America, the giant power that...can't

Wednesday, August 02, 2006 at 04:30 PM

America, the superpower.  America the would-be empire.  America where the concepts of "public" and "social" are dirty concepts uttered only by commies, pinkos, and their socialist sympathizers.  America, the preeminent military and nuclear power, the giant power that, unfortunately, can't.

Forgive me this lengthy description of a perfect illustration of how low America has sunk.

Try riding Amtrak in most of the Northeast corridor.  And keep in mind that this corridor has an absurdly large chunk of the American population, so you would expect these routes to be among the more efficient and profitable that Amtrak runs.

The story:

Yesterday, my wife was supposed to take an Amtrak train from Pittsfield Mass to Boston.  There is only one train each day, scheduled to depart from Pittsfield at 2:18 pm.  We arrived at the station (a cold steel and glass thing that contains Amtrak, the Bonanza intercity bus, and the local city buses) at 2 pm, in 90+ degree heat and 90+ percent humidity.

An angry woman is on the phone with Amtrak, and tells us the train is "2 to 3" hours late.  She's upset because she's got a sick relative who doesn't travel well and is on his way to Boston for a medical appointment the next day.  She's mostly mad because she's now going to have to take the bus, which costs twice as much and takes an hour longer, but at least there's a bus at 2:25.

We went upstairs to check out the cost of the bus, while she goes to collect her relative.  The guy at the bus office said "Whoops! Guess you didn't notice that the 2:25 bus doesn't run on Tuesdays."  On the schedule posted on the window, in black crayon, there's a cryptic "X--no T" handwritten next to the 2:25 bus.  Next actual bus on Tuesday: 4:45. The woman with the sick relative came in and I gave her the bad news.

She's furious, because she did all the schedule checking you could do, including printing out the bus schedule from a web site, and it said nothing about not running on Tuesday.  The bus guy points to the handwritten notation and closes the window.

My wife and I go to lunch and return at about 4 pm to see what the story is.  There's a train on the track so we hurry, but no, it's the train from Boston, not the one to Boston.  What's the status on the Boston train? "three to 4 hours" late.  What should we do?  "Call Amtrak's 800 number around 5 for an update."

We go to a coffee shop a few blocks away and kill time until 5 pm.  Rather than waste cell phone minutes on an 800 number call, I go looking for a public phone.  It's a commercial area, in a city of about 50,000.  No phone.  Not at the grocery store across the street, the bank next door, the gas station next to that or the chain pharmacy next to that.  The gas station used to have a public phone--the post and the attachments are still there--but it's long gone now.

The people at the coffee shop let me use their private phone, which connects me to Amtrak's voice-operated system.  After answering 10 or 15 questions (and being scolded for saying "right" when I should have said "yes"), the automated voice tells me there is no update on train 448.  I manage to get a live operator after 10 minutes on hold, listening to Amtrak tout its own wonderfulness.  She confirms: no update.

How can that be, I wonder.  Don't the trains all have phones and radios that allow communication with headquarters and the various stations.  She doesn't know, but the train to Boston originates in Chicago and has not yet reached Albany, the major stop before Pittsfield.  As she talks to me, she's obviously working on her computer and says, oh, wait, even when it gets to Albany it won't be able to leave right away, because it has to wait for the train coming into Albany from NY City--passengers from one need to transfer to the other.  And the train from NY City?  It's apparently even later than the one from Chicago.

As I look around for Franz Kafka, I ask her if she has ANY idea when the damn train will enter the delightful Pittsfield station, whether my wife will get to Boston before midnight.

"We hope the train will leave Albany by 6, and Pittsfield by 7:18."

She hopes.  We don't.  Back into the car and back to Bennington Vermont where my wife has to cancel her hotel reservations (which might well cost her full price if they can't rent to someone else).  After a furious half hour on the phone with Amtrak, they giver her the good news: they'll give her a $150 voucher to travel anywhere she wants.  I remind her of the bad news: that means you have to deal with Amtrak again.

In Bennington, VT, the Trailways bus service that ran between Burlington Vermont and Albany, and stopped in Bennington, was canceled.  There is virtually no bus service actually from Bennington.  The Amtrak service runs out of either Albany (an hour trip) or Pittsfield (45 minutes) and has one train a day to Boston.  Bus service requires traveling to the same two cities.

Yes, at the very time that oil prices are in the stratosphere, and the president announces that we've got to lick our addiction to oil, the public transportation system is a shambles.  Towns that had direct rail service in the 1800s now have no rail or bus service.  Our rail service is a literal joke to Europeans.  More and more ordinary people simply cannot get around unless they live in metropolitan areas with commuter systems.

We have no national health care for all the public.  Our health care which we love to tout as the best in the world is increasingly available only to the affluent.  The rest have to do without or "enjoy" a considerably inferior service through poorly funded and patchwork public programs that are constantly under financial pressure.

Our publichighways are so poorly maintained that Eisenhower, the father of the system would die of shame were he not already dead.  And the free marketeers press on, pushing ever closer to turning all the interstates into toll roads.  And then pushing to have the  toll roads privately operated.

We are clearly the "richest" country in some sense, yet we can't keep our business citizens from shipping good paying jobs overseas where they will pay less, or importing cheap labor into the country to take on the low paying jobs that remain here.

Although we have an upper layer of citizens who are as wealthy as any in the world, we completely fail to make them pay a fair share of taxes or act even the least bit publicly responsible.  In fact, we increasingly treat the rich as victims.

We have some of the best and most expensive private universities in the world, yet make it harder and harder for students from middle and lower class backgrounds to attend them.  Our public universities cost more and more, making them less and less available.

We have an amazing network of communications from cell phones to e-mail to Blackberries and I-pods, but damn few public phones.  

When it comes to military power and weapons we're the little engine that could.  When it comes to our public, our citizens and our infrastructure, we're the giant power that just can't.  When it comes to operating as a society, we're regressing back to the 19th century or even earlier.

And that can't last.  Simply can't.