Sunday, March 11th, 2012

The Sorry State of American Transport

We constantly read about the infrastructure crisis in America. I’ll have more to say on this at a future date, but it is pretty clear that we need to spend more money in a whole lot of areas: airports, roads and bridges, public transportation, and more.

Yet it’s very easy to see that so much of what ails transport has nothing to do with a lack of funds and everything to do with a lack of will. I took a train ride on the Northeast corridor last week that really drove it home to me.

Start with the sorry state of Penn Station in New York City, America’s busiest train station. (In fact, it’s the busiest transportation facility of any type in the United States, if Wikipedia can be believed). Yes, the place is a depressing underground dump. Yes, there used to be a glorious train station there that was demolished in the 1960s. Yes, we probably need to invest many billions in upgrades.

Yet is it a lack of funds that make the three agencies that call it home – Amtrak, New Jersey Transit, and the Long Island Railroad – act as though the others don’t exist? The three railroads have completely separate ticketing areas, signage systems, etc. This is hardly the only case in America. For some reason, Amtrak seems to despise sharing ticket agents with other carriers. There are separate windows for Amtrak and commuter lines everywhere I’ve been. Given that many journeys include both commuter and inter-city segments, this seems crazy. If you can’t have integrated ticketing (and actually, I don’t see why you can’t), at least you should be able to have a single agent help you.

The worst example of this I know is in Providence, where Amtrak monopolizes the four ticket windows. If you want to buy an MBTA T ticket, you have to go to a cafe next door. This tiny little coffee shop found a way to sell both pastries and train tickets (albeit from separate registers), so why can’t Amtrak figure out how to sell two kinds of tickets?

Also, as near as I can tell, there’s no way to actually get your Amtrak ticket online. You can book a reservation, but then you need to get a physical ticket printed at the station, either from a kiosk or an agent. (If there’s a way to avoid this, please let me know).

I decided to get my ticket at the window. The line was very short and I was early in any case. When I got there, some guy with his kids was at the window screaming at the agent about a problem with their tickets. I chalked this up to one of those cases where the frustrations of travel just cause somebody to snap. But then as I walked up to the window, the person next to me was also having a similar problem with their ticket and was having an animated discussion with an agent who didn’t seem to care. Fortunately, I had no such issues, but the agent I had to talk to was extremely surly and kept asking me to repeat myself over and over. Who would want to put themselves through such an experience? Customer service is clearly something that should also be within Amtrak’s control.

Amtrak markets themselves as having wi-fi. But on the train itself, as anyone who has ridden the NEC knows, the wi-fi is basically unusable. How much capital investment would it take to get working wi-fi?

In short, though the facilities can somewhat be excused as resulting from insufficient capital funding and bad decisions decades ago, there’s so much that could be done right now to upgrade the passenger experience it’s not even funny.

It’s the same with airports. While a few American cities like Indianapolis and Detroit have upgraded their terminals, too many key gateways remain depressingly dreary and non-functional. While some overseas places like Heathrow certainly would give any American airport a run for its money in the Hall of Shame, the general experience of flying to someplace like Madrid, Singapore, or Tokyo is like night and day versus the US.

Key among the worst offenders again is New York City, especially LaGuardia. Matt Chaban at the New York Observer recently wrote a piece that is a good overview of the depressing state: “Terminal Condition – How New York’s Airports Crashed and Burned.”

This is certainly not news to anyone who has flown to New York. But again, the vast billions it would take to replace these decrepit facilities is only part of the problem. Nobody forces America to put its passengers through the “TSA experience.” Last time I flew I was delayed at security while agents patted down some guy that looked like he was around 85 years old who apparently hadn’t stripped down quite far enough to go through the full body scanner. Somehow other advanced nations manage to run safe air travel systems without resorting to this.

While we are waiting around for funding issues to be resolved, wouldn’t it be nice if our governments and various travel companies actually focused on fixing some of these straightforward problems with coordination, ticketing, and customer service? It’s hard to take their capital requests seriously if they aren’t going to do what they can now.

