An Amtrak trip from Vermont to New York made Kevin Ellis angry. But not in the way a difficult flight or terrible traffic can make us angry. A trip that could have been, that should be, a pleasure was instead deeply annoying. And he was embarrassed to think that this was the best America has to offer visitors from other countries. There was sadness, too, and deep frustration with the way we’ve neglected trains over the decades, “By Hartford or New Haven, you are wondering how this country ever got to the moon or invented anything.”

Kevin echoed the thoughts of many Americans we have heard from over the years. While not directly involved in train advocacy (yet!), Kevin’s article, “The Embarrassment of Amtrak,” has been widely circulated among those of us working to promote passenger rail. He speaks eloquently for all train riders who want to see Amtrak and other passenger service operators create a world-class US rail network. Those concerned about the decline of rural America should consider this:

If this train took under four hours, it would be packed with people back and forth to NYC. It would bring New Yorkers to Vermont to spend their tourist dollars, buy homes and inject commerce into our Covid economy. They would get off in Springfield, Vt., rehab a house for under $200,000, and go to work at the Black River Innovation Campus with the fastest internet in the country. They might go to Putney, or Dummerston, or Brattleboro and start businesses. 

This is exactly the perspective that created and continues to energize the Train Campaign. Read the full text of Kevin’s article here.

Thanks to Transportation for Massachusetts (T4MA) for underwriting Train Time.

Kevin Ellis is a co-founder and partner in Ellis Mills Public Affairs, a consulting firm offering political strategy and communications counsel to companies and nonprofits nationwide. Kevin co-founded Ellis Mills after 22 years at KSE Partners, LLC, a leading government affairs and communications firm. He has led advised on government strategy, public relations, and crisis communications, including the historic same-sex marriage campaign in 2009. Kevin’s clients have been in telecom, transportation, health care, farm-to-plate agriculture, and education. He serves on the board of directors of Chelsea Green Publishing, a leading environmental and sustainability publisher, and the Green Mountain Film Festival in Montpelier.


Note: This transcript was created using AI and is imperfect. For purposes of quotation, please check the actual recording! It is time-stamped , which is useful as a guide to finding a point in the recording, but please be aware that the time-stamps are not a perfect match to the published podcast.

Tue, 10/26 7:39PM • 22:26

SPEAKERS: Kevin Ellis, Karen Christensen

Kevin Ellis, Karen Christensen

Karen Christensen 01:48
Kevin. Good morning.

Kevin Ellis 01:50
Good morning, Karen, how are you?

Karen Christensen 01:52
It’s delightful to have you here. So to speak. from Vermont. No, you are in.

Kevin Ellis 02:02
I’m in. I’m just outside of Montpelier, the state capitol
Karen Christensen 02:07
Great. I’m in Western Massachusetts. Well, your blog post about the embarrassment of Amtrak was rather widely circulated, which is how I came across you. So can you tell us how you came to write that? I mean, you obviously have a blog. What inspired you? And then I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, because you basically summed up a lot that other people have been talking about, and that’s important now.

Kevin Ellis 02:39
Sure. Well, it began I was I, you know, Vermont is far away from everything, right. So that’s, that’s the greatness of living here. But it’s also the difficulty. So whenever you have to go to New York to take care of an elderly parent as I had to, in that instance, you’re always faced with fly drive, or train. And, you know, and it just struck me that all the choices are bad, you can fly and pay a lot of money and get stuck at LaGuardia or Kennedy airport, you can drive which is you know, really tough on your body. And, and the traffic is really unpredictable, obviously. And, and I love trains, I’ve always loved trains. And I don’t go to Europe a lot. But the one time I did are the two times that I did, I was just amazed by the train service. And you know, here in Montpelier, the State Capitol, a town of 1000 people, we have an Amtrak stop right in town, and the ability to get on. And, you know, the dream is, of course, to have a beautiful ride, do some work and arrive refreshed is the dream of great train travel. But we continue to be in thrall to the automobile in this country. And therefore, our investment in train service is really, really terrible.

