Friday, July 18, 2014

Yonder comes the train?

California Zephyr pulls into Mt. Pleasant, Iowa

It had been a few years since I'd ridden Amtrak, what with the nearest station being 75 miles away and me always coming up with some reason to drive. But driving and parking in Chicago are getting old, and Eli was game, so the two of us took the train to Chicago and back last week. The pleasant and unpleasant aspects of the journey leaves me with no clear answer to "Is there a future for passenger rail travel in the United States?" All I can say is, "There could be."

The positives: It was a very pleasant mode of travel, far more relaxing than driving in metropolitan traffic jams, and more with more room to move around than a car affords. Certainly trains are far more spacious and comfortable than flying in a commercial airplane.There's more room for luggage, and you can bring your own drinks.
Passengers packed into a commercial airplane. Note the "fasten seat belt" sign is lighted.
As the usual driver, I had the luxury on the train of reading, looking out the window, or fiddling with my iPod. Once we arrived we could be on our way, with no parking fees or hassles.

The negatives: With a car you can leave whenever you wish, instead of having to conform to the train's schedule. You can also stop for refreshments wherever you wish; the train has an on-board restaurant and snack bar, but by the time we boarded the snack bar was thoroughly picked over, with only beer and one can of Red Bull remaining to drink. You can also not stop: The train made four scheduled stops between Mt. Pleasant and Chicago, which would be unnecessary unless you're traveling with very small children. You can smoke in your car, though your lungs and any fellow passengers would rather you didn't. Costs are hard to compare; using the current IRS compensation rate for driving (55 cents per mile), and adding tolls and parking fees, two round-trip train tickets are more expensive, but only slightly (if you discount the 75 miles we had to drive to get to the station).

Trains are much slower than airplane for long-distance travel, and training is slower than driving, especially since--and this was the most negative of the negatives--the train left more than two hours late both going and coming, and was running even later by the time we arrived at our destinations. Our train into Chicago, scheduled to arrive at 2:50 p.m., actually arrived at 6:30. This was not an exceptional experience; every other run of the California Zephyr I observed while in the Chicago was profoundly behind schedule.

In Mt. Pleasant the train's lateness meant we spent a couple unanticipated hours exploring a charming small town. In Chicago it meant we spent a couple unanticipated hours packed into Union Station's waiting room...
...with everyone else waiting for various trains that were all running late. It's worth noting that all these people, for whatever reasons, were willing to endure considerable hardship in order to travel by train. How much ridership could trains expect if they were somehow able to mitigate this hardship? You see why I'm stuck on "There could be" when contemplating the future of passenger rail travel.

There's been a lot written about Amtrak of late, some of which are listed and linked at the end of this post. Most indicate both the positives and the negatives I identified are widely perceived. Most suggest solutions to the problems, as opposed to closing the system altogether. The principal remaining obstacle is identifying the source for those solutions. Here we have a product for which there is substantial demand (see above picture) and widely-credited public goods, yet neither the private sector (which favors short-term return over long-term investment) nor the public sector (which favors distributing benefits widely over rational allocation) are oriented to grasping the opportunity.

[Note: This glib formulation skips over parts of both sectors that are overtly hostile to intercity rail. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-California), for example, is committed to blocking federal funding for that state's proposed high-speed rail line from San Francisco to Los Angeles. He wants to use scarce transportation funding on highways. Some of the congested highways we traveled on during our recent California vacation are already 12 lanes wide.... Similarly, here in Iowa, the unremitting hostility of legislative Republicans, eventually joined by Governor Terry Branstad, led to blocking the Iowa portion of a proposed Chicago-to-Iowa City route ("Iowa Slams Door on Amtrak" (2013)).]

