If you ever go to Japan, ride the trains and weep
May 4, 2015 11:25 PM   Subscribe

Why can't America have Great Trains?
...Amtrak, which runs a deficit and therefore depends on money from Washington, remains on a seemingly permanent path to mediocrity.
What gives, exactly? Why can't Amtrak create any momentum for itself in the political world? Why is the United States apparently condemned to have second-rate trains?
Part of the answer, of course, is geography: Density lends itself to trains, and America is far less dense than, say, Spain or France. But this explanation isn't wholly satisfying because, even in the densest parts of the United States, intercity rail is slow or inefficient.
posted by frimble (166 comments total) 50 users marked this as a favorite
 
See also the general motors la street car conspiracy. It's about the money shockingly too.
posted by Carillon at 11:28 PM on May 4, 2015 [15 favorites]


I used to go to a university in D.C., and lemme tell ya, while Amtrak isn't fun, it's a necessary evil — the "lesser of two evils," as well, because buses are even more hellacious.

Trains get routinely delayed at least 15 minutes (I'd been delayed two and a half hours once, on a Sunday night before finals week), the internet service is unreliable, and the seats are so tightly packed, you can't stretch your legs (and this is coming from a 5'2" girl, too, so imagine being any taller).

Amtrak embodies the public sector perfectly. I view it almost as like, USPS's equally unattractive sibling.
posted by ourt at 11:37 PM on May 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


America does have fantastic trains.

They just happen to haul freight.

Someday soon, someone is going to write a great book in the style of Levinson's "The Box" or Kurlansky's "Salt" about the U.S. freight rail industry's re-birth, starting with the cannibalization of our passenger system in the 1970's under Nixon as a response to the rise of container shipping and climaxing with Buffet's huge purchase in BNSF at a pittance in 2009, only to have prices surge five years later when it comes to light that BNSF has a natural monopoly on the natural gas and shale routes in North Dakota.

The whole Railroad Tycoon thing is still very much alive.

See also:
US Freight the Envy of the World
The Truth Behind Warren Buffetts Billion Dollar Investment in BNSF
Buffetts Natural Gas Play
posted by pmg at 11:56 PM on May 4, 2015 [99 favorites]


Amtrak embodies the public sector perfectly.

Underfunded and constantly dripping water from the latest attempt to drown it in the proverbial bathtub? Because in that case, yes, it does.

America has shitty passenger rail service because you get what you pay for. Civilization is expensive, and we are cheap.

See also: everything except for the defense sector. Which we do well, because we spend money on it. This is not coincidental.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:19 AM on May 5, 2015 [155 favorites]


You guys have pretty awesome aircraft carriers and missile submarines though. And Iraq 2003.
posted by Nevin at 12:59 AM on May 5, 2015 [4 favorites]


Amtrak, like the USPS, is a giant subsidy to rural America. This is why the GOP isn't serious about cutting either. Amtrak is the lifeblood of a series of small towns all across middle America. if they were serious about USPS or Amtrak making a profit, it'd be easy: charge rural America for what they consume. I of course think that these are public goods and should be funded appropriately. But the alternative vision is this: you want to be a realer American than I and live in the middle of Nebraska? Fine. But it'll cost you $4.00 to send a letter and $4,000 to take the train to Chicago. And we're cutting subsidies for your airport named after the senator that services only two public flights a day. Fund that with your own taxes.
posted by persona au gratin at 1:05 AM on May 5, 2015 [34 favorites]


Btw, I love rural America. I've spent a lot of time with relatives there. It's fantastic. What I don't like is GOP hypocrisy.
posted by persona au gratin at 1:07 AM on May 5, 2015 [20 favorites]


See also the general motors la street car conspiracy. It's about the money shockingly too.
posted by Carillon at 11:28 PM on May 4 [2 favorites +] [!]



Actually GM was innocent.
And the street cars weren't the victim of the conspiracy. They were the conspiracy.
posted by Bwithh at 1:07 AM on May 5, 2015 [13 favorites]


The whole Railroad Tycoon thing is still very much alive.


I really wish someone would reboot that game. Especially for iPad.
posted by Bwithh at 1:08 AM on May 5, 2015 [12 favorites]


An amazing site to see is the 100s of large privately and corporate run white buses (some of the double decker) that drive 40 miles down 101 every morning from San Francisco (and other places) to various Internet companies in Silicon Valley such as Google and Yahoo. They have WiFi so the employees can start work as soon as they get on the bus. (One way to attract young talent to the Bay Area is to allow them to live in a fun city yet work in the more boring Silicon Valley).

There's also a nice train that goes roughly the same route: Caltrain, which has been around since the 1800s and is usually packed too, though not with these employees (since their buses take them pretty much directly from their San Francisco condos right to their office).

There were once plans to electrify it, separate it from crossings, and make it faster and run more trains, but that all got put on hold since the tracks would be shared with the enormous California High-Speed Rail project that would go to Los Angeles. By tying these projects together, they've effectively killed the former, so the buses will never be replaced by an improved rail system.

On a more positive note, Amtrak's Capitol Corridor, which goes between Silicon Valley and Sacramento (for those who choose to live in the almost affordable houses outside the Bay Area), has seen improvements and ridership growth.
posted by eye of newt at 1:14 AM on May 5, 2015 [7 favorites]


There were once plans to electrify it, separate it from crossings, and make it faster and run more trains, but that all got put on hold since the tracks would be shared with the enormous California High-Speed Rail project that would go to Los Angeles. By tying these projects together, they've effectively killed the former, so the buses will never be replaced by an improved rail system.

For whatever it's worth, this isn't right — current plans are for electrification to be complete by 2020, unless there's news I haven't heard.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 1:23 AM on May 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


However, I did finally get some decent broadband. Free market! (Perhaps off topic)
posted by DeepSeaHaggis at 1:30 AM on May 5, 2015


For whatever it's worth, this isn't right — current plans are for electrification to be complete by 2020, unless there's news I haven't heard.

The electrification plan is now part of the very politically controversial California High-Speed Rail project. It didn't used to be, since this project didn't exist before. Are you saying that they doing the electrification and grade separation separately? . They were doing this separation work and about a year or two ago it all stopped. If they are doing it, I'm not seeing the evidence of it.
posted by eye of newt at 1:32 AM on May 5, 2015


Let's not get me started....
posted by mikelieman at 1:44 AM on May 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


Well, electification is now being funded by prop 1A, but it's still happening (bids this year, completion 2020). True there's no grade separation, but electrification will still allow more trains with shorter travel times. Plus it's not at all clear that electrification will ever actually lead to HSR happening on the Peninsula. Per this press release:

Q: Will the EIR for the Electrification Project allow highspeed rail trains to use the Caltrain Corridor?
A: No. Caltrain is the lead agency for environmentally clearing the PCEP. This EIR will not environmentally clear high-speed rail service in the Peninsula corridor. The California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) will be the lead agency for a subsequent and separate environmental process at a future time to clear high-speed rail service in the Peninsula corridor. (from this Mercury News piece)
posted by crazy with stars at 1:47 AM on May 5, 2015


We visited DC, NYC and Boston from Europe over Easter and decided to travel up the coast via Amtrak instead of flying. The DC - NYC leg was great, however the NYC - Boston trip a few days later was 3 hours late leaving Penn Station. Digging around online after we eventually pulled out the consensus seemed to be that this sort of delay is common on that service, something to do with the fact that the track south of DC is owned by somebody else and is not maintained properly.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 1:50 AM on May 5, 2015


I really wish someone would reboot that game. Especially for iPad.

OpenTTD

posted by PenDevil at 2:19 AM on May 5, 2015 [7 favorites]


I love Amtrak. I used to take the train from Boston to St. Louis for school pretty regularly (which was great because I'd take a bus to Boston, the T to South Station, Amtrak to Chicago, Amtrak to St. Louis, and the Metrolink to campus). This past summer, I took the Empire Builder from Chicago to Portland for a friend's wedding and it was beautiful. But ... it was delayed 12 hours so I spent 58 hours on a train with one 10 minute break in Havre, MT (about 40 hours in?) and one 15 minute break in Spokane (52 hours in). It was incredibly beautiful, and I met some really interesting people. I went into it knowing I would be on the train for a long fucking time, so it was OK, and I was more or less there for the novelty of it. There were people who were using it to commute to and from the oilfields in North Dakota, though, a lot of kids going home from college or to college, some retirees, and some general drifter types. If the government wanted to make Amtrak a useful priority, they could. But the rail system is so keyed into freighting needs, I don't think Congress will ever be interested in spending that much money on something which will be utilized by a relatively small proportion of the population.
posted by ChuraChura at 2:32 AM on May 5, 2015 [5 favorites]


Passenger rail is crappy public sector, if that's how you want to look at it, because we don't require our major transportation subsidy, the interstate highway system, to "run at a profit".

