The New Yorker ponders: If Amtrak were an airline

August 15, 2015

On May 18, 2015, The New Yorker wondered: What would it look like if Amtrak were run by the standards of its competitors in the airline industry?


This past week, ever since an Amtrak train derailed near Philadelphia, there have been numerous calls by congressmen and pundits to re-privatize rail in the United States, or at least to try to run Amtrak for profit. (Incidentally, since that crash, which killed eight people, an estimated five hundred and forty Americans have died in car accidents.) So just what would it look like if Amtrak were run by the standards of its competitors in the airline industry?

It turns out that the critics are right. By the standards of today’s airline industry, Amtrak is a hot mess of excessively consumer-friendly practices, and is forgoing millions, and maybe billions, in fees and fines that the airlines collect.

Begin with the seats. Amtrak, without charging extra, provides its customers with economy-class seats that are much wider (twenty-three inches) than those in airplanes (between seventeen and eighteen inches), and, indeed, larger even than many business-class airline seats. The train seats are sufficiently roomy that there is little reason to pay to upgrade—a grave error by airline standards. Amtrak has also stubbornly stuck to a four-across pattern, not minding how much people will pay to escape the dreaded middle seat. A profit-maximizing, reëngineered train could squeeze five or perhaps six seats into the same space, making basic economy miserable enough that more people might pay to escape it.

Amtrak also forgoes millions in revenue with its generous luggage practices. It allows people to simply board trains carrying about as much luggage as they’d like, and to keep that luggage in capacious storage spaces. There are no real baggage fees, though it does cost ten dollars to check in a bicycle (airlines charge up to a hundred and fifty). Amtrak doesn’t seem to get fees—hell, Amtrak doesn’t even charge for Wi-Fi.

Note: Since this article was originally published in The New Yorker, Amtrak has changed its onboard carry-on luggage policy. The new policy is (From Amtrak’s website,

Carry-On Items

Each passenger may bring two personal items, 25 lbs. (12 kg) and 14 x 11 x 7 inches each, and two carry-on items, 50 lbs. (23 kg) and 28 x 22 x 14 inches each, onboard. Make sure you have a tag with your name and address on the outside of all your bags.

Effective October 1, a $20 excess baggage fee will be charged for each carry-on and personal item above the quantity and size limits. A maximum of two excess bags are permitted per passenger. Fees will be collected at the station or onboard the train if the station is unstaffed. If checked baggage is available, you can check two bags through to your final destination free of charge.


Read author Tim Wu’s full story in The New Yorker by clicking here.

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