to the platform. Now we don't where the back of the train is because we can't see the engine or the (ahem!) caboose. So I look along the platform. No markings on the platform. No marking on the cars. No indication whatever of what is coach and what is business class.

So my wife and I, moments before departure, jump on this packed train. I guess one direction and we start banging our way through the aisle. Luckily, I find a conductor.

"Business class that way?" I ask, pointing to the direction we were walking."

"Last car," says the conductor, and disappears.

Well, of course, neither my wife nor I can divine direction from his comment, so we soldier on.

A car or two later, we come upon another conductor and I try again.

"I'm in business class. Is the back of the train this way?" I ask, making an exaggerated gesture in the direction we're walking. In fact, it's the kind of gesture you make in a country where you don't speak the language. You couldn't miss it.

"Last car," he says, and disappears.

By this point, I get it. No one is going to tell me where the last car is. So we continue our caravan in the direction we were walking only to find we had guessed wrong and were in the first car, which was a coach class car.

Then another conductor yells "Tickets, please." I hand him ours and he says, "Oh, this is for business class. That's the last car. You'd better start walking."

Gee, no kidding.

Larry King's Riposte


Your invitation to "engage Joe in colloquy'' sounds suspiciously like an attempt to stir up trouble, but what the hell, I've got a little time on my hands.

Actually, I think he's right on his main point, which is that most Americans find trains mysterious and somewhat intimidating. I've never understood why the United States decided to let its passenger rail system wither away, but by now the decision looks irreversible.

If for some reason the United States tries to revive its railroads, though, I hope no one uses Britain's system as a model. Joe's protests to the contrary notwithstanding, it's falling apart. No, that's not quite true. It was deliberately broken apart, in a bi-partisan effort begun under the Tories and completed by the current Labour government, to privatize the old state-owned monopoly, British Rail.

The British ruling classes have a peculiar enthusiasm for wildly impractical, hugely complicated solutions to not-very-difficult problems. Nowhere was that enthusiasm more evident than the breakup of Brit Rail. In essence, a sluggish public system run by an incompetent bureaucracy was replaced by a quasi-private, semi-public system run by three, four, or twenty-odd different incompetent bureaucracies, depending on how you count.

It breaks down like this: Three different government bodies share responsibility for regulating the railroads. A somewhat private company, Railtrack, runs the rail infrastructure -- the actual tracks, switches and signals, train stations, and so forth. Twenty-odd companies hold franchises to provide rail service, running the trains traveling over the tracks. They pay Railtrack to use its tracks and signals and stations.

The three government agencies cooperate about as much as you'd expect from any gang of bureaucrats whose turf overlaps. Railtrack works as well as any other quasi-monopoly with government regulators looking over one shoulder and private shareholders looking over the other. The operating companies seem to spend much of their time blaming Railtrack for their indifferent service.

Distributing blame occupies much of the time of any true bureaucrat, but in this case the process has practical consequences. Government subsidies can depend on who gets the credit when the trains run on time and who gets the blame when they don't. In southern England alone, according to The Economist, Railtrack employs fifty people whose job is to pin the blame for bad service on somebody. Since they work -- if that's the right word -- for Railtrack, you have to assume they try to pin it on somebody else.

Railtrack needs the subsidies because it can't make money. The rates it charges the operating companies are government-regulated. When you think about that, you see Railtrack's only real incentive is to cut costs, to make more profit on what it is allowed to charge.

Given that situation, a thick-witted student failing Economics 101 at a third-rate university, or any resident of California whose lights just went out, could have predicted what would happen. Costs got cut, all right. The tracks are now in awful shape and the signals system is downright dangerous.

I mean that literally. British trains crash with depressing regularity. The latest fatal rail crash was Feb. 28; ten people died. A crash last October killed four. The big one occurred in October 1999, when two trains collided near a London station and thirty-one people were killed.

In that crash, a complicated system required trains entering and leaving the station to use crisscrossing tracks, so that at certain points they were inevitably headed toward each other. They depended on the signal system not to collide. The signals were hard to see and to decipher. After the collision, Railtrack talked about replacing them.

The crash this past October actually did more damage to the whole system. It occurred when a rail broke and the train de-railed. Investigation suggested the companies to which Railtrack sub-contracted maintenance of its tracks were not always as diligent or well-trained or hardworking as they might be -- in other words, they were British -- and a lot of the rail system was, if not falling apart, about to.

Railtrack responded with a series of inspections and repairs. Those were supposed to be completed by Easter, after which the network would be tip-top and shipshape. Quite possibly, someone, somewhere believed that. If so, he now knows better. Railtrack has abandoned the pretense that things will get back to normal this spring and left us guessing when they might.

In the meantime, Railtrack has instituted speed limits and service restrictions, which can delay a train anywhere from half an hour to forever. The theory seems to be that if you can't fix things well enough to prevent crashes, you can at least limit the damage by keeping the trains from moving fast enough to hurt anything.

None of the countries on the continent have the same problems. None of the countries on the continent have tried to privatize their rail systems. Much as it pains my economically conservative, free-market soul to say so, those two facts are not unrelated.

You simply can't run a decent passenger rail system by free-market principles. The operating costs are too high, and you can't charge enough per ticket to cover the operating costs. Nobody will pay it.

France, Italy, Germany, and the rest of the countries on the continent have looked at the problem and decided they want a passenger rail system, so they'll pay the difference between what they can charge for tickets and the costs of operating the system. The U.S. has looked at the same problem and decided it won't. You can argue with either decision, but you can't argue that you've got some other choice.

The British, however, are possessed of a magnificent ability to look squarely at a problem, analyze in close detail all its components, and then ignore completely everything that's staring them in the face. It's a trait that occasionally benefits them enormously. Confronted by the menace of Hitler, most of the continental countries realistically determined that they hadn't a snowball's chance in hell and gave up. The British ignored the undeniable facts that they were outmanned and outgunned and defended by an army inferior to Germany's in every respect, and soldiered on regardless.

It was, as Churchill said, their finest hour. The same grim determination that allowed London to live through the Blitz, however, is not what you want to run a railroad. Railtrack seems determined to offer its passengers nothing but blood, sweat, toil, and tears. The passengers, unsurprisingly, are not prepared to accept, at least not without grumbling a bit.


Larry King

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