Speed, or How to Get from Phoenix to Minneapolis?

Pop quiz, hotshot.  You need to drive your grandmother from Minnesota to Phoenix.  A nasty sciatic means that 1600 mile trip will take three days, for an overall average speed of around 30 mph.  Once you’re in Phoenix, the need to minimize vacation days will join forces with your hipster sensibility to get you out of that lame-o town as quick as possible.  But there’s a catch – you’re neurotic about air travel, due to its tremendous environmental impact.

Do you go by ground transportation?  There’s no Amtrak in Phoenix, of course, and the Texas Eagle, which picks up in nearby Maricopa, takes 60 hours to get to Chicago (I think part of that is due to a transfer to bus in East Texas because Southern Pacific is repairing some track, although there seems to be a 10 hour layover in San Antonio all the time).  A bus from Phoenix to Minneapolis doesn’t take terribly long (only about 40 hours), but that much time on a bus is itself kind of terrible.

So the least terrible ground route is to catch a Greyhound at midnight in Phoenix, which arrives in Flagstaff about 3 am.  Then you kill two hours in scenic Flagstaff by night, before catching the Southwest Chief a bit after 5.  32 hours later, you’ll be in Chicago just too late to catch the Empire Builder to St Paul.  The Megabus only has redeyes after 3pm so you’ll have to get a 5 o’clock Greyhound.  That’ll roll into Minneapolis at 1 am, only 49 hours after you left Phoenix, giving this itinerary an overall average speed of 32 mph.

Or do you fly, hotshot?  A direct flight to MSP from Phoenix costs the same as ground travel, and takes less than a tenth of the time.  If you’re willing to put up with a layover, the trip takes 5 whole hours but you can save $50.  Will the incredible time advantage and sizable price advantage overcome your neurotic resistance to flying?  Or will you cave to societal pressure and join the cadres of cramped, stressed, timesavers of the sky?  What do you do, hotshot?  What do you do?

This picture is way too classy for my blog


Visual aid

My dear, departed friend Tony Graves, piano genius and one of the nicest men ever to grace this mean little world, used to say that America was the greatest country because it gave him a High School diploma even though he never could read.  I don’t  agree – it seems to me a rather difficult feat for those who don’t meet a narrow, mainstream definition of what an American should know and think (or not think).  Unlike Tony, I believe that anyone who manages to graduate from those teenage penal facilities has just managed a spectacular achievement.

My sister just graduated from one of Davidson County, North Carolina’s holding tanks for adolescents, and I recently went to view the ceremony (and thereby missed Open Streets).  This was such an important occasion that I chose to fly despite my antipathy toward commercial air travel.  I’ve taken the train and the bus out there before, the former enjoyably and the latter miserably, but my job is a major restriction on my freedom at the moment.  So through the air in an aluminum tube I went!

When I’m planning a trip I often find myself comparing my options to similar distances on other continents.  This is usually the result of a thought process that goes

  1. I wonder if I can take a train to _____?
  2. The train to _____ takes three days!  I wonder if I have that much time off?
  3. I used up all my vacation days writing in my blog!  %#$@$(@$*!!!!
  4. I bet if I lived it Europe the train wouldn’t take so long.

Charlotte is about 950 miles from Minneapolis as the crow flies, a distance comparable to that between Berlin and Barcelona, or Beijing and Chengdu.  So I searched for travel times and fares for flying, training and busing on the same dates between the three sets of cities.  (Already the futility of this exercise is obvious – the differences in size, function and wealth of these cities is naturally going to lead to differences in transportation between them – but hey it makes me feel better to think about it).

Here is a crudely reproduced table showing the shortest one-way travel time and lowest two-way fare between each of the cities (usually the shortest travel time was not the lowest fare anyway, so I decoupled them):

A few notes:

  • For some reason I couldn’t get the train fare for Berlin to Barcelona – I tried a few different sites but none of them could estimate it.
  • My guess is you could find a quicker and cheaper bus trip from Berlin to Barcelona, but I don’t know of any site that creates itineraries.  Eurolines seems to specialize in shorter-distance red-eyes, and although the website led me to believe this trip is direct from Berlin to Barcelona (34 hours on a bus sounds miserable), I’d guess it is a composite of some shorter routes since google says the car trip between the two cities is only 18 hours (a couple hours shorter than Minneapolis to Charlotte by car).  The site said the trip from Berlin to Barcelona was only possible three times a week, but there are daily trips between Berlin and Paris, and Paris and Barcelona.  Qui sait?
  • I’m not sure the Beijing – Chengdu train trip is anywhere near accurate – there are some websites that will give you estimates for train travel in China, but if you decide to buy the site actually books the tickets in China.  I’m not sure if they adjust the fare up if it ends up higher or if they just pad it extensively.  Apparently bus travel similarly has to be booked in China, although I couldn’t even find a website with sample itineraries.