Topics: Transportation
Cities: New York

32 Responses to “The Sorry State of American Transport”

  1. This is a great post. I wholeheartedly agree.

  2. Danny Handelman says:

    If appropriate user fees were imposed for the least efficient modes of transportation (airports, roads, bridges, highways), and the government subsidies of these modes of transportation were shifted toward the most efficient and fiscally conservative modes of transportation infrastructure (rail, buses, sidewalks, cycling), all transportation infrastructure would be appropriately funded. Unfortunately, politicians perceive this to be political suicide, and likely are the greatest users of the least efficient modes of transportation.

  3. Eric says:

    European airport security is only slightly less annoying and intrusive than in the US, and both are trending in the same direction.

  4. Everett says:

    Customer service across all sectors of government tends toward the awful–the DMV also comes to mind. They are so focused on the action of providing the service, that I think they forget that without their customer, there would be little need for the service.

    I am starting to see some turnarounds being made, but they are mostly in local branches of government that rely directly on citizens’ support (i.e. libraries/police/firefighters that are going for a millage proposal). (Here, in Michigan, I’ve seen the elected position of Secretary of State (essentially the DMV), campaign on specific technological practices to make service better, but not actually stating an improvement in friendlier overall customer service.)

    Government agencies could definitely take a page from the private sector: a smile and a good attitude are the cheapest investments to make and will almost always make up for crummy service.

  5. John Morris says:

    Right, grading on a curve against other areas of government, Amtrak probably thinks it’s doing great.

  6. Jeff Gillenwater says:

    Unfortunately, the same is often true in the private transport sector. Compared to some U.S. airlines, for instance, European flight staff offer what often seems like royal treatment. I think it may be less about government than it is about attitudes toward travel and service, and perhaps labor standards in general.

  7. Spot on piece.

    If Amtrak is measuring itself against Metra though, they probably think they’re doing a fantastic job. They have accepted credit cards for years.

  8. thenewsjunkie says:

    Asking why there isn’t one ticketing agent for the various rail lines that run along the Northeast Corridor is like asking why there isn’t one ticket agent issuing tickets for the multitude of airlines that operate in the US. Saying that you see no reason why this can’t be done is a gross over-simplification of how our rail operators work in the US. It shows a lack of understanding. These are separate agencies run by different federal, state and local entities with completely independent funding streams and budgets. Surely, you must be aware of the complexities such a system would require and you were probably just day dreaming aloud, right?

  9. John Morris says:


    Ever heard of Easy Pass? As far as I know, this tolling system works for a number of separate systems controlled by different state agencies.

    Can we guess, you work for the government?

  10. I feel like I remember last time I took Amtrak from Providence to Boston that I booked my ticket online, printed it out at home, walked downtown, and just got on the train. I could of course be imagining that, it was a couple years ago, usually I take the T not Amtrak. Or it could be that no one ever came to check my ticket, and if they had they would have told me that I had made some egregious error in doing so and stopped the train in Mansfield to kick me off or something.

    On WiFi, the MBTA commuter rail has WiFi, at least on the Providence line, and it is usually quite reliable. Even more reliable, is when I recently took the Peter Pan bus from Providence to New York.

    On the ticketing at Providence, there used to be a time when Amtrak ran the MBTA commuter rail and you could buy a ticket for either at the main ticket window at Providence Station. The MBTA dropped Amtrak and Amtrak kicked the T out of the ticket window. From all I hear about dealing with the Amtrak ticket window, we’re probably better off getting our commuter rail tickets from Cafe La France.