If I were Emperor of Transportation, with no worries about congressional approval, I would:
  • close on some lines in the 46 states currently served by Amtrak, and reduce runs on the long-distance lines. This would allow focus on the more profitable routes, and entering into the world of bullet trains, while leaving occasional adventure options for serious train enthusiasts. Eventually we could add more frequent runs on the profitable lines, as well as add routes once our now-excellent performance stimulates demand.
  • build and operate tracks everywhere Amtrak runs. Except for a few megalopolises, Amtrak rents track from freight operators, which means slower and more interrupted runs on degraded tracks. Owning our own tracks means we could quickly address scheduling issues, and probably improved safety as well.
  • upgrade service on trains. We shouldn't run out of food. There should be Wi-Fi. (Jarrett Walker cheerfully posted to his "Human Transit" on the Cascades line, but the only Wi-Fi on my train was when we stopped briefly in Galesburg, Illinois.) I'm not pro-frills, but there are ways to make trains more comfortable and attractive.
  • upgrade the human face of Amtrak, which currently is uneven. There is no reason to begin a trip by berating passengers who have been stuck in train station limbo for two hours, as our conductor on the return trip did. All Amtrak staff should use words accurately with the intent of informing passengers. The words "brief" and "momentarily" have specific meanings in the English language, and should only be used to convey those meanings.
America seems to me to be no longer taking for granted that single-occupancy automobiles are the answer to every transportation need. An intercity rail system that is comfortable, reliable, and affordable could be an important part of our future. Could be.

On-time performance by route, from

Population density of US counties, from via


"Amtrak Unlimited" site includes a discussion forum:

Christopher Ingraham, "The Sorry State of Amtrak's On-Time Performance, Mapped," Wonkblog, 10 July 2014,

Jeremy, "Transforming Amtrak to a Useful and Sustainable Network," Critical Transit, 26 May 2013,

David Levinson, "Travels through California: Berkeley to Davis via BART and Amtrak," Transportationist, 6 February 2014,

Christopher MacKechnie, "Review of Waiting on a Train," Public Transport, n.d.,

James McCommons, Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service (Chelsea Green, 2009)

Bruce Nourish, "Talking Sense About Amtrak," Seattle Transit Blog, 18 April 2013,

Tanya Snyder, "Jarrett Walker: Empty Buses Serve a Purpose," Streetsblog USA, 14 August 2013,


  1. Claire Pieterek7/19/2014 05:42:00 PM

    There apparently have been conversations with Nippon Sharyo, who builds railcars for Metra (and also for the Shinkansen "bullet trains" in Japan) between Metra and also the people at the public transit part of the Transportation Department, but they haven't gone far.

    I love public transit in Japan. It's reasonably priced, effective, and pretty easy to use (even if you don't know any Japanese beyond "domo arigato Mr Roboto"). I'm sure it's even better now since the Tokyo Olympics are just two years away.

  2. Your first change to Amtrak runs into a serious problem: Amtrak's opaque accounting system is widely known to be fraudulent, so relying on it to choose profitable lines is historically unreliable.
    In 1979 Amtrak discontinued the five "biggest money losing" routes on Amtrak. The result was to increase total losses by $150 million a year.
    Amtrak assigns costs to the routes based on route length rather than expenses incurred, so the long distance routes take the bulk of the costs of the home office and are made to look far more expensive than they really are. When W. Graham Claytor took command of Amtrak it was recovering 48% of operating costs. One of his reforms was to expand the long distance routes, raising the cost recovery to 72% when he retired.
    So historically, cutting long distance service has been shown to increase losses and expanding them has decreased losses.
    Building track sounds good, but it needs to be maintained; which means a minimum number of trains need to operate every day to cover the cost.
    Purchasing surplus tracks from the railroads would be a good idea in conjunction with state DOTs for use by multiple agencies. It's important to get as much use out of the tracks as possible to generate funds for repairs.
    I would also make the trains faster. At 110 mph trains should be able to average 65-80 mph total route speeds, end to end. Running 2 trains a day on the LD routes and 6 to 10 on the longer corridors would provide plenty of convenient and attractive service. Tucson to LA should be able to support 6 trains a day plus independent trains for the Texas Eagle and the Sunset Limited.
    There's a lot that could be done to make Amtrak more successful and profitable, none of which is politically possible when one party is fighting to kill it off as quickly as possible.


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