Why America’s Passenger Train Project Seems to Be Derailed

Life in America is slowly returning to normal. Summer trips are an attractive solution for millions of families stuck in homes for months. The planes are flying at full speed. Car rental companies are often out of stock in major cities. Never mind the high fuel prices. Americans are hitting the road in their personal cars like never before.

But believe it or not, America offers another way to travel overland. Amtrak, a passenger rail network, has been in operation since 1971. President Biden has been one of its strongest supporters. While serving in the United States Senate from Delaware, he rode the Amtrak daily to return home to Wilmington, near Philadelphia.

Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, from Boston to New York, Philadelphia to Washington, is a reliable alternative to air and road travel. Connecting downtown to downtown, Amtrak saves travelers the hassle of getting to an airport, spending hours navigating through passenger security, and again commuting between the airport and downtown. when arriving at destination. Studies have shown that it is faster to commute between two cities in the Northeast Corridor by train than by plane.

Abysmal performance

There are other advantages. Trains are frequent and mostly on time. On Acela trains, which offer airplane-style business class seating, speeds can reach up to 100 miles per hour. Wi-Fi is standard and passengers can work peacefully in designated “quiet” cars. In Acela First Class, travelers can hold meetings around conference tables, with seating for two or four. Station lounges mimic first-class airport lounges – with snacks, Wi-Fi, meeting rooms and relaxing seating while passengers wait for their next train.

But outside of the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak’s rail service is decidedly worse than in the developing world. For a wealthy country, America’s rail network is pathetically weak. In Europe and Japan, a map of the national railway system resembles a human body with arteries touching every point. In America, Amtrak does not serve most of the country. In fact, hundreds of thousands of square kilometers of land have no passenger rail lines. For the few destinations served by Amtrak, connecting services are provided by bus, van, taxi or ferry – not by Amtrak.

And the trains are almost always late. Not in minutes, but in hours. Compare that with passenger rail in the UK, Europe and Japan. When I was living in Bern in the late 1990s, I once extolled the punctuality of the Swiss Federal Railways during a dinner conversation with Swiss customers. Most of them were polite but were unimpressed. They were finally said to be happy years ago but not anymore. “These days, SBB trains are usually 2-3 minutes late.”

The frequency of Amtrak trains is also abysmal. Atlanta, capital of Georgia and gateway to the southeastern United States, is served only twice a day — by a train from Washington to New Orleans and the same train back . Many cities – Cincinnati, Dallas, Jacksonville, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Phoenix, Salt Lake City and San Diego – suffer the fate of Atlanta and are on a single line connecting the ends of a route.

On long-distance routes, Amtrak fares can be quite expensive compared to airfares. Roomettes, or private compartments for two passengers, are often more expensive than first-class airline tickets. Yet the railway is chronically ailing and still in the red, relying on government handouts to keep it afloat. It received about $2 billion from Congress the year before the pandemic and received $3.7 billion in emergency funding after the pandemic hit in March 2020.

below standard

So with all these issues, why would anyone travel on Amtrak trains?

When the trains run on time, the experience can be enjoyable and unprecedented. Because what Amtrak sells is a window seat to beautiful American vistas and landscapes, something you can never experience 35,000 feet in the air. Almost all long-distance trains have a lounge car with large glass windows and comfortable seats in which to relax, watch, mingle and make friends. The journey is as much a vacation as the destination.

Amtrak brochures make a point of selling these scenic views. Here we go: A great West Coast rail adventure, en route daily between Los Angeles and Seattle, the Coast Starlight train passes through Santa Barbara, San Francisco Bay, Sacramento and Portland. The scenery along the Coast Starlight route is unparalleled. The dramatic snow-capped peaks of the Cascade Range and Mount Shasta, lush forests, fertile valleys and long stretches of Pacific Ocean coastline provide a stunning backdrop.

Another says this: If you want to experience the wild splendor of the American West, the Empire Builder train, running from Chicago to Seattle, is well worth 46 hours to spend. From Chicago, you’ll get a great view of the Mississippi River and see Minneapolis’ glowing nighttime skyline. Awake the next morning, you’ll cross the plains of North Dakota, ride along the Missouri River, through Big Sky country in Montana, passing through Glacier National Park. From Spokane, you can continue to Seattle or descend the Columbia River Gorge toward Portland for spectacular views of Mount Hood and Beacon Rock.

In his $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, President Biden managed to slip in more than $45 billion for improvements to Amtrak. If you’re hoping Biden’s cash injection will get you traveling soon in a
Similar to Shinkansen super-fast train between US city pairs, think again. A proposal to build a high-speed rail link between Los Angeles and San Francisco was publicly funded by a $9 billion bond in 2008. Today, the cost of the project has reached $80 billion. Only part of the system, about 171 miles of service through California’s Central Valley, connecting the fast-growing cities of Merced and Bakersfield, is likely to be operational. By 2029.

Jose P. Rogers