We should really drop that subsidy and charge trucks what they really cost us. There is no reason to drive a truck more than a few miles; a really efficient system would see containers lifted off truck chassis and plunked onto trains to go any further than a few miles from the nearest intermodal depot; trains are way more efficient than trucks.

Which makes me wonder what the cutting edge is these days in freight locomotives, or is that a mature technology with no big breakthroughs likely?
posted by maxwelton at 2:37 AM on May 5, 2015 [34 favorites]


Amtrak, like the USPS, is a giant subsidy to rural America. This is why the GOP isn't serious about cutting either. Amtrak is the lifeblood of a series of small towns all across middle America. if they were serious about USPS or Amtrak making a profit, it'd be easy: charge rural America for what they consume. I of course think that these are public goods and should be funded appropriately. But the alternative vision is this: you want to be a realer American than I and live in the middle of Nebraska? Fine. But it'll cost you $4.00 to send a letter and $4,000 to take the train to Chicago. And we're cutting subsidies for your airport named after the senator that services only two public flights a day. Fund that with your own taxes.
That is an almost comically wrong rendering of the politics surrounding trains in the Midwest. Like, it could not be more wrong if you were actually trying to be wrong.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 2:41 AM on May 5, 2015 [42 favorites]


I live in Hiroshima and I only weep after I smack my head against the low doorway while disembarking from certain older train carriages. Blue and white cars of the Sanyō Main Line, I'm looking at you!
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 2:50 AM on May 5, 2015 [9 favorites]


Or, to be fair, I'm not looking at you.

Not well enough to avoid smacking my head, anyway.

So I guess it's my fault, then.

Carry on.

posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 2:54 AM on May 5, 2015 [36 favorites]


Why Can't Americans Have Great Trains/Healthcare/Roads/Social Security, the answer may surprise you!

(spoiler it's our third world government)
posted by Cyclopsis Raptor at 3:38 AM on May 5, 2015 [35 favorites]


Actually GM was innocent.

Even more actually, GM was convicted of conspiracy to monopolize interstate commerce. I'm not really familiar with the Red Car business in California, but I watched the last gasps of the once-good streetcar network in MA, and it sucked to see it gone. Oh, and your linked article's contrarian conclusions are not generally shared.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:04 AM on May 5, 2015 [12 favorites]


The last gasps I refer to were the intercity buses that replaced streetcars. I could ride those buses to get lots of places that remain inaccessible to the carless today.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:07 AM on May 5, 2015


The whole "America is too spread out for passenger trains" falls apart when you point out that we had a robust system here a hundred years ago.
posted by octothorpe at 4:09 AM on May 5, 2015 [30 favorites]


Here in Indiana, one grows up hearing (probably over-dramatic) tales of the old Interurban network, which criss-crossed the state, linking towns and cities with dedicated passenger service. It was long gone by the time I was born (1958) of course, as were the streetcars that serviced most of the mid-to-large cities.

You can still see remnants of the Interurban system across the state, in the form of the rails-to-trails effort. There's one just up the road from me that transects most of the county.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:24 AM on May 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


i live in Harrisburg PA, the state capital. there is an amtrak station here.

a train does not run to DC (2 hrs driving distance to the south). You have to go to philly (2 hours to the east) and then go to DC (NOW you get to go 2 hours south).

a train also does not go to BWI, one of the major airports in the area. you have to take the train to some commuter rail line that has really funky hours and questionable connecting.

i love the train. i would take the train more often if it was feasible for anything. i like to take the train to philly and nyc, but it's definitely pretty expensive. i just hate driving so much, i'm willing to pay. but if i go with others, they usually want to drive because it's just so much cheaper, even with parking.

god i wish we had better mass transit.
posted by sio42 at 4:47 AM on May 5, 2015 [12 favorites]


If it makes you feel better, it's not just America. Australia has this problem too, but likely much worse. Much the same land area to cover and something like 1/10 of the population. I commute by train every day between two cities and am almost reduced to tears every time it rains, knowing that I'm heading for anything up to a five-hour commute home, with no real alternative (a $200 taxi fare is not a viable alternative in my view). Once I'm in the city, my only way home is by trains that seem to stumble and the whole network falls into chaos every time we get more than a sprinkle of rain. Even though the fares are stupidly high (over $20 a day for my daily return trip), the railways cost taxpayers something like $11 for every trip. Per passenger.
posted by dg at 4:50 AM on May 5, 2015 [4 favorites]


You can still see remnants of the Interurban system across the state, in the form of the rails-to-trails effort

The South Shore Electric is a more prominent remnant, though it lives on as a Chicago interurban. But at least it's running trains on real track, and one of the few electric mainlines in the US.
posted by eriko at 4:59 AM on May 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


Amtrak, like the USPS, is a giant subsidy to rural America.

This would be true if it were used daily by almost every person that lives in rural America. There'd have to be a much more robust network with feeder buses in literally every small town for it to be a subsidy like the USPS.

Amtrak is so inconvenient here in Iowa that it doesn't even enter peoples minds as a possibility for travel. We have one route, it only goes East-West, and there are only 4 stations in the interior of the state. It's 100 miles from my house to the nearest two stations. I just looked at what it would take for me to get to Minneapolis on Amtrak, and I'd spend 5 hours on the train going to Chicago, then spend 9 hours on a bus from there to Minneapolis. There is a train that runs chicago-minneapolis, but looking at the schedule, you'd have a 23 hour, 50 minute layover assuming everything was on time. Checked baggage isn't offered at all on this route and seat-only tickets are $150. It is cheaper and quicker to drive my own car; I can get there and back on a tank and a half of gas and it takes 4 hours.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 5:19 AM on May 5, 2015 [14 favorites]


The whole "America is too spread out for passenger trains" falls apart when you point out that we had a robust system here a hundred years ago.

A robust system yes, but not one that could self-fund itself. The railroad companies pretty much all went bankrupt - many of them multiple times. Which is sort of the conundrum.

Pretty much all of the countries that have good rail also have a state owned and funded owner of the infrastructure and then allow the train operators to exist as separate entities, usually with some sort of regulate monopoly. Actually the UK sorta tried to switch to the US model when the privatized the railroads - and it was a disaster along almost every possible performance indicator.

If you think about it, it is no different from the model we have for roads, whereby the car operators pay for the cost of operating the car, and a small portion of the direct costs through tolls and gas taxes, while the vast majority is funded from the general funds.

That said I still sort of suspect that density is an issue - meaning the subsidy in North America would have to be even bigger than in Japan or France.
posted by JPD at 5:23 AM on May 5, 2015 [8 favorites]


As mentioned above, the US moves a very large percentage of freight by rail, much more than in Europe. The trick here would be to add passenger capacity without impacting those freight operations. Routing might be an issue, too; along some routes the existing railroad rights of way would be more than adequate, but a lot of the old routes have been long since turned into roads or otherwise given up. Back in the day there was no concern for environmental impacts, but today there are and the process for building an entirely new rail line is not going to be fast.

We are so far behind the curve on passenger rail that I suspect it will never happen, and growth will be in self-driving cars and buses instead. That's sad because having European- or Japanese-style fast trains here would improve my life substantially, but I don't see any viable path.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:25 AM on May 5, 2015 [6 favorites]


The whole "America is too spread out for passenger trains" falls apart when you point out that we had a robust system here a hundred years ago.

And it was heavily subsidized by both the government and private industry. Freight lines were required to carry passengers in order to operate. The system also expanded massively during the two World Wars and the interwar period, because it was both defense infrastructure and a logical target for public investment. The streamliner era was the last gasp of an attempt to maintain rail ridership at the end of World War II, but ridership inevitably dropped - people were moving around the country less, mass troop movements were over, and profitable government defense shipping contracts were ending. When Nixon deregulated the trains, he basically absorbed the money-losing part of the shipping industry into the federal budget, allowing transportation companies just to keep the profit-making part. But passenger rail service has never paid for itself at rates that sustain ridership - it has always been subsidized, and in fact must be subsidized to work.

this sort of delay is common on that service, something to do with the fact that the track south of DC is owned by somebody else and is not maintained properly.