Karen Christensen 04:19
So if someone is listening in another part of the country who doesn’t know, the northeast, or if someone elsewhere in the world is listening to this, can you give us a bit of background on Vermont, and its relationship you to, to the big cities that are not from western US point of view all that far away? But what is it like to if you have to drive, say to New York, um, I think that, that, that that might be useful to know. And then we’ll talk about some details of your access and experience.

Kevin Ellis 05:02
Sure. If you’re going to drive to say New York City or Red Bank, New Jersey, where my where I grew up, it’s a six hour drive. And that’s if the traffic is good. And then, you know, you have to deal with all of the the interstate 95 Corridor unpredictability. You know, once you hit say, oh, New Haven, Connecticut, after New Haven, and between between New Haven and New York, it is a completely unpredictable situation that can turn into a traffic nightmare in seconds. And so a six hour drive can turn into a nine hour drive. Oh, in a few minutes. And so and so when you live in Montpelier, the state capital of the state of Vermont you’re thinking oh, I’ll just get on Amtrak and do some work read a book and just enjoy the beautiful scenery you know, as I go down, in fact, there are two Amtrak lines within shouting distance of me one is in my town and the other one is over on the other side of the state in Rutland, Vermont, which takes you down your direction the Hudson River Valley Yes, yes. Which is a little faster and if you know if you’re willing to drive the hour to Rutland and park your car you can get to New York and five hours so we have this weird luxury and but as you discover when you get on both trains you know if you if you’re going from say, Oh, I don’t know. You know somewhere in Europe, you know, you know, London to, you know, Paris, I don’t know how long it takes but it’s

Karen Christensen 06:53
fast. It’s an hour and a half. Yes.

Kevin Ellis 06:57
You could be there for lunch. Yeah, no, and it on the two trains that go to go to New York or DC, frankly, from Vermont, it is from Montpelier to New York City, it is an eight hour train trip, if there are no freight trains in front of you, and if all works well. And then to Washington, DC, it is an eight hour I’m sorry, it’s a 12 hour ride. And so it just struck me that this is this is developed world stuff. I mean, this is just, you know, and it wasn’t this isn’t one of those things that was sort of revealed by the pandemic, I mean, this has been going on for generations. And I mean, we can get into the details of sort of my experience on the train. But this is a this is a complete result of, of a lack of investment in train travel, in favor of the automobile and trucking lobby. And it’s really, I think, as simple as that, you know, we’ve got to invest in these things. If I could be in, in New York and three hours, from Montpelier Vermont, I’d be going once a month, I’d be doing business meetings, I’d be visiting family, I’d be and it’s just it’s nigh impossible to do that.

Karen Christensen 08:32
And, and in the 21st century, in the richest country on the planet, it’s a little odd that we have such as you said, embarrassing train service.

Kevin Ellis 08:46
Oh, it’s embarrassing. It’s really embarrassing when you can, you know, in Japan, or China. I mean, you know, we’re, we’re obviously in this politically polarized time right now, or, you know, the right wingers love to beat up on China, which, you know, nobody likes to beat up on China more than me, but they’ve got trade service that, that makes us

Karen Christensen 09:06
The service there is fabulous. And people focus on an ice I do a lot of work in China. And, and, and, and the attitude towards it. Just as an example, I went to Guangzhou, which is like the distance from New York to Chicago. It’s a good long way. Yeah. Well, I think it’s Washington Chicago, actually. And, and I flew, but I was four hours late, because flights there are delayed a lot. And my friend said, Why didn’t you take the train? I hadn’t even thought about looking for a train that doesn’t. But the most, you know, the Most Popular The Most ridden route in the world is between Shanghai and Beijing. And it you know, it’s packed and it’s fast. And it’s just part of life now.

Kevin Ellis 10:04
Yeah, that’s right. I mean, you know, this, the list of it’s in my blog, but the list of issues is so long. I mean, the, the, the food, for instance, is just terrible.

Karen Christensen 10:22
So tell us to sort of start where did you catch the train on this memorable day when you decided to, to record your experiences for the historical record?

