"The greatness and the genuine trait of your thought and writings lie on the fact that you positively and interestingly make use of philosophical thoughts and thoughtfulness in order to deeply and concretely cogitate about America's social issues. . . . This does not mean that your thought is reducible to your era: your thought, being inspired by issues characterizing your era . . . , overcomes your era and will still likely be up to date even after your era, for future generations." Bruno Valentin

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Amtrak: Running on Empty

Letting Amtrak expire in the U.S. in favor of encouraging other companies to pick up new high-speed routes is, I submit, in America’s interest. I make the claim not because Amtrak trains are slow and cumbersome—which they are—or because the food is over-priced—which it is; rather, the company culture is the true culprit, being sordid in a way that I suspect few employees or passengers suspect.

As a case study, I take the case of an Amtrak train that is split between “sleepers” and “coach” cars. This dichotomy is misleading, however, because other cars, such as lounge cars, hang in the balance and presumably must take sides. Prime facie, whether a given passenger has access to a lounge car should not depend on whether he or she has a sleeper compartment or a seat. The problem becomes acute when the lounge for “sleeper” passengers has wifi whereas the lounge for “coach” passengers does not. Put another way, the purported rational for segregation based on whether a passenger has a sleeper compartment falls short.

One former Amtrak passenger confided to me that she was about to “upgrade” to get a sleeper compartment on a ride from mid-morning to 9 p.m. in order to have access to wifi—that is, until she snuck past a few dining-room employees to find that the wifi was inoperative in the secret lounge car. The dining-room manager had earlier told her that no such lounge existed—that the “other side” consisted only of sleeper cars. She then learned from another employee that the secret lounge did in fact exist just beyond the dining-car “wall” and that the only wifi on the train was in that lounge. Had she not checked herself by slipping into “West Berlin,” she would have purchased a bed she would not have used in order to have access to wifi that did not work.

Adding insult to injury, her waiter that night tried to over-charge her as if her dish’s sides were “extra.” Nevertheless, the mentality behind the exaggerated apartheid seems to me to be particularly squalid and unethical. Manipulating coach passengers into purchasing a sleeping compartment even though said passengers would have no use of a bed—being on a train during the day and early evening, for instance—is also unethical.

In Kantian terms, Amtrak’s managers and employees are not treating coach passengers as ends in themselves, but only as means. In business terms alone, giving certain passengers a sense of being part of an inferior group (i.e., “coach) is not exactly in line with maximizing revenue. Any astute “coach” passengers might quote Nietzsche’s strong—what are these parasites to me! That is to say, from thirty-thousand feet, it does not matter whether east Berliners are being kept from the only car that has wifi. Have your fun with your artificial, stubby wall, such an enlightened flier might say from thirty thousand feet at the sight of a small train crawling along far below, for an atmosphere of distance naturally exists between perspective and pettiness.