It's the fact that Amtrak does not own any lines; literally does not have its own track access, as that was stripped in the deregulation deal, too. It is required to take a back seat to freight transport, and run on those privately owned lines; if freight shippers need the lines because of their own delays or issues, Amtrak waits. THis is another side effect of not fully funding a national train system.

I love Amtrak, even though I recognize its failings. However, we can trace those failings to their source: poor government priorities, a backward-looking, oil-driven transportation policy, and fear of taxation. If we wanted it, we could have the best rail system in the world.
posted by Miko at 5:25 AM on May 5, 2015 [25 favorites]


Amtrak, like the USPS, is a giant subsidy to rural America.

I can't speak to Amtrak, but any griping about the USPS needs to be largely directed at Congress, which controls how much USPS can charge for delivering mail to every citizen of the US, no matter where they live, like a national postal service should.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:26 AM on May 5, 2015 [13 favorites]


Another story on Amtrak with no mention of CSX and track sharing?
posted by destro at 5:27 AM on May 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


Digging around online after we eventually pulled out the consensus seemed to be that this sort of delay is common on that service, something to do with the fact that the track south of DC is owned by somebody else and is not maintained properly.

Amtrak owns most of the track in the Northeast Corridor (between DC and Boston), but south of DC and in much of the rest of the country they rely on freight rights of way which can really mess up scheduling. However, that wouldn't affect traffic between New York and Boston.

What screws up that leg of the trip is Connecticut. Amtrak shares tracks in western Connecticut with Metro North, and that stretch of the ride desperately needs some long overdue maintenance. It's unfortunately out of Amtrak's hands, I think, even though there's no freight running on those lines.

Really, getting through Connecticut (and "through" is most certainly the operative term here, because I can't seem to find any evidence that people actually live there) is horrible no matter what mode of transport you're taking. It's only a hundred miles end to end, but it takes at least four hours to get across no matter how you're going. It's like some weird time suck vortex in the middle of New England.

So don't blame Amtrak. Blame Connecticut.
posted by backseatpilot at 5:31 AM on May 5, 2015 [27 favorites]


The railroad companies pretty much all went bankrupt - many of them multiple times. Which is sort of the conundrum.

But part of the reason was that they were never sustainably funded. OFten the railroads originally were building lines as a cash grab, so they could issue stock to generate fast cash. The lines were never studied for potential ridership or shipping tonnage, so they were ill planned and often duplicated one another's routes and overexpanded, making certain that they could not all make money. Then, too, the private lines were all in competition with one another, splitting ridership. A glance at an old rail map of New England, for instance, is enough to give a sense of the laughable inefficiency of private passenger rail.

I agree, though, that the lesson is that some degree of nationalized infrastructure is necessary to run a train system. Passengers are a 'premium' good that needs an inordinate amount of space and have to have amenities and a reasonably predictabl schedule and cannot easily be carried at a profit. That basic reality should govern thinking about how to fund trains - and I'd argue that trains remain an important part of the national infrastructure, particularly in a natural- and political-disaster-prone era when it's really a good thing to move people in and out of major cities and dense population areas pretty quickly.
posted by Miko at 5:32 AM on May 5, 2015 [3 favorites]


Amtrak embodies the public sector perfectly.

Amtrak embodies the US public sector, maybe. In much of the rest of the world, we actually try to make the things we pay for through taxation worthwhile. Don't be tarring the public sector as a concept simply because the US is seemingly constitutionally incapable of doing anything other than sabotaging its public sector services.
posted by Dysk at 5:36 AM on May 5, 2015 [43 favorites]


USPS's equally unattractive sibling

USPS might seem terrible if you've never used any other postal service anywhere else. Canada Post, for instance.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 5:37 AM on May 5, 2015 [13 favorites]


America's love of personal transportation and domestic air travel definitely play some part in its lack of interest in rail.
posted by rmmcclay at 5:38 AM on May 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


I loathe Amtrak--mostly because it is constantly late and very slow and I hate that it makes me want to own a car--but I dearly wish for a viable HSR alternative that works because if there were, you bet your sweet bippy I'd take it to travel in North America in a heartbeat. Harper's had an amazingly good article about the state of rail travel in the US but I cannot link to it because of a paywall. If you ever come across it though, it's a really great read.

Sometimes VIA Rail here in Canada can be more decent; they don't seem to have as many delays as Amtrak does. On Tuesdays, you can get pretty cheap fare between the big cities and the smaller cities like mine.
posted by Kitteh at 5:39 AM on May 5, 2015


USPS might seem terrible if you've never used any other postal service anywhere else. Canada Post, for instance.

QFT

Canada Post is awful and expensive and god I wish I lived closer to the border to use USPS (but then I'd have to buy a car again). Living away from the US makes appreciate the USPS no matter how many shortcomings they have.
posted by Kitteh at 5:40 AM on May 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


The connection is cut in Connecticut.
posted by vbfg at 5:44 AM on May 5, 2015 [8 favorites]


When I lived in Europe, I took trains everywhere. For a trip recently, I thought I'd take a train from Texas to Florida. To do so, I have to go through Chicago. It's a 3 day trip before delays. That's insane. Amtrack is just useless outside of the northeast, it seems.
posted by dejah420 at 5:54 AM on May 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


That said I still sort of suspect that density is an issue - meaning the subsidy in North America would have to be even bigger than in Japan or France.

Japan maybe, but France is only as dense as Ohio or Pennsylvania. The Boston-DC (or even Boston- Richmond, Boston-RDU, or Boston-Charlotte) route is at least as dense as France, and you could probably put together an NYC-Chicago route that is, too.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:55 AM on May 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


persona au gratin: Amtrak is the lifeblood of a series of small towns all across middle America.

Quite literally, in many cases. I live and work in New Mexico, where Amtrak accounts for a significant part of the revenue for some rural counties simply because of the taxes they pay on their land, and the line isn't going to carry freight again any time soon (there isn't that much freight moving in the northeast corner of the state, and as a result, the roads aren't congested, so there is no incentive to push freight to rail).


destro: Another story on Amtrak with no mention of CSX and track sharing?

Yup, it's in there. From the article:
Outside of the Northeast Corridor, the tracks Amtrak uses are almost all owned by freight railroads. CSX, Union Pacific, and a handful of other behemoths naturally hog them, which contributes to Amtrak's chronic tardiness, which in turn dissuades passengers from taking Amtrak.
But this article does fail to deliver anything other than the author's view of what the train should be - convenient for commuters - not what is - an inexpensive alternative for long-distance travel, and a route happily used by people who aren't in a rush. This was clear in the reference to a multimodal transit hub as "a mecca of sorts for transit junkies." No, it's necessary for people to travel when the train won't take you to your neighborhood or your destination, and you must get on bus for portions of the trip. Not everyone has cars, and not everyone needs cars.

The Amtrak Writer's Residency program is embracing the reality that they won't be getting sufficient funds or control over the rails to run fast trains everywhere, so why not enjoy the ride?

It was interesting to see the highlights of the private efforts to install high speed rail where it should go in: corridors that are so congested that there is no real way to engineer faster travel - there are just too many damned people traveling in the area, and adding another 5 lanes isn't going to solve anything, even if you could. Except Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) would likely be a cheaper alternative, and one that could be initiated almost instantly, or as long as it would take to claim a lane for buses, and get enough buses to serve the demand. The added bonus is that BRT is flexible, and can be scaled or re-routed as needed to respond to demand and avoid road closures.
posted by filthy light thief at 5:56 AM on May 5, 2015 [6 favorites]


You realize Ohio is the tenth most densely populated state right? In the context of a national network density is an issue. Of course there are a few corridors NY-Chicago, DC-Boston, etc. That make sense.
posted by JPD at 5:57 AM on May 5, 2015


The whole "America is too spread out for passenger trains" falls apart when you point out that we had a robust system here a hundred years ago.


I read a book a few years ago (blanking on the name) which pointed out that the midwest would be *perfect* for intercity rail, because the distances between the major cities are often around ~250-350 miles (say, Milwaukee to Minneapolis, or Cleveland to Chicago or St. Louis to Indianapolis) which is just long enough to make driving annoying (4-6 hour drive), but close enough that flying doesn't actually save you all that much time.
posted by damayanti at 6:01 AM on May 5, 2015 [39 favorites]


maxwelton: We should really drop that subsidy and charge trucks what they really cost us. There is no reason to drive a truck more than a few miles; a really efficient system would see containers lifted off truck chassis and plunked onto trains to go any further than a few miles from the nearest intermodal depot; trains are way more efficient than trucks.