Kevin Ellis 10:35
And mind you, I’m a huge fan of trains and I’m a huge fan of Amtrak I’m not I don’t want to beat up on the poor people of Amtrak. It’s just that they have it’s clear that they have no money no investment and it’s just I think the whole thing is badly managed. I mean, you get on in Montpelier, the state capitol. A cute little train station, you know, you know, half the people waiting to get on the train. You know, in Vermont, we all think we know each other because it’s so small. Yeah. And you get on the station and it’s great. And then you realize that everything is wrong. The train is going 40 miles an hour. It is stopping at you know, every little hamlet to pick up one or two passengers. The cafe car is open and it is a it’s a it’s almost impossible to get any food that is even approaches healthy. The person serving the food is you know, sort of underpaid and overworked, kind of angry, resentful of being there. They obviously have union issues.

Karen Christensen 12:00
What do you get to eat? What’s on offer on an Amtrak train?

Kevin Ellis 12:05
Oh, there’s a there’s a, everything is encased in plastic. There’s a you know, a sticky bun and a plastic bag that they’ll pop into, into a microwave. There’s a there’s a sandwich wrapped in plastic, they’ll pop into a microwave and a cup of coffee in a Styrofoam cup. You know, this just

Karen Christensen 12:29
sounds like the end of the 70s. Yeah, no,

Kevin Ellis 12:33
it’s exactly right. You feel like you’re at about 1973. And nothing’s changed. Now, the one, the one good part of the trip was that the train car was fairly modern. The seats were, you know, leather, and the seats were clean, they didn’t have that disgusting sort of cloth seat cover where you know, that absorb the sweat from every passenger front of you. And you know that so the train cars, I mean, they don’t, they can’t hold a candle to train cars in any other country in the world. But these train cars were by American standards, fairly new. So that was a plus. But you know, you’re six hours into it, and you hit New Haven, Connecticut. And I’m sorry, I can’t remember. It’s either New Haven or Hartford. You know, the other problem with this is for as you know, freight trains have priority.

Karen Christensen 13:38
They don’t legally have priority, correct? Right? They take priority,
but they don’t actually merit it on the basis of the law.

Kevin Ellis 13:50
There you go. And so you’re forever sort of stopping on the tracks, waiting for some freight train to go by you or unload its cargo or whatever. And then it’s either Hartford in New Haven, I can’t remember. You stop, you back up, you switch train engines. And then you, you know, wait for 20 minutes, and then you’re on your way again, and in both New Haven and Hartford. There’s the 20 minute delays, where you have to do the crew changes, the engine changes and you know, I get it, but all I can folk all you all I can think of is the lost opportunity. You know, you could you could be in New York in three hours from Vermont, or Washington DC in four or five hours. The economic benefits of all of that would be incalculable.

Karen Christensen 14:59
Yeah. And it would spread benefits throughout the, you know, spread benefits from the urban regions to rural regions, where many of us like to live but still carry on professional jobs.

Kevin Ellis 15:12
I might do. And nothing has revealed that more than the pandemic I mean, the ability now to work remotely, and your employers or your clients, acceptance of the fact that it no longer matters where you are. You know, I hammer my children who live in big cities, they live in DC, New York and LA. And I’m always saying to them, it doesn’t matter where you are anymore. So come visit for Yeah, you know, I have a son who runs a podcast studio in New York City. And we’re always saying, hey, pop up for the weekend. And he’s saying, you want me to get on an eight hour train?

Kevin Ellis 15:58
yeah, cuts people off. Yeah, that’s right.

Karen Christensen 16:01
And, of course, you’re talking about trains. The advantage of trains for people working remotely, or working in a hybrid way is that you can work on the train. I mean, that’s a big selling point. How did you find it working?

Kevin Ellis 16:15
Out? Oh, terrible. I made terrible. Just and again, I say this with all affection for Amtrak and trains in the mountain they’re trying to climb. The internet’s terrible. It’s really slow. You cannot do a business call. You’re on the phone for three minutes, and then it cuts out. Your emails incredibly slow. I mean, it’s just you totally give up and read it read a novel. I mean,

Karen Christensen 16:47
I’m, I’m actually taking, I’m going to have a nine hour Amtrak ride tomorrow to Pennsylvania to see some train cars. And I’ve never taken an Amtrak train ride that long. And actually, I have, I’ve been kind of putting together the work to do on the trade, making sure I have a fair amount of paper. And stuff I can do offline because I assumed that that might be the case.

