Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Notes from an Inauguration

Yesterday I chose to be part of history and join the approximately two million Americans who gathered on The Mall in Washington to witness the inauguration of President Barack Obama. Having chose my favorite mode to get there, I can offer these observations on the state of travel on Amtrak's Northeast Corridor on this most important day.
  1. Amtrak got me there and back is relative comfort and speed. My train arrived approximately five minutes late in each direction. On the southbound trip, the train made up 10 minutes after it got stuck behind a SEPTA local that broke down north of Philadelphia and had to make a backup move.
  2. Both trains were sold out, but I was able to get a window seat in both directions and saw no standees.
  3. Amfleet equipment is comfortable and still rides well, but it is getting dated. It's time to order new rolling stock.
  4. The corridor's biggest problems are bottlenecks like Zoo Junction in Philadelphia and the Baltimore tunnels. Replacing or rebuilding these locations should be given high priority as Amtrak gets the capital to upgrade the line. Improving speeds from 20 mph to 60 mph could yield great time savings.
  5. While Amtrak did a good job of getting passengers from its trains and onto the streets of Washington, the same cannot be said about getting people from the street and back onto trains. I waited outside Union Station 45 minutes to enter the building, and I was one of the lucky ones. Many passengers missed their trains.

    Once inside, it was quickly, a mob scene, with passengers forced to move single file between the crowds to reach the gates and get to their trains. The waiting areas, which Union Station's architects fenced off in the restoration project in the 1980s, filled up quickly with many passengers milling about outside and blocking the concourse.

    The cause of this chaos wasn't necessarily inauguration traffic, but, rather, the bone-headed decision to lease to Union Station's Great Hall for one of the inaugual balls. Instead of allowing this space to be used as a waiting area and letting passengers enjoy Union Stations dozens of restaurants and shops while they waited to board their trains, Amtrak and city police were left to herding passengers like cattle on what may have been the busiest day in the station's 100-plus-year history.

    What Union Station's managers did was the equivalent of renting out New Yor's Grand Central Terminal's Upper Level for an event during rush hour and cramming everyone else into the Lower Level. There is no excuse for this poor planning.

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