The Amtrak bathroom trick

I discovered the Amtrak bathroom trick by accident. It was a Friday night in March, almost three years ago and I was running late. As I scuttled into the Providence train station, "Departing Now" was blinking on the track assignment board. If I didn�t catch this train, I wouldn�t be able to spend the weekend with my partner in New Haven. I ran down the stairs to the platform and squeezed through the gap in the doors.
It wasn�t until we�d pulled out of the station that I realized I didn�t have enough cash to buy a ticket onboard. So I decided to hide. I slipped into one of the bathrooms and shut the door. The bathroom was smelly and unheated and in the frigid air I could see my breath. For two hours I did jumping jacks and swung my arms to stay warm. Occasionally someone would knock on the door, but I figured my safest bet was to remain silent. I couldn�t hear the conductor announcing the stations, but I counted the stops and slunk of the train as we pulled into New Haven. I was shaking from the cold and from my nerves, but I had made it.
And for the rest of my time in Providence, I never paid for an Amtrak trip again - a huge relief since the $70 one-way tickets were eating up a significant portion of my $400 weekly stipend. I started sneaking on the Acela trains, which made the two-hour trip in only an hour and 20 minutes, plus their bathrooms were much cleaner and even had little frosted windows. Best of all, they were heated. But even with the heat I�d be shaking when I got off the train, fearing that my luck had run out and the cops would be waiting for me as I stepped onto the platform.
Despite the cost of tickets, as an alternative to car or airplane travel, passenger rail does have real advantages. As Governor Mike Dukakis points out in a recent interview on Wired's Autopia blog, contrary to popular belief, America is not too spread out geographically for rail service to be a practical travel option. "From the Mississippi River east, we actually look a lot like Europe. There's similar population density and distance between cities," he notes. By using our existing rights of way with minimal new track construction, we could, Dukakis argues, expand our transnational rail network with train service that reaches between 110 and 125 mph.
If the price of gas rises, as it did this past summer, the economies of rail transit become even more apparent - last July, Amtrak carried more passengers than any other single month in its history. But if we're serious about building an interstate rail network that can compete with cars and air travel, we'd need to invest in building a separate track system for high-speed trains. Unlike our neighbors in Europe and Asia, there are no high-speed trains in the United States. Amtrak�s Acela trains reach speeds nearing 150 mph only on two small pieces of track in New Hampshire and Massachusetts; most of the Acela route train speeds are much slower due to aging rail infrastructure and train congestion. Amtrak owns only about a third of its 21,000 "route miles" of track, so it must negotiate with freight trains for the right of way on the majority of its routes.
Under the Bush Administration, the Federal government decided to fund one high-speed rail project, giving $45 million in seed money for the California Nevada Interstate Maglev Project to build a train from Disneyland to Las Vegas. (With no help from the federal government, the state of California has started planning for an 800 mile, $40 billion high-speed transit system that will stretch from San Diego to San Francisco. A voter referendum on this fall's ballot won approval for the first $9.95 billion of funding.)
Looking back, I can't say my Amtrak fare avoidance trick is a discovery I am particularly proud of, especially as passenger rail undergoes another round of attacks in the stimulation bill debates in Congress. Before gas prices rise again, leaving American's stranded with cars they can't afford to drive, I'm hoping that we take this opportunity to invest in our rail system. With higher ridership and more support from the Federal government, maybe train travel will be an efficient and affordable alternative, even for underpaid interns.

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