Kevin Ellis 17:16
Yeah, it is, you know, you it’s six hours is one thing, or five hours that you can, you can manage. But I’ll tell you when you get to about New Haven with and then you realize you’ve got three hours left of this of this just brutal train ride, you just begin to you know, I don’t know what something about when you cross the five hour threshold, essentially, you just get

Karen Christensen 17:45
really drives to. Was your train on time?

Kevin Ellis 17:50
Oh, it’s about half an hour late. But the I’ll tell you, you arrive for non New Yorkers, you know, you arrive, you used to arrive in the, the disgusting, Penn Station. Yeah. Train hub, they’ve now opened as you probably know, the Moynihan train Hall across the street and the old post office. And after this brutal train ride, you get out and you’re in this absolutely gorgeous new train hall that is futuristic and wonderful. And it’s got coffee shops and good food. And it’s clean and wide open with beautiful sun coming in the windows and you just feel renewed, and you say, oh my god, this is what is possible. You know, just a modern experience. Where, where you where you can work and be human. Yeah, and, and Amtrak is, is just so back in 1970. And I you know, I blame the politics. It’s just and the and the tyranny of the automobile that has taken over society.

Karen Christensen 19:07
But I think you’re what you’re talking about, there’s really important about having a vision for what, what it should be like not in every detail. But we don’t just want kind of clunky old trains, we want something that’s compatible with a, you know, a new modern station. Actually, the trains I’m going to see in Pennsylvania are battery powered electric trains that are can be used on short lines, I’m hoping that they will prove suitable for our line in the Berkshires for a demo project. But they would be modern looking, you know, and quiet. So, so definitely thinking about that. I’m curious about, you know, if you can tell us a little bit about what you think how Vermonters feel about train service and being connected. You know, Vermont’s a state that punches above its weight nationally. Yes. And so I’m an entity, you know, it’s a very green state in various ways. But what you know, so what what, what might we learn from the needs and interests and vision of Vermont?

Kevin Ellis 20:28
Well, I think, you know, I think Vermont is fairly educated and yearns for the types of modern conveniences that are that are, that are here, and are coming with a mobile, remote electrified society. We are the home of Bill McKibben on climate change. And you know, our former Governor Howard Dean was a huge train advocate. He actually put aside a bunch of money to start a commuter line between some towns and Burlington the biggest city that that evaporated because when a Republican got elected they did away with that funding. So I you know, your Vermont leads in a lot of ways and I you know, we you can see the hope on the faces of, of all of us when we sort of bored Amtrak at our train station, we realize it took it took six minutes to get here. In the car, you know, your spouse dropped you off or whatever. And it’s, you’re independent, and you’re, you’re working and, and then as you just get into the trip, it’s just gets more and more depressing. And it’s just such a, it’s so tragic because the opposite the economic opportunity, the human opportunity to remake into a post to rebuild into a post pandemic successful economy is staring us right in the face, and we just won’t seize the opportunity.

Karen Christensen 22:19
Well, let’s hope that we can find ways to seize it. And I really appreciate your, you know, I think to have that very specific example of what’s wrong, but also a sense of the vision that we need to inculcate in those who are going to make, you know, actually make the decisions would be is really important. I think it’s hard for people to visualize what the future you know, a better future will look like. And so that’s helpful.

Kevin Ellis 22:49
It’s, you’re right, it’s very difficult to build the kind of political support for the dollars that need to be invested in a three hour train ride from Montpelier, Vermont to New York City. But boy, once it happens, it’s kind of like the kind of like the iPhone, or that mind Moynihan train Hall. I mean, once you present it to people, there’s no going back, once you present people with a with a really good alternative. There is no turning around, they will get on that train.

Karen Christensen 23:24
And that’s modeled a very, you know, there are plenty of very similar situations in the United States that, that and I like to think that, you know, there’s some potential for, you know, for efficiencies, because we want to do the same kind of things. So we need some, we need some good models. And that route is certainly an attractive one to think about. So thank you very much for joining me today.

Kevin Ellis 23:52
My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Karen Christensen 23:54
I’m glad to have had a chance to, to meet you online. And, you know, at some point, we’ll, we’ll maybe cross paths that Moynihan train station. Thanks very much. Sure. Thank you.