We could also charge cars the actual costs required to maintain the roads, though their impacts are much lower than trucks (one road engineer told me a single truck causes the same impacts as a thousand cars, but I'm not sure if this is a validated analogy). “[CSX’s] idea is that steel wheels, on steel rail are the most efficient way to transport cargo. This method has the least amount of friction possible. Once a train is rolling, it takes the least amount of effort to keep it moving.” Except if trains stop every 10 miles, they have none of that momentum, so I've heard rail hubs have a 500 mile service buffer - rail companies won't develop another transloading (truck-to-rail, rail-to-truck) facility within 500 miles another of the company's facilities, and truck freight is left to serve the rest. Major producers can get rail spurs to their facilities, but don't expect to see freight trains stopping any more frequently, or their prices would skyrocket, and trucks (or ships, if you're within a couple hours of driving from a coast) would be more competitive.

Freight trains are competing with trucks and water travel - any added costs to those modes would shift demand to the competing modes. There's an on-going tug-of-war between these modes, as seen in freight newsletters (which tout the newest advances in technology, logistics, and warn of impending federal and state legislation). Air travel is saved for the most time-critical, expensive goods, like medical and technical items.
posted by filthy light thief at 6:04 AM on May 5, 2015 [10 favorites]


The only thing more politically-fragile than HSR is BRT.

Every single $*#&ing BRT project in the US eventually gets reduced to "buy a few new buses"
posted by schmod at 6:05 AM on May 5, 2015 [10 favorites]


every likes to rail against Atlas Shrugged. seriously no pun intended.

but i always liked it because the world was collapsing but goddman it she was gonna make the trains run and run on time. AND she had a neato fancy private car. i just ignore the politics. and that she gave up. i just liked that she cared that much about trains.

somehow sleeper cars and private train cars are still the absolute most romantic height-of-luxury thing i can imagine.
posted by sio42 at 6:05 AM on May 5, 2015 [5 favorites]


Except Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) would likely be a cheaper alternative, and one that could be initiated almost instantly, or as long as it would take to claim a lane for buses, and get enough buses to serve the demand

Surely you know that BRT makes baby jesus cry, right? Also, it's communism.
posted by aramaic at 6:07 AM on May 5, 2015 [4 favorites]


One word: Density.
posted by jimmythefish at 6:09 AM on May 5, 2015


From the FPP - not even the More Inside, the front page portion of the FPP - even in the densest parts of the United States, intercity rail is slow or inefficient.

So your one word doesn't explain much.
posted by Dysk at 6:13 AM on May 5, 2015 [8 favorites]


Looking from the outside it doesn't seem to me that the US has such a terrible rail service. Many cities have their own commuter rail networks--distinct from Amtrak--which provide well-used routes within metro areas. Amtrak mostly provides inter-city or regional services. And here's the thing: commuter rail is typically the bulk of all rail travel. In England, something like two thirds of all train journeys (about 1.1 billion, not including the Underground) occur in London and the South East commuter belt, with a substantial part of the remainder being commuter journeys in other big cities. And this in a country where the longest regional and inter-city routes are incredibly short.

Amtrak might be bad, but it's only a fraction of passenger rail. Cities and states should concentrate on creating and expanding commuter rail networks, laying the ground for a culture of rail use which will shift politics federally.

/dirty foreigner
posted by Thing at 6:14 AM on May 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


I understand that it isn't cheap but I spent a lot of time on Southeastern rail when I was in England recently for vacation. I bought as far in advance as I could and for super off-peak and damn, if I didn't quite enjoy seeing a lot of the Kent countryside that way. I dearly wish for something like that back here in Canada, where a day trip or a visit to anywhere over two to three hours away could take an hour, depending on destination. (V aware I would probably be singing a different tune from London to anywhere north, thanks.) You would have my money so fast.
posted by Kitteh at 6:14 AM on May 5, 2015


OpenTTD

Holy crap, PenDevil, I don't know whether to hug you or to blame you for the upcoming loss of my entire summer, now to be spent in front of a monitor.

(eee! trains! look at them go, on my ginormous monitor! this is the best thing ever! definitely a hug.)
posted by sldownard at 6:15 AM on May 5, 2015 [8 favorites]


(And yeah, if you look at the Northeastern US, it has a population density equivalent to somewhere like France or Denmark, so even if 'density' is an explanation for why there's no good rail network in the midwest, it sure doesn't explain why there isn't a functional passenger rail system in a lot of places.)
posted by Dysk at 6:21 AM on May 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


We don't have long distance passenger rail to speak of in the US because flying is faster, cheaper and more reliable. And Europe is going our way, too, with a proliferation of low cost (air) carriers supplanting trains for the same kind of distances that US passengers also use planes.
posted by MattD at 6:24 AM on May 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


America does have great trains; they just don't count because they can fly. This makes sense, because trains are clearly the wave of the future whereas soaring through the clouds on gleaming alloy wings is just gauche.
posted by roystgnr at 6:28 AM on May 5, 2015 [4 favorites]


Flying is only cheaper if you book way in advance. Airfares for emergency trips back home will really ding your wallet.
posted by Kitteh at 6:33 AM on May 5, 2015 [3 favorites]


And Europe is going our way, too, with a proliferation of low cost (air) carriers supplanting trains for the same kind of distances that US passengers also use planes.

But there are also a lot of runs where trains have the clear advantage. Why fly from Paris to Brussels, with all the hassles and ceremony that are involved in flying, when Thalys runs a train once an hour that gets you there in an hour and a half? They're certainly not replacing those with more flights.
posted by gimonca at 6:33 AM on May 5, 2015 [7 favorites]


The whole "America is too spread out for passenger trains" falls apart when you point out that we had a robust system here a hundred years ago.

There was certainly a lot of tracks back then. The actual trains weren't necessarily that convenient. Tons of different train companies, lots of single track, routes that only had one train a day, and no alternatives.
posted by smackfu at 6:34 AM on May 5, 2015


That said I still sort of suspect that density is an issue - meaning the subsidy in North America would have to be even bigger than in Japan or France.

Well, I regularly take the TGV from Paris to my still-trying-to-sell apartment in Nice, and that's 970km through some of the least dense parts of the country, with stops in the most dense. (In order, even. Paris, Lyon, Marseille, then the Riviera, which is basically a coast-long city.) That's 602 miles, or the driving distance from Portland, OR to San Francisco, CA. Or about the distance from Vancouver, BC (Canada) to Eugene, OR. Or NYC to Charlotte, VA. Five and a half hours, half of it at "only" 160kmh (100mph), the TGV cruising speed being between 250-300kmh. If you want you can even go high-speed rail all the way to Brussels or London, adding 300-odd kilometers/200-odd miles. And there's a narrow stretch of the Atlantic between France and England. Rather devoid of habitation.
posted by fraula at 6:35 AM on May 5, 2015 [11 favorites]


Flying makes sense from Minneapolis to, say, Great Falls, Montana. Run a little plane once a day, you're good.

High speed train makes sense from Minneapolis to Chicago. You could get to Chicago in 3 hours, without the hassles and ceremony of flying. Unfortunately, the reptiloid entity in the Wisconsin governor's mansion continues to block it.
posted by gimonca at 6:37 AM on May 5, 2015 [8 favorites]


Is Minneapolis to Chicago a popular enough route that it needs to have a billion dollars spent on making it more enjoyable?
posted by smackfu at 6:43 AM on May 5, 2015


We don't have long distance passenger rail to speak of in the US because flying is faster, cheaper and more reliable. And Europe is going our way, too, with a proliferation of low cost (air) carriers supplanting trains for the same kind of distances that US passengers also use planes.

You appear to have this backwards. In 2007, Madrid–Barcelona was the world's busiest air route; as of last year, the AVE had taken 61% of its traffic. (Probably because it's faster than flying.) High-speed rail in Europe is being expanded, not replaced with flights.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 6:48 AM on May 5, 2015 [10 favorites]


Is Minneapolis to Chicago a popular enough route that it needs to have a billion dollars spent on making it more enjoyable?