  11. John Morris says:

    From the Wikipedia

    “E-ZPass is an electronic toll-collection system used on most tolled roads, bridges, and tunnels in the northeastern US, south to Virginia and West Virginia, and west to Illinois. Currently, there are 25 agencies spread across 14 states that make up the E-ZPass Interagency Group (IAG). All member agencies use the same technology, allowing travelers to use the same E-ZPass transponder throughout the IAG network. Various independent systems that use the same technology have been integrated into the E-ZPass system. These include Fast Lane in Massachusetts, I-Pass in Illinois, i-Zoom in Indiana, and the defunct M-Tag in Maryland and Smart Tag in Virginia.”

    A demonstration of the moronic mentality that allowed 9/11.

  12. John Morris says:

    From the Wikipedia entry on Hong Kong’s transit smart card.

    “The Octopus card is a rechargeable contactless stored value smart card used to transfer electronic payments in online or offline systems in Hong Kong. Launched in September 1997 to collect fares for the territory’s mass transit system, the Octopus card system is the second contactless smart card system in the world, after Upass, and has since grown into a widely used payment system for virtually all public transport in Hong Kong.[1]

    The Octopus is also used for payment at convenience stores, supermarkets, fast-food restaurants, on-street parking meters, car parks, and other point-of-sale applications such as service stations and vending machines.[2]

    The Octopus card is recognised internationally, winning the Chairman’s Award of the World Information Technology and Services Alliance’s 2006 Global IT Excellence Award for being the world’s leading complex automatic fare collection and contactless smartcard payment system, and for its innovative use of technologies.[3] According to Octopus Cards Limited, operator of the Octopus card system, there are more than 20 million cards in circulation,[4] nearly three times the population of Hong Kong. The cards are used by 95% of the population of Hong Kong aged 16 to 65, generating over 11 million daily transactions worth a total over HK$100 million (US$12.8 million) everyday.”

  13. david vartanoff says:

    In Wash DC, the Amtrak agents do sell MARC commuter tickets. At Penn, you have three agencies with separately unionised staff–getting them to agree cross selling tix is unlikely. Back when the Pennsylvania operated all the Jersey service, and owned the LIRR, there were only two ticket staffs AND joint tariffs from PRR stations to LIRR stations.
    As to surly agents/ticket problems, the DMV is the tightr example–a place where civil servants could enhance their public image but generally don’t. `

  14. CityBeautiful21 says:

    Ignore those who say integrated ticketing cannot be achieved. Where I live, seven different transit providers managed by different governments(with seven separate funding streams and budgets) and universities integrated their fare systems years ago.

    In the past few months, they went further and integrated multiple bus real-time information systems.

    Amtrak has done integrated ticketing applications on some West Coast services: see the Rail 2 Rail program.

    This about priorities and turf, not about whether or not it can be done. People who say it’s too complicated are usually part of the problem.

  15. Andrew says:

    Last time I took Amtrak from Providence to Boston, I used the website to check schedule and fare and saw I needed to leave home immediately to catch it. The clerk demanded $20. “The website said $14” I complained. “You shoulda grabbed it” he answered. Then the train was 45 minutes late.

  16. CityBeautiful21 says:

    PS check out the fully operational integrated Real-Time system here:

  17. the urban politician says:

    The major reason why American transport is so sorry is because, long ago, Americans took transport into their own hands by simply driving everywhere.

    The more and more we become dependent on none auto-related forms of transport, the more we come face to face with how shitty we have allowed them to become.

    That’s all there is to it.

  18. Ian W. says:

    Amtrak is evaluating e-ticketing on select routes (including the Downeaster) and plans to roll it out systemwide over the next couple years. As for the onboard wifi, they are relying on the major mobile carriers for connectivity, and coverage varies widely along the route. Service will improve as the carriers upgrade their networks and add capacity along the NEC.

  19. Rob says:

    I agree that the state of many train stations is dreadful and dreary. The many “Amshacks” across the U.S. are an embarrassment to say the least and not even deserving of being called a “station”. Even the supposedly nicer stations, like Union Station in DC, are pretty grungy.