Looking over the times, my frustration really is justified.  It seems that Amtrak is uniquely slow and expensive.  The sad thing is that it can’t even be explained by long transfer times – if you don’t count the 8 hours between trains, the travel time is still 33 hours, much longer than train travel in Europe or China.  The bus times are more favorable, but multi-day trips on buses can really be physically draining.

Even in Europe air travel is still much shorter than taking the train at this distance, and probably cheaper as well (from memory I’d guess that this Berlin-Barcelona trip is $250-300).  The aggressive plan for completing more high-speed rail lines will certainly make travel times more competitive, though it may make fares less competitive.

Who knows if plans for medium-speed rail in the USA will ever get off the ground, much less evolve into a national network?  Buses are getting better at shorter-distance trips, but until you can get up and walk around on a bus, it just won’t work very well outside of regional travel (although bus lanes without speed limits on the interstates might cut travel times enough to make it tolerable).  We’ll see if the USA will ever graduate to a multi-modal transportation system.


America’s Rollercoaster

Amtrak isn’t just a National Railroad Passenger Corporation, it’s a rollercoaster.  It seems like every time I ride it, I have an experience so superlative it’s almost mystical.  And every time I ride it I swear that I will never ride it again.

Some things never change

I took the Empire Builder to Red Wing last weekend to visit a friend of mine who lives in Wabasha.  If there were a bus (or a jitney or a rickshaw) that went directly to Wabasha, I would not have taken Amtrak.  Unfortunately, in this state that most consider to be part of the first world, of Minnesota’s 446 outstate cities with populations greater than 1,000, there only 57 with intercity bus service.*  That means that those of us who prefer to travel without impacting others’ lungs often have to ask their friends or family to meet halfway.

After transmitting my sensitive financial information to an unknown online entity, all I had to do was stroll up to the station and pick up my tickets.  Possibly because of the true American pastime, queuing, boarding Amtrak trains isn’t that different from boarding an airplane: endless lines of nervous people clad entirely in sweats wait with only a vague idea of the purpose, and ultimately are confronted with an amiable but apathetic anachronism doing the work of a bar code reader.  It’s even possible for a nude image of you to be generated and viewed by a total stranger, but most people catching the eastbound Empire Builder aren’t feeling that imaginative at the 7:50 a.m. boarding time.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have ridden trains in about a dozen other countries, and none of them checked tickets prior to boarding.  I remember enormous, serpentine lines in China, but I’m pretty sure they were just to get on the train.  Americans appear to be either uniquely untrustworthy or uniquely paranoid – and I’m pretty sure this was the case before the Tragic Events of September Eleventh as well, although I admit that I didn’t save space in my cluttered memory for the boarding protocols of decade-old train trips.

At least someone didn't forget their camera

Speaking of my defective cabeza, I made the biggest mistake of my life prior to departing by neglecting to charge my camera battery.  That means I wasn’t able to capture any blurry images of what was the most beautiful train ride I’ve ever taken.

St Paul is really a beautiful rail city – the moment where the train joins the edge of the bluff and the wide expanse of the valley presents itself just in time for the train to duck under the High Bridge – exciting stuff.   On top of that, it was the morning after a snowstorm had coated all the trees, creating a sparkling wonderland of the already-scenic blufflands south of St Paul.  But that’s not all – high water had created a sea out of the bottoms south of Hastings that we dumped on some of the Native Americans that we didn’t kill or banish, so it gave the appearance of gliding on a causeway over a broad lake.  Beautiful, even with the nuclear panner plant.

But, as always with Amtrak, the engine of magnificence was tugging a caboose of frustration.  Whenever I meet someone who has taken Amtrak a lot, I always ask him or her what their longest delay was.  For me, it was the time the Empire Builder derailed in Chicago’s Union Station – in the station – and it was delayed at least 6 hours, although there was also a memorable 3 hour delay in the cornfields of northern Indiana, which purportedly was just because the freight railroads were backed up.

The delay this time wasn’t memorable – an hour late getting into Red Wing, and 45 minutes late getting into St Paul, pretty standard Amtrak time (if you look at the photos on the site I nicked the above pic from, a majority of them have captions noting the tardiness of the pictured train).  The westbound Empire Builder gets into St Paul at the obnoxious hour of 10:30, when you are guaranteed a substantial wait for any city bus you’d want to catch home from the train.

And that’s the highs and lows of Amtrak: the most comfortable way to travel in the USA, often breathtakingly beautiful, and usually some interesting society, but nearly unusable due to low frequency and dismal reliability. As for me, I’ll take it to the bluff country again, but I bet that at least once on that trip I’ll swear to never take it again.

*Ok, to be fair, there are only 69 cities outside the 7-county metro with populations greater than 5,000, so the situation really isn’t atrocious.  Still, the entire Iron Range is without intercity bus service, and I am irked that I can’t visit my ancestral homeland of New Ulm (pop. 13,522) without asking my astigmatism-prone grandmother to drive to Mankato to pick me up.