It's the 58th busiest air travel route in the country (2900 passengers daily) -- which doesn't sound like much, but it's busier than NYC - DC (2796 daily) or Boston - Philly (2463 daily). Admittedly the Northeast already has a decent train system.
posted by crazy with stars at 6:55 AM on May 5, 2015 [9 favorites]


"You can't disinvest in something and then beat it to death because it doesn't perform."

What? Nonsense! What is Amtrak but the bureaucratic equivalent of poor inner-city black people? We beat it down relentlessly then blame it for being beaten down. Amtrak workers should riot, just to make the point clear and apparently because that's the only way to get something done.

They're trying to do the same thing to the postal service, by the way. It's just harder to get away with because everybody has a mailbox out front and everybody knows we actually need a goddamn postal system.
posted by Naberius at 7:03 AM on May 5, 2015 [7 favorites]


I read a book a few years ago (blanking on the name) which pointed out that the midwest would be *perfect* for intercity rail, because the distances between the major cities are often around ~250-350 miles (say, Milwaukee to Minneapolis, or Cleveland to Chicago or St. Louis to Indianapolis) which is just long enough to make driving annoying (4-6 hour drive), but close enough that flying doesn't actually save you all that much time.

Or, Texas--it's about four-five hours to drive between any of the cities in the Houston-Dallas-San Antonio triangle. High-speed rail would be amazing. And it's been proposed between Houston and Dallas. Only to be greeted with this.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 7:10 AM on May 5, 2015 [5 favorites]


Is Minneapolis to Chicago a popular enough route that it needs to have a billion dollars spent on making it more enjoyable?

The Marquette interchange in downtown Milwaukee alone cost more than $800 million in 2008. We can look up the cost of the other 99% of the route if you like.
posted by gimonca at 7:17 AM on May 5, 2015 [5 favorites]


("the route" = Interstate 94 in this case)
posted by gimonca at 7:25 AM on May 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


Just to inject some facts into the "density" argument, here are where various countries with robust rail systems would rank in terms of population density if they were US states. (All figures are from Wikipedia; numbers are pop./km2 .)
  1. New Jersey (467)
  2. Rhode Island (393)
    Japan (337)
  3. Massachusetts (331)
  4. Connecticut (287)
    United Kingdom (225)
  5. Maryland (236)
    Germany (229)
    Italy (200)
  6. Delaware (183)
  7. New York (161)
  8. Florida (141)
    France (114)
  9. Pennsylvania (110)
  10. Ohio (109)
  11. California (95)
    Spain (91)
  12. Illinois (90)
posted by Johnny Assay at 7:32 AM on May 5, 2015 [23 favorites]


Except Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) would likely be a cheaper alternative, and one that could be initiated almost instantly, or as long as it would take to claim a lane for buses, and get enough buses to serve the demand. The added bonus is that BRT is flexible, and can be scaled or re-routed as needed to respond to demand and avoid road closures.

The reason BRT is proposed is that it can be used to derail (heh) rail-based transit proposals and then downside to "a bus with a different paint job" when no one is looking. BRT only really exists as a counter-proposal to rail in order to defeat rail and then end up with nothing. If BRT were a good idea, then it would exist all over America.
posted by deanc at 7:38 AM on May 5, 2015 [11 favorites]


(What I get out of my numbers, BTW, is that it's reasonable to ask why the Northeast Megalopolis doesn't have a European-style rail system. The rest of the country is a much harder sell.)
posted by Johnny Assay at 7:40 AM on May 5, 2015


Northeast Megalopolis

FYI, the technical term is "Mega City One"
posted by Greg Nog at 7:44 AM on May 5, 2015 [11 favorites]


I had a similar argument with my mother recently; she's in Australia, and a paid-up true believer in the Murdoch/Abbott worldview, and appears to have a psychotic reaction every time she detects even a molecule of socialism. (She's convinced that the Labor Party wants to bring in a Soviet-style command economy, and the Greens, doubly so.) I mentioned passenger rail for some reason, which set her off on a lecture on how public transport cannot work in Australia because it's too sparse, and the trains they're wasting taxpayers' money on are mostly empty because everyone, sensibly, drives. I suspect with her it's a culture-war issue, with “public transport” being a code for “decadent socialist worldview that would see us living under Jante Law” or something.
posted by acb at 7:47 AM on May 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


Japan sets maglev train speed record. Sadly, their aircraft carriers are non-existant, they have no submarines, and they still haven't figured out how to build atomic bombs!
posted by pashdown at 7:47 AM on May 5, 2015 [7 favorites]


The whole "America is too spread out for passenger trains" falls apart when you point out that we had a robust system here a hundred years ago.

At which time they only had to compete with horses and steamboats, yes.
posted by atrazine at 7:58 AM on May 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


Sometimes VIA Rail here in Canada can be more decent; they don't seem to have as many delays as Amtrak does. On Tuesdays, you can get pretty cheap fare between the big cities and the smaller cities like mine.

I have to say I've had some pretty pleasant experiences travelling via VIA.

But the Harper GovernmentTM is busily working to fuck that up for everyone by cutting routes and funding, especially where VIA serves smaller centres. Atlantic Canada in particular is getting shafted as part of this. So we may get Amtrak yet. From this 2013 article:

Budget estimates tabled in Ottawa this year portend a second year of cuts to VIA Rail’s subsidy from the federal government. If the estimates are reflected in the budget — and they usually are, said Sullivan — it will mean a 60-per-cent cut to Via’s subsidy since 2011.

I'm assuming the end game is to cut it until it's on the brink of collapse, and then be all like "See, it doesn't work!"

Naberius: They're trying to do the same thing to the postal service, by the way. It's just harder to get away with because everybody has a mailbox out front and everybody knows we actually need a goddamn postal system.

See, our federal government is getting rid of those pesky mailboxes out front of people's houses by centralizing mail delivery to "community boxes" -- maybe so people forget this is a public service they might need.

So, cautionary tales about public services being dismantled piecemeal.

See also: everything except for the defense sector. Which we do well, because we spend money on it. This is not coincidental.

No kidding, eh? From the article in the FPP:

Last month, the House of Representatives agreed to fund Amtrak for the next four years at a rate of $1.4 billion per year.

This amount is roughly 0.002% of the annual US defence budget.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 8:07 AM on May 5, 2015 [13 favorites]


America's love of personal transportation and domestic air travel definitely play some part in its lack of interest in rail.

Except we don't. (Seriously, when was the last time you heard someone speak rapturously of flying, 1963?)
posted by entropicamericana at 8:08 AM on May 5, 2015 [10 favorites]


See, our federal government is getting rid of those pesky mailboxes out front of people's houses by centralizing mail delivery to "community boxes" -- maybe so people forget this is a public service they might need.

I hate HATE the community mailbox idea in urban areas. I am not looking forward to it when it eventually starts happening in my town. It is thoughtless, short-sighted, and completely ignores the elderly and the disabled. Their ham-fisted attempts at placating those folks is a crappy Band-Aid at best.

Cutting subsidies to VIA rail not only shafts us, but continues to ensure that either you drive or fly to where you want to go (Megabus is not awful, actually). I don't own a car and I can only afford to fly a couple of times a year.
posted by Kitteh at 8:16 AM on May 5, 2015 [3 favorites]


If BRT were a good idea, then it would exist all over America.

There are multitudes of good ideas, and not just public transit ideas, that do not exist all over the US not because they are bad ideas, but because nobody wants to pay for them except tree-huggers, socialists, commies, and lie-burals, and not even those if the ideas happen to impinge on their backyards, sight lines, and/or property values.
posted by blucevalo at 8:18 AM on May 5, 2015 [6 favorites]


> Or, Texas--it's about four-five hours to drive between any of the cities in the Houston-Dallas-San Antonio triangle. High-speed rail would be amazing. And it's been proposed between Houston and Dallas. Only to be greeted with this.

That story, along with the state of American intercity rail just leave me speechless. I can't even.
posted by Monochrome at 8:18 AM on May 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


That is an almost comically wrong rendering of the politics surrounding trains in the Midwest. Like, it could not be more wrong if you were actually trying to be wrong.

It's not just you, but. If you can take the time to disparage a "comically wrong" comment, why not take just a couple more sentences and enlighten us as to the supposedly correct information? Otherwise it just comes off as a cryptic assertion of superior knowledge. "I know more than you neener neener."