    I don’t agree that U.S. airports are in similarly bad shape. Yes, some could use a cosmetic upgrade, but at the end of the day, airports are utilitarian – I just want a place that can get me to where I need to go. I don’t expect a five-star hotel experience along the way.

  20. John Morris says:

    Yes, I don’t think Amtrak can do much until the carriers upgrade.

  21. John Morris says:

    Yes, I don’t think Amtrak can do much to improve the wifi until the carriers upgrade.

  22. Rod Stevens says:

    (accidentally posted this in the wrong place earlier)

    When I go to “buy” an Amtrak ticket on line, I have to be very careful to type in the station name correctly, even though there’s essentially only one “Seattle” that trains leave from. The website doesn’t come close to comparing with Southwest Airline’s in terms of ease of use. Then, when I get to the station, I have to stand in line at a machine to print it out, and then in another line to get a seat assignment.

    For many public services, there seems to be an internal propensity to replace rather than improve. The “replace” mentality says to plan and build an expensive light rail system when BRT might work. Or to simply wait and do nothing when a few ticket machines (that take Visa!) might save the driver from doing this function.

    The Japanese call this “kaizen”, or continuous improvement. It’s an attitude that seems lacking in so many public services. It’s lacking in many private companies too, but they tend not to survive or have monopoly status.

  23. RyderCup2 says:

    Air Transport: “…too many key gateways decrepit?”

    I dunno bout that Urban. While not all are as new and shiny and funtional as DTW …there are not many decrepit airports that are key gateways. ORD, DCA, IAD, BWI, PHI, BOS, JFK, EWR, LGA (yup…DL terminal is nice), JFK (yup…some terminals better than others), CLT, ATL, IAH, DFW, DEN, SFO, SEA, SAN, LAX, PDX, MCO, TPA, SLC, MSP cover most of the major gateways…then the minor gateways would continue with CVG, SDF, BNA, MEM, RDU, PIT, STL, MCI, ABX, SAT. and of course IND etc.

    I suppose it depends on your definiton of decrepit. Penn Station is decrepit…DC Union Station is not…most Amtrack stations are borderline decrepit and they all have many employees who do not understand that the customer is king.

    I can’t wait for a HSR aka Pork Train post! :)

  24. Otto Khera says:

    If we had a nationwide highway tolling system (EZPass) as John Morris points out (in a different context), we might then be able to afford non-automotive travel alternatives. But as it is, the odds are stacked against such options since so much of our public funds get siphoned off to roads, highways, bridges, and other car-based infrastructure – not to mention the huge cost of parking alone. All of these have to be subsidized by automobile drivers and non-car drivers alike. With a tolling system, we might see something closer to a ‘pay to use’ system — like for example Amtrak and airports (!)

    We need solutions and not the constant whining about how bad things are. If we want better trains and airports, we must understand that we have a huge socialist-style transportation infrastructure called ‘cars.’ If we can change this to a pay-per-use model, then we will see transportation alternatives blossom — including innovative new ‘bike-based’ technologies that help reduce not only the fat in government, but amongst the whiners.

  25. Seattle Snow says:

    me thinks after all the years crying over the loss of the original Penn Station its time to get over the fact its just rat maze that is Midtown Manhattan. I’ve spend many hours at Penn Station to know that its just a place to get on the train and get out of dodge if you are going to Valley Stream or Richmond Virginia. I’m just pass the point of letting the station be what it is. Plus at least MTA & New Jersey Transit has ticket machines a lost concept in Chicago (METRA/CTA).

  26. Andy says:

    Seattle Snow – In an amazing display of modernity, Chicago’s Union Station now has three brand new ticket machines for Metra! No word on when the Metra workers are going to take the “out of service” signs off of them and fire them up. They weren’t in service when I was there last week, and had to wait 20 minutes to buy a ticket, causing me to miss my train by 20 seconds.

  27. Alon Levy says:

    Otto: yes, but. You’re right that road socialism (free roads and free parking) is a big reason why the US doesn’t have alternatives. But this does not justify the FRA rules, or the lack of interagency integration of transit fares, or the old-time commuter rail practices.

