Time to shake off American passenger rail ambivalence

Reliable and frequent passenger rail service in the United States over many under-600 mile distances could compete well with driving or flying, but perennial Congressional funding neglect and the public’s love-hate relationship with passenger trains have long stalled realization of that opportunity.  While we sit idling in congestion on crumbling roads and bridges at the end of engineered service life and beyond planned capacity, trains zip by on adjacent tracks.

It is usually freight trains gliding by, not passenger.  Still, they are moving faster than traffic on the highways. So why don’t we have many—often not any—passenger train options? The short answers are, We don’t like to be taxed, and most Americans got out of the habit of riding trains after World War II.

Railroads in the late 40s and 1950s devised a marketing slogan in an attempt to win back travelers stuck in traffic jams in their shiny new postwar cars: “Next time, try the train.”

Image result for next time, try the train

It didn’t work.  Improved roads and the new Interstate system, though paid for (as now) by gas taxes, seemed “free” to users. The exuberant prosperity of the era meant nearly everyone could afford a car to drive on the “free” roads.

The airplane filled the mobility gap for longer distances.  For 600 miles or less, then-uncrowded Interstates and the automobile lured travelers to the romantic, if unrealistic, notion of freedom on the open road.

The private automobile perfectly fits the fiercely independent streak characteristic of my countrymen.  After all, what red-bloodied American would choose not to be the master of his or her own conveyance, rather than humbly submit to a bus, train, or plane driven by someone else?  The oft-heard cry “Don’t take away my guns!” has a twinned, deeply-ingrained Yankee value: “Don’t take away my cars!”

Goofy illustrates the point in the classic 1950 Disney cartoon about “Mr. Walker” and “Mr. Wheeler” called Motor Mania.  It’s so timely that it’s hard to believe that the brilliant production is 68 years old.

By 1971 privately-operated passenger trains had to be rescued by the government to avoid complete failure.  Amtrak was formed to operate all trains, regardless of route length.  Long distance trains, such as those going cross-country, have endured despite what Amtrak’s murky accounting has claimed were steady losses.

Whatever the real numbers, today’s Amtrak president, former Delta CEO Richard Anderson, and his Board are considering major cuts to the long distance trains.  The reasons given have to do with not being PTC-ready (PTC is Positive Train Control, a Congressional rail safety mandate).  The new policy means the Amtrak Board would insist the following trains, or portions thereof, among others, be discontinued:

  • Southwest Chief (Chicago-L.A.): between La Junta, Colo., and Dailies, N.M., and through Topeka, Kan.
  • Cardinal (NYC-Chicago): over the Buckingham Branch Railroad between Orange and Clifton Forge, Va.
  • California Zephyr (Chicago-San Francisco): 152 miles of UP’s Green River subdivision west of Grand Junction, Colo.
  • Texas Eagle (Chicago-San Antonio): 110 miles of UP’s Desoto subdivision south of St. Louis, Mo.
  • City of New Orleans (Chicago-New Orleans): a total of 18 miles on Canadian National around Memphis, Tenn., and New Orleans

(For the complete list, see here)

Some think this action is the beginning of the end of many or most federally-funded interstate passenger rail service outside the NEC (Northeast Corridor: Washington-NYC-Boston). That would leave only state-supported intercity trains, such as North Carolina’s Raleigh-Charlotte “Piedmont” services and Virginia’s rail services Washington-Lynchburg and Washington-Norfolk. Currently, three round trip Piedmonts ply daily between Raleigh and Charlotte, and ridership is growing in that busy lane (about 170 miles), otherwise dominated by congested highway traffic on I-40 and I-85.

Plenty of under-600 mile corridors outside the NEC exist where passenger rail, if reliable and more frequent, could attract higher ridership and provide more competition to both air and highway modes. To name a few: Chicago-St. Louis, Chicago-Twin Cities, Dallas-Houston, Seattle-Portland, Charlotte-Raleigh-Washington.  Some services, such as Chicago-Milwaukee and L.A.-San Diego, work well already. Improvements to reliability and added frequencies could result in dramatic increases in ridership everywhere.

Look at what’s happening in England and Western Europe, where most distances are less than 600 miles (with grateful thanks to David Briginshaw for providing many of the Western Europe stats):

  • In Britain, check this out for a look at the massive revamp of the U.K. rail network, and be sure to watch the short embedded video.
  • German Rail’s (DB) long-distance passenger traffic grew by 6% (from 19.5 billion passenger-km in the first half of 2017 to 20.6 billion) in the first half of 2018, despite a continuing decline in punctuality.
  • In June DB reported that 2 million passengers used the 387-mile Berlin-Munich high-speed line within six months of the opening of the final section, more than double the riders on the old line during the same period in 2017.
  • DB will add two more “Sprinter” limited-stop trains taking DB’s connections to five a day each way, providing 23,000 seats between Berlin and Munich. The Sprinter trains take 3 hours from Berlin to Nuremberg and 4 hours from Berlin to Munich.
  • Eurostar (London-Paris and London-Brussels) passenger numbers increased 4% in the first quarter of 2018, compared with the corresponding period in 2017 to reach 2.36 million, while sales revenues climbed 9%.
  • Eurostar says it witnessed a 27% increase in the number of U.S. passengers travelling on its services, while business trips increased by 6%.
  • SNCF Voyages (French National Railways’ passenger services) achieved 8.6% growth in 2017 revenue.
  • High-speed rail in Europe has had a serious impact on air in corridors where journey times are 3 hours or less: London-Brussels/Paris, Paris-Brussels-Amsterdam, Cologne-Frankfurt, Madrid-Barcelona, Milan-Rome, for example.
  • Rail market share in Italy is rising thanks to marked improvements to service frequency and quality. For example, Trenitalia offers four classes on its top-of-the range Frecciarossa high-speed trains to compete with Italo-NTV’s three classes.
  • This has resulted in rail dominating air in the Rome-Milan market (297 miles), once Alitalia’s most profitable route, and also in the Rome-Naples market.

This is exciting and encouraging news from overseas about what rail service can do in relatively short corridors, and I haven’t cited any statistics on the dramatic rail service expansions in China. Mentally transposing some of those Bit and Euro services to the USA, it’s easy to see how intercity passenger trains of less than 600 miles could become a great alternative way to go if we had the imagination and will to make it happen.

We can do it. American determination and skill got us to the moon between 1961 and 1969 during tumultuous times and over three Presidents of both major parties. It’s time for Americans to update their thinking and vigorously support our country’s intercity passenger rail potentialities in markets under 600 miles.

One thought on “Time to shake off American passenger rail ambivalence

  1. Dear Will Allen:
    I heartily agree with all you have said. Although we love the independence of our cars, going by train is still a treat for me. When I was a child it was one of the few really reliable modes of transportation and SO exciting. But our country has lagged behind others to a pathetic degree.

    I suspect lobbying by the airline industry (although you didn’t say that) and the automobile industry has provided a hard climb for any congressmen or senators who are train fans. We need clean, MODERN, train systems throughout the country. Whatever happened to the New York-to-LA-in-6-hours-underground-system, or the MAGLEV. HELP !!
    Joann Lamb, New York

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