I'll readily admit I don't really know the first thing about the politics of trains in the Midwest. I'm feel like the guy at the party who loudly announces that he has no idea what freekeh is, since by the number of people who +'d your comment, we apparently have a huge amount of experts on this subject who felt that smug derision was the appropriate response.
posted by xigxag at 8:21 AM on May 5, 2015 [6 favorites]


The lines were never studied for potential ridership or shipping tonnage

From my reading of Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Homestead Act of 1862, it seems that the railroad companies built towns along their routes like De Smet, SD so that they would have customers who would ride their trains and pay to have things shipped. (I read somewhere that the RR companies were instrumental in lobbying Congress for this Act.) But they were looking to make quick profits, not take into account that the land wasn't great for profitable farming and that the homesteaders' children would grow up and say I'm outta here.
posted by Melismata at 8:27 AM on May 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


it seems that the railroad companies built towns along their routes like De Smet, SD so that they would have customers who would ride their trains and pay to have things shipped

Well, and the government gave the railroads the land.

Part of the federal push to colonize the west involved giving away enormous amounts of public lands. Some of it went to the states to fund public universities (the Morrill Act's land-grant colleges), some of it went to homesteaders who met the requirements ($X of improvements over five years), and a lot of it went to the railroads. In some places they got every other section along the route of the line. Thus giving rise to the famous "checkerboard" system of land ownership in a lot of the western US.

Given the payoff, you can see the incentives to game the system.
posted by suelac at 8:50 AM on May 5, 2015 [4 favorites]


Piggy-backing on Johnny Assay's list... all those countries have more extensive high-speed rail, with average speeds almost twice as fast as Americas 'high speed' rail, Acela. Of course, high-speed here means something else entirely when it comes to trains.

Also, pashdown:
Japan does have the Izumo, which is a helicopter carrier but large enough to handle things like F-35s, 16 active submarines, and are a one of a handful of paranuclear states that could conceivably build a bomb within weeks if need be.
posted by qcubed at 8:57 AM on May 5, 2015


I'll readily admit I don't really know the first thing about the politics of trains in the Midwest.
Right, but you're also not making snide comments about how we think we're realer Americans than you and ought to pay $4 to mail a letter! There was a special blend of ignorance and contempt in that comment that I find particularly annoying.

I mainly know about the politics of trains in Iowa. This is a real issue in Iowa, because there's a proposal to build a high-speed line from Chicago to Omaha, Nebraska, which would pass right through Iowa and stop in some of the bigger cities. Our Republican governor has so far refused to participate and has turned down Federal funds that would help pay for it. This is essentially cast as a rural vs. urban issue: many rural voters see it as a subsidy for the cities that would bring no benefit to rural areas, which would mostly not have service. There's also some question about how much demand there is for rail service even in the areas near stations. Part of the background for this, I think, is that there's a real infrastructure crisis in rural Iowa, and people in those areas look at their crumbling roads and bridges and ask why anyone would divert millions of dollars to a possibly-unwanted rail project when there's apparently not enough money for basic upkeep on rural infrastructure. So it's basically the opposite of what that post suggested: Democrats tend to be more pro-rail than Republicans, and opposition is strongest in rural areas.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 9:04 AM on May 5, 2015 [7 favorites]


The US government is more responsive to corporate interests - shipping, automakers, oil - than to citizens. And we know it, and we accept it, or are at least successfully conned. Universal *we*. Big oil is fracking and destroying water - you know, water that is essential to life - and causing earthquakes. Oil is a major driver of Pollution and Global Climate Change. The vast, spread out US could have lots of solar on roofs of homes, factories, businesses. Solar has gotten lots cheaper, but it's being blocked by Big Oil. I kind of wish for Big Solar so we could reduce pollution and carbon, but it's not happening. I did some road trips the last couple years, and urban sprawl is so vast and ugly. It exists because we are a Car Culture. Employers have sprawling office complexes with sprawling parking lots. In nicer towns the parking lots are landscaped with trees, shrubs, and acres of dyed mulch, which is, if you look at it for a minute or so, incredibly ugly.

Cars create pollutions, cars generate carbon/ Global Climate Change, cars generate sprawl. Cars keep us separate from each other. Walk and/or ride a bike, and you'll see that Americans drive their big plush cars as if they are in a cocoon, their own living room on wheels. In a car, your interaction with other people is likely to be hostile.

Train Culture, commuter culture, will make you walk a little. You'll be a little healthier, you'll gain a little less weight. You'll interact, even if neutrally and briefly, with other humans. You'll have to adjust to them a little. Train culture exists where there's a stronger sense of Common Good. Car Culture is all about Individual Want.
posted by theora55 at 9:05 AM on May 5, 2015 [6 favorites]


I love Amtrak. Really, I do. When I had two weeks of vacation time from my former job, I took a train trip from New York Penn Station to Seattle. Yes, it took quite a while, but man, it was great. (I wrote up a web page for it, so people could see my trip, when I would be places, for friends). My train to Seattle ended up arriving a half-hour early.

Yes, there were problems (the person who kept talking to himself all night, for example), but even in coach, it was fairly comfortable and I had a good time.

(next time I do a trip like that, though, I save up and I get a room, because I have a lot more joint issues now and I don't think I could make it through on coach.)
posted by mephron at 9:10 AM on May 5, 2015


FWIW I'm writing this on an Amtrak train on its way across Missouri right now.

The Missouri River Runner route is actually quite useful--Kansas City-Jefferson City-St Louis and back twice a day. It is about the same time & cost as driving a car the same distance, but you get your whole day back to do things like typing random messages on Metafilter. I use it several times every year and thank the railroad gods every time I do. It make a trip to Jefferson City or St Louis a pleasure instead of a grind. It's reasonable fast, it's convenient, and it's always on time.

Now, if we could only have truly comprehensive RR service to major cities and towns and across the state, it would be even more useful.

And yes, as mentioned in comments above, we could easily do this if we had the political will to subsidize passenger rail to the same degree we do individual automobile travel.
posted by flug at 9:12 AM on May 5, 2015 [7 favorites]


Because we're dumb.
posted by rankfreudlite at 9:18 AM on May 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


I rode Amtrak for the first time this year from Iowa to Colorado for skiing. We took it just for fun, and to see what the train experience was like. Here's a rambling account of the trip.

I'm sure the Acela and the shorter commuter-type routes are a bit different. This was the California Zephyr, which runs from Chicago to San Francisco over three days.

The train itself is a bit old, but perfectly functional. It reminds me of an old but well equipped airliner.

The overall experience was a lot of fun, but very different. There's a dining car, a lounge car, and an observation car that's fun in the mountains. Most of our trip was overnight, and it's difficult to sleep. The train is rough, like being in moderate turbulence on an airliner, but for the whole trip.

Getting on the train in a small town station was like going back in time. The station itself was dimly lit with those "Edison" light bulbs, but I think that's because they hadn't been replaced since the station was built. It was full of old furniture and debris from decades of busier train travel. It was staffed by one old guy who told us the train was coming soon and to go outside to the platform.

Watching the massive, two-story silver train, with it's rumbling engines pull up was pretty neat. The engines have raked, aggressive windshields. They look like they mean business.

There is no security at all. They called our names and told us where to sit, but they didn't check IDs, look at our bags, or do anything else. Quite a bit different than air travel!

On the way out we had coach seats. They're like business class airline seats and have power outlets. They aren't very good for sleeping if you're tall. On the way back we had a "roomette," which is a tiny compartment with two big seats. While you're having dinner, the attendant transforms it into bunk beds. The top bunk is not a comfortable place to be, and on a rough ride it would be easy to fall out! The train is also loud, and apparently Nebraska consists mostly of railroad crossings, as the horn was on more than it was off.

Overnight through the middle of nowhere is surreal in a way I haven't been able to perfectly describe. The train is huge and rolling through complete darkness, but as you try to doze off, it stops at tiny towns and people get on the train at 3 in the morning. You're in a bit of a haze trying to sleep, and you just have passing consciousness of seeing decaying towns that were probably platted by railroad companies. It's just strange somehow.

The really interesting thing about a long distance train ride is the people. It's a very odd mix. To ride the train you need to be able to pay more than an airline ticket would cost, and have no obligation to be anywhere at a certain time. That produces a strange mix of younger people, retired people, and middle-aged people that all seem to be escaping from something. Oh, and me, just going to ski and ride the train!
posted by Fleeno at 9:44 AM on May 5, 2015 [17 favorites]


Passenger rail cars should be mixed with freight rail cars and designed to be very quickly changed from train to train, maybe by swapping passenger modules without swapping undercarriages. You sit in a big tubular module with seats in it. The module is delivered at any of various possible service levels -- strictly following a certain scenic route, best price, fastest service, whatever. You end up in the module that matches your ticket selection.