  28. Just like to point out that Penn Station is set to be expanded at the old Post Office, which will become Moynihan Station: Money definitely comes around when it’s needed, but I agree that it doesn’t always solve all the problems.

    However, with government-subsidized organizations like Amtrak, it can be a tricky issue. While demand for train service has been increasing (, funding has been continually decreasing and issues of access in sharing rail lines with commercial transport companies is creating a complex issue.

    Even though people may be getting on board with more public transport, the government isn’t supporting it. I would also suspect that this is contributing to issues of customer service and efficiency (lack of good pay and management = poor attitude).

    In the end, non-government owned companies will be the way to go. Bolt Bus (Greyhound) and Megabus are two service providers that I have had successful experiences with, and are driving innovation to meet the demand of their users.

  29. John Morris says:

    Alon said

    “You’re right that road socialism (free roads and free parking) is a big reason why the US doesn’t have alternatives. But this does not justify the FRA rules, or the lack of interagency integration of transit fares, or the old-time commuter rail practices.”

    Given the general theme of comments on this thread, about the negative impact of government run services and regulations-the $100,000 qustion is why don’t more people advocate removing government funding and privatization? I mean real privatization.

    My strong guess is that lust for power and a deep ingrained socialist mindset takes this off the table in most peoples minds.

    Don’t worry about what happened in the past, the new crowd is brilliant and just needs more money and power to “fix things”.

  30. John Morris says:

    It’s time for people to pin the tail on the socialist/ fascist donkey for all the damage it’s done.

    I can’t believe the traditional left wants to use the highway system as an example of the great things governement can do.

    Do they really want to go there? Want to look at the South Bronx or Newark or Detroit? Of course, the hypocrisy of the Republicans gets even more rich. One of the biggest examples of govenment disfunction and disaster is staring them in the face.

  31. Nathanael says:

    “Given the general theme of comments on this thread, about the negative impact of government run services and regulations-the $100,000 qustion is why don’t more people advocate removing government funding and privatization?”

    Because totally privatized transportation doesn’t work. That was tried in the 19th century and earlier; it’s a complete, unmitigated disaster.

    The reason has to do with “network effects”; transportation networks have strong network effects and are therefore “natural monopolies”. Look up those economic terms to understand better, or look up the history of Britain’s railways.

    Some things just work better as monopolies, so they always end up as monopolies. (This will happen to the airlines too. They used to be a regulated cartel before the 1970s.) *As long as they are monopolies*, do you want them controlled by democratically elected governments, or by unaccountable 1-percenters? Think about it.

  32. Rational Plan says:

    And yet despite the problems with Privatisation (mainly it ended up requiring more subsidy) Britain had the fastest expanding railway in Europe and passenger numbers are now higher than the 1940’s on a network 1/3 smaller. The rail companies on longer distance routes have shifted to yield management techniques for pricing and many ticket barriers at mainline stations are being fitted with scanners that can recognise QR codes from home printed tickets.

    Travel within greater London is now integrated amongst all modes and electronic travel passes and there is a big push for a new national smart card system to roll out by 2014.

    Ticket offices are becoming a thing of the past here in the UK.

    The problem as I can see is that US transit agencies are as balkanised as US local government. Proper regional governance structures are rare. So Chicago’s Metra only provides service to Surburbanites and has poor midday frequency. Yet it seems obvious looking at all those lines criss crossing the denser suburbs that a large frequent suburban rail service could easily be built. But there is no will to do so or integrate fares or provide proper interchanges with the Metro system as the funding sources and the political networks that support come from different places and have different cultures. No one seems interested in changing it.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

About the Urbanophile


Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

Full Bio


Please email before connecting with me on LinkedIn if we don't already know each other.



Copyright © 2006-2014 Urbanophile, LLC, All Rights Reserved - Click here for copyright information and disclosures