If Congress sees fit, you could soon be accompanied by your dog or cat on Amtrak, adding adorability to the increasingly popular national rail service. You could also be crowded into the proposed "pet car," accompanied by someone else and their stinky dog or allergy-inducing cat, fueling commuter rage just as Amtrak was starting to calm down the Acela set over bad wireless connections and not-so-quiet quiet cars.
Currently, the only pets allowed on Amtrak trains are service animals — not even comfort animals are allowed. But the U.S. government can very much regulate Amtrak, a new bill set to hit the House floor soon — H.R. 2066, also known as the majestic-sounding "Pets on Trains Act of 2013" — would do just that. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.), and John Campbell (R-Calif.) designates one car of every Amtrak train as a pet car, and riders would be able to transport their dogs or cats provided they are in kennels and are traveling less than 750 miles:
"My dog, Lily, is part of our family and travels with us to and from California all the time.... If I can take her a on a plane, why can't I travel with her on Amtrak, too?" Denham stated on Tuesday, outlining his argument, according to The Hill, as a boost for efficiency and revenue for the seemingly always under-funded Amtrak. It's unclear whether Denham, who represents California's 10th District up by Big Sur, is talking about travelling with Lily to Washington, D.C., which under his own bill would not qualify in that 750-mile radius for the pet car. (Nobody could sit next to a dog on a cross-country train trip without going crazy, and no dog owner wants to subject a pet to a carry-on size bag for even close to that, do they?) In any case, it sounds like Denham's heart is in the right place, and that he's already got support:
"@samsteinhp: Thought for Amtrak. Why not have a designated pet car?"/will propose to Amtrak/got Tn.parks 2 allow pet friendly cabins— Steve Cohen (@RepCohen) May 12, 2013
But this is Amtrak, a method of American transportation governed by its own set of rules. Case in point No. 1: the glorious institution that is the Quiet Car. Because, you know, it's never exactly quiet. We'll let The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates take it from here:
These people are almost always dealt with by a conductor or other passengers. But I've never quite been able to figure out why they come to the Quiet Car. It's not a matter of not knowing the rules, so much as a matter of not caring. It's almost as if the offenders regard the regular cars as a public lavatory, and the Quiet Car as a private bathroom where they may repair to handle their shit.
It's hard not to complain about Amtrak, especially about its notoriously horrible WiFi. Which brings us to case in point No. 2: Just last week, Amtrak finally upgraded the WiFi on its Acela route from DC to Boston from really bad cellphone-based wireless to slightly better 4G wireless. And while there were instant testimonials that the Internet had indeed gotten faster and better, there were plenty of social media complaints bemoaning the fact that streaming sites remain blocked.
Now, just imagine the complaints of an Amtrak rider who wants to watch his Netflix — and has to watch his Netflix in a pet car full of meowing and barking cats and dogs.
That might end up being the case. Because, well, consider case in point No. 3: Despite the myriad complaints over the years, more people are using the rail service than ever. "Amtrak ridership increased in the first half of FY 2013 (Oct. 2012 – March 2013) and March set a record as the single best month ever in the history of America’s Railroad," reads an April press release from Amtrak. More people on Amtrak trains means more crowded trains. Crowded trains mean doubling up in seats. And trains that crowded means that, if you're not early or in the origin city, there may be people forced to sit in certain cars of said very crowded trains that they didn't want to sit in — like a Quiet Car regular who has to marinate with the hoi polloi in the café car. Meaning: If Congress gets Amtrak to install a pet car on every train, and ridership continues to increase, there's a distinct possibility that pet-averse people may have to sit in the pet car.
Indeed, increasing ridership for the pet-friendly might be the point, but ridership is increasing as Amtrak becomes increasingly commuter-friendly instead. As The New York Times's Ron Nixon pointed out in August, Amtrak has benefitted from air travel being such a pain — and seen its ridership grown between DC, New York, and Boston. Ridership on the Vermonter, which travels between Northern Vermont and DC with stops in New York, grew by 6.7 percent in the first half of the 2013 fiscal year, Amtrak said. (There might be some friends of the pet population in between.) And Nixon adds that since the introduction of the Acela high-speed trains on the DC-New York-Boston route in 2000, the rail service said "its market share between New York and Boston grew to 54 percent from 20 percent" with an estimated national ridership at around 30 million people. As Nixon reported last week when the WiFi upgrades kicked in, Amtrak is listening to its whining commuters:
Amtrak responded to some negative Twitter posts, saying the upgrades would strengthen its Wi-Fi network and increase the amount of bandwidth available for tech-savvy passengers who have become accustomed to being connected while traveling.
Amtrak's success in the Acela corridor is a big reason why airlines like Delta and U.S. Airways, as Nixon notes, started to offer free WiFi on short flights between New York, Boston, and D.C. But the entire Acela corridor also fits within the 750-mile pet limit of the new bill in the House. Will Congress realize the pet car is a a nuisance to its loyal riders on the East Coast, or side with the pet owners to grow business? One thing's for sure: You can bet there will be complaining.