The module sits on a rail car when it is moving on a train, but the module can also be loaded off one train and on to another or loaded on to a truck, plane, ferry, rocket. Your module can sit in a station and act as your waiting room, sit in the middle of nowhere if your group is going camping, be docked with a luxury hotel, be parked in a trailer park, etc. It's a generic passenger module. You can rent a seat in one of these modules or you can rent or buy an entire module.
posted by pracowity at 9:46 AM on May 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


Amtrak, like the USPS, is a giant subsidy to rural America.

I am not sure what rural America you are talking about. I'm from rural America and I didn't ride a train until I was in my 30's and it was a trip planned specifically so I could ride a train for the first time and involved a long car ride to get to the train. Trains came through my hometown all the time but none of them carried passengers and they sure as shit weren't stopping out in the middle of bumfuck nowhere. No one rode trains, they weren't even part of the conversation. They only became relevant to me when I moved to the West Coast.
posted by Foam Pants at 9:48 AM on May 5, 2015 [3 favorites]


My admittedly light understanding of Amtrak/rural politics is this. Congress has to approve Amtrak's funding periodically, and the major cities depend a lot more on Amtrak service than states with lower populations where the majority of people use cars. There's a tit-for-tat where those states tend to be forced to give in to voting for Amtrak funding, but then want to grab concessions, like having a spot on the train route, that can make it look like their vote was worthwhile. A coalition of Democrats and a portion of Republicans with something to gain from Amtrak keep it alive.
posted by Miko at 9:52 AM on May 5, 2015


Passenger rail cars should be mixed with freight rail cars and designed to be very quickly changed from train to train

It seems like a good idea, but I thought filthy light thief's comment did a good job of explaining why the economics wouldn't work.
posted by Miko at 9:54 AM on May 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


The module sits on a rail car when it is moving on a train, but the module can also be loaded off one train and on to another or loaded on to a truck, plane, ferry, rocket. Your module can sit in a station and act as your waiting room, sit in the middle of nowhere if your group is going camping, be docked with a luxury hotel, be parked in a trailer park, etc. It's a generic passenger module.

Speaking as a human being, there's nothing I love more than generic anything. Lord knows there's just too much uniqueness in America these days, and not enough standardization and homogenization. And the act of physically moving from one mode of transport to another is just too much like exercise.
posted by entropicamericana at 9:56 AM on May 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


Oh, and I also wanted to respond to the thing about air travel being "faster." It's faster for certain routes based on time in the air. But we don't think rationally about flying. Time in the air is a fraction of the time spent flying. Once you add in the hour early arrival (plus) for security, and any layovers. the train is (or could/would be) a faster option, even before you start calculating how long it takes to get to/from regional airport hubs rather than downtown rail depots which are likelier (on the East Coast) to be closer than the nearest airport.
posted by Miko at 9:56 AM on May 5, 2015 [16 favorites]


rmmcclay: America's love of personal transportation and domestic air travel definitely play some part in its lack of interest in rail.

entropicamericana: Except we don't. (Seriously, when was the last time you heard someone speak rapturously of flying, 1963?)

From the linked article:
“I actually drive most of the way to work,” Norton admits. “I do it because the choices stink.” To extract from today’s ubiquitous parking garages, drive-through restaurants and busy roads a preference for cars ignores all the ways that public policy, industry influence and economic incentives have shaped our travel behavior.
That article is decent, but also kind of silly. The "love" is overstated. It's more a case of comfort with the known (your car is your car), preference for personal control (leave when you want, or need, to, and you know when you'll get there, more or less) personal expression (your car as a reflection of who you are), and. Planes replicate some of this, in ways that trains don't (at least in the US. Multi-hour delays are fairly rare with airplanes (in part because they result in FAA fines!), but considered within the realm of reality for Amtrak (often due to freight trains taking priority). It's not controversial to say "love of cars" is overstated, and largely the result of decades of marketing, and there's no surprise that communities are built around cars, again given that it is almost 100 years since the "invention" of jaywalking.

People "love" their cars more than they "love" the idea of trying to manage public transit in most cases, moving from bus to bus, hoping one isn't late and making you miss your next connection. In rural areas, if transit networks overlap, it can take you half a day or more to make what is otherwise a 2-3 hour trip in a car. But if you have no choices, you take what you can get, so public transit needs to exist. And in some ways, Amtrak serves as public transit, despite being a failure of a "for-profit" agency. Car culture is deeply embedded in our society, and it doesn't need love to survive any more, it has momentum and lack of viable alternatives for most people (but hey, May is National Bike Month - I was reminded me of this fact by a piece on The Weather Channel, of all places - which indicates there's hope for us yet).
posted by filthy light thief at 10:08 AM on May 5, 2015 [5 favorites]


Amtrak, like the USPS, is a giant subsidy to rural America. This is why the GOP isn't serious about cutting either. Amtrak is the lifeblood of a series of small towns all across middle America. if they were serious about USPS or Amtrak making a profit, it'd be easy: charge rural America for what they consume.

The part of this I'm surprised nobody has touched on yet is that in fact there was a recent Republican series of moves to gut rural postal services (which did previously turn a profit)... perhaps to turn it into something considered as dysfunctional as Amtrak. It didn't work, at least not completely.
posted by psoas at 10:18 AM on May 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


High speed train makes sense from Minneapolis to Chicago. You could get to Chicago in 3 hours, without the hassles and ceremony of flying. Unfortunately, the reptiloid entity in the Wisconsin governor's mansion continues to block it.

It occurred to me that building out the infrastructure for this route would create a lot of union jobs, which may be the unspoken roadblock.
posted by ZeusHumms at 10:20 AM on May 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


Unexpected delays aside, a few years ago a friend and I were planning a trip from Georgia to the DC area to hit up the Smithsonian museums. We were excited about the idea of going by train to the point of literally bouncing in our seats on a couple of occasions, since both of us thought trains sounded like an experience in and of itself and also, no driving required OR godawful airport regs!

Then we looked up the actual Amtrak itineraries. It turned out it was about two hours faster and about half the price to suck it up and drive my car nine hours to DC instead of taking the train. And this is on the East Coast between two relatively big cities--we'd originally planned to leave from Atlanta and go to DC that way. We drove instead.
posted by sciatrix at 10:21 AM on May 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


I like the idea of BRT, but rail-based commuting options usually get better press, and more funding/largesse.
posted by ZeusHumms at 10:25 AM on May 5, 2015


frimble: "Amtrak, which runs a deficit and therefore depends on money from Washington"

MUCH LIKE THE INTERSTATE HIGHWAY SYSTEM AND AIR TRANSIT SYSTEM oh wait are they only subsidies when it's Amtrak?

eriko: "The South Shore Electric is a more prominent remnant"

Affectionately known as the Vomit Comet!

(It's not vomity, it's just called that.)

damayanti: "pointed out that the midwest would be *perfect* for intercity rail, because the distances between the major cities are often around ~250-350 miles (say, Milwaukee to Minneapolis, or Cleveland to Chicago or St. Louis to Indianapolis)"

Yes, and if an Illinois/Wisconsin/Minnesota coalition can ever get its shit together and create a Chicago/Madison/Minneapolis high-speed line, for example, those states will reap MASSIVE dividends in economic benefits, as one of the tricky things about the midwest is tying together the larger cities into an economic whole -- as a region we have plenty of human capital (well-supported by the Big 10), but it's not all concentrated in just one or two places -- but it's a huge and speculative undertaking across multiple jurisdictions and taxing bodies that will take massive coordination. But if two or three states got serious that they could slow outmigration to the coasts and the south by tying together Chicago and another big city (St. Louis, Minneapolis, Indianapolis) with high-speed rail and connect up the mid-sized and university cities in between, the economic impact would be STARLING. If you could buy a three-bedroom house with a yard in Bloomington, Illinois, for $150,000, where your kids could walk to elementary school; and still be in Chicago in 45 minutes on high-speed rail, how much more attractive did downstate Illinois just get? How much more willing are you to keep working in Chicago while raising a family? (Currently it is a 3-hour Amtrak ride and costs $14 to $21 for daytime rides, but we've bought fares as cheap as $8.)

