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Midnight Train To Nowhere

A fair amount of hackles have been raised regarding the new, $15 checked baggage fee on American Airlines. (To groan a while longer: How will this pay-per luggage scheme square with the new restrictions on carrying liquids onto airplanes? Either many folks will be grumbling into their billfolds at airport counters this summer, or a parking lot toothpaste racket will not be far behind.) But the rest of the announcement is even more troubling: as the summer travel season kicks into high gear, AA plans to reduce the frequency of flights along well-trafficked routes, and straight-up ground 85 planes in their fleet.

At the same time, the first-ever National Train Day, under the direction of Amtrak's anodyne marketing department, came and went May 10 without significant fanfare. No groundbreaking outreach to get cars off the road this summer. No new service lines announced. No innovative ticketing schemes to take advantage of the airline crisis. Acela trains zoomed around the nation (or rather, trundled, and at extreme cost) as usual. In a parody of sponsorship, the Harlem Globetrotters performed on behalf of the decidedly static organization.

Primarily, the checked baggage kerfuffle recalls what a miserable job these private companies are doing to fulfill their obligations to customers who just want to get where they're going. Sure, we're a step up from the Oregon Trail, but chronic lateness, price gouging, and profound physical discomfort now seem standard fare in the air and on the rails. No wonder American's stock is tanking, at $6.22 a share today. (National Railroad Passenger Corporation's shares are not traded publicly--a slaughter-rule of sorts for the "for-profit" albatross.)

Of course, now that some see $200/barrel oil as an inevitability, airlines criss-crossing our skies are at a competitive disadvantage. See Barron's post for fair discussion of their logic. But when New York's MTA or Portland's TriMet are aggressively pursuing state-mandated "green" rail transport strategies, it's galling to see such mismanagement of our best chance at reducing miles driven on a national level.

None of this is to say we ought to nationalize our rail or airline systems (my word, though, India's full-service, far-flung train network is a marvel to ride). I actually think air competition is a good thing, especially in such a large country. But unless the train monopoly--federally funded in extremis, seemingly without conditions--engages some hard-nosed reforms, my guess is we'll all just have to stay put.

--Dayo Olopade