My husband works for state government in Springfield, which involves frequent trips to Chicago for work (because like 3/4 of state government is NOT in Springfield, and most of what isn't is in Chicago) -- enough that the state owns a handful of private planes to fly people back and forth. There's also usually a state van going on any given day. Amtrak from Springfield to Chicago (7 trains daily, approximately 4 hours, around $25) gets pretty robust use (although you have to get up really early to make a 10 a.m. meeting), and that's increased a lot now that cell phones and computers allow people to actually work the entire way to Chicago. A lot of people try to finagle their meeting schedule to allow them to Amtrak rather than drive and only admit defeat when they can't possibly get Amtrak to work. (The state is paying either way so the cost doesn't matter directly to the employee.)

smackfu: "Is Minneapolis to Chicago a popular enough route that it needs to have a billion dollars spent on making it more enjoyable?"

I imagine high-speed rail between the economic powerhouse that is Chicago and the extremely well-educated, high-human-capital city that is Minneapolis (where many big companies like to plunk management functions because Minneapolis has such a concentration of expertise) would be worth AT LEAST a billion dollars just to, like, Target, let alone other corporations, before you start counting the benefits to commuter suburbs and affordable living and the less-tangible benefits of more tightly tying together intellectual powerhouses like UMinn, UW-Madison, U Chicago, Northwestern, etc.

ArbitraryAndCapricious: "There was a special blend of ignorance and contempt in that comment that I find particularly annoying."

It's the blend that smells like "not knowing where food comes from until the bread riots start." WE'RE A STRATEGIC RESOURCE, DAMMIT!

(Also, yeah, people who hate USPS have never used not-America postal systems.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:38 AM on May 5, 2015 [13 favorites]


Other than nostalgia, do streetcars have any real benefits over buses?
posted by Rumple at 10:42 AM on May 5, 2015


That said I still sort of suspect that density is an issue - meaning the subsidy in North America would have to be even bigger than in Japan or France.

Plenty of small regional cities in Japan (like Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and also Kochi, Toyama, Fukui and so on) have streetcars and light rail. These streetcars are often operated by the private sector with some subsidies provided by the local government.

It's not density that's the issue, it's culture. In Victoria, BC, where we spend most of the year, anytime anyone ever suggests dedicated bus lanes, everyone freaks out. How will I be able to drive my car downtown?

North Americans still love their cars. Japanese people are used to taking the train.

I'll say it again: cities like Hiroshima and Nagasaki are relatively small regional centres. Kochi and Toyama and Fukui are the friggin' boondocks. And they still have streetcars and light rail.

Toyama Prefecture itself has a wonderful private rail line (besides the JR line) that goes way out into the countryside.
posted by Nevin at 10:47 AM on May 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


Other than nostalgia, do streetcars have any real benefits over buses?

I think Vancouver's electric trolleys (buses) are way better than Victoria's diesel buses.

Riding the bus also sucks because of the bumpiness of the ride. I get carsick. Riding on a railway at low speeds is a much more pleasant experience.
posted by Nevin at 10:50 AM on May 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


Rumple: Other than nostalgia, do streetcars have any real benefits over buses?

Apparently, yes (PDF, prepared for the American Bus Association). In that report, transit buses (local services) get a rather surprising 32.5 passenger-miles/gallon, compared to 104.4 p-m/g. On the other hand, long-distance buses (motor coaches) get 184.4 p-m/g.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:52 AM on May 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


> FWIW I'm writing this on an Amtrak train on its way across Missouri right now.

The KC-StL run is really great. Really scenic, in Missouri's understated way: the river bends, bluffs, rolling fields and stands of mature trees. You can see why the German settlers were reminded of the Rhine when they founded Hermann. My mother-in-law's a frequent traveller on it; if you ever see an artist with a mane of grey hair sketching with oil pastels, stop and say hi.
posted by scruss at 10:52 AM on May 5, 2015


I'll say it again: cities like Hiroshima and Nagasaki are relatively small regional centres. Kochi and Toyama and Fukui are the friggin' boondocks. And they still have streetcars and light rail.

Yeah, I mean there are towns that you need a car or bus to get around (I've been to quite a few in Yamanashi or Nagano, for example), but we're talking relatively small, rural-ish towns at that point.

Japan had some good timing, in a sad sense, on rail though. Much of the country was destroyed in WWII (aside from the obvious Hiroshima/Nagasaki, many major cities were burned and destroyed in bombing). This combined with an aggressive rebuilding effort gave them a unique opportunity to build out a train network without as much legacy building issues as we would have in the US at this point.

I don't think such a situation is _necessary_, but the decisions Japan made in that time were certainly influential in steering them to a train-based transportation network.

Of course, Japan still has a quite active local car market so its not like many (most?) Japanese don't have cars, its just that they have options.
posted by thefoxgod at 10:57 AM on May 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


Ctrl+F "right of way"

Okay, I skimmed the article and the comments and didn't see this posted: aren't the majority of inter- (and possibly intra-)state highways built on former railroad lines initially financed by the Federal government, which were subsequently considered to be easements?

"Congress has authorized the railroads to convey part of their rights of way for highway purposes. In 1920, Congress authorized railroads to convey to state, counties, or municipalities, portions of rights of way to be used as public highways or streets provided the conveyance would not diminish the railroad right of way to less than 100 feet. As codified at 43 U.S.C. 913, this provision reads:

§ 913 Conveyance by land-grant railroads of portions of rights-of-way to State, county, or municipality
All railroad companies to which grants for rights of way through the public lands have been made by Congress, or their successors in interest or assigns, are authorized to convey to any State, county, or municipality any portion of such right of way to be used as a public highway or street: Provided, That no such conveyance shall have the effect to diminish the right of way of such railroad company to a less width than 50 feet on each side of the center of the main track23 of the railroad as now established and maintained."

I worked for Dallas Area Rapid Transit briefly, and I remember them saying the majority of issues with expanding rail service were that the rights-of-way needed for adding new non-freight transport lines were already being used by our network of highways -- the lack of accessible land (aboveground or below) was holding back their ability to expand light rail service throughout the city's suburbs.

I'm possibly wrong by conflating that idea to other states/rural areas scattered throughout the US, but it kind of sounds like they already built a ton of highways over the old rail lines not currently used for freight transport since 1920, and laying down a new set of commuter or interstate rail tracks for high-speed travel would be super-expensive, hard to negotiate and a boondoggle for anyone except the Feds to negotiate.

I expect the extensive rebuilding of major cities throughout Europe and Japan made commuter rail a good option -- oops, on preview thefoxgod beat me to it.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 11:00 AM on May 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


It was interesting to see the highlights of the private efforts to install high speed rail where it should go in: corridors that are so congested that there is no real way to engineer faster travel - there are just too many damned people traveling in the area, and adding another 5 lanes isn't going to solve anything, even if you could.

hyperloop? "If people could get from Los Angeles to Las Vegas in 20 minutes, or New York to Philly in 10, cities become metro stops and borders evaporate, along with housing price imbalances and overcrowding."
A big breakthrough came following the Harry Reid meeting. The senator introduced the group to Anthony Marnell, who has built all of Steve Wynn’s Las Vegas megaproperties and also served as CEO of the Rio Hotel & Casino. His real passion? Returning passenger rail from the West Coast to Vegas. “I’ve been chasing fast trains around the world for almost 30 years,” he says. Over the past 10 years Marnell and his investors have sunk $50 million of their own money into XpressWest, a proposed 190-mile high-speed link from Sin City to L.A.’s eastern exurbs, mostly to acquire the right-of-way. A hyperloop experiment would be far more interesting. Negotiations are ongoing. “There’s got to be a way for us to work together,” says Marnell...

“I’m convinced hyperloop is doable from a technical standpoint, rights-of-way notwithstanding,” says Justin Gray, an aerospace engineer at NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. That’s part of why Hyperloop Tech is focusing on cargo: Since much of the eastbound cargo that goes into the port of Los Angeles travels via rail or road through Las Vegas, that route offers a natural test.
Japan sets maglev train speed record.

"Japan Railways has been testing their train to figure out the best operational speed for a planned route between Tokyo and Nagoya, scheduled to begin service in 2027. That trip can take nearly 5 hours by car. But in the future, a maglev train could finish the journey in 40 minutes."

How the Shinkansen bullet train made Tokyo into the monster it is today
The term “shinkansen” literally means “new trunk line”: symbolically, it lay at the very centre of the huge reconstruction effort. All previous railways were designed to serve regions. The purpose of the Tokaido Shinkansen, true to its name, was to bring people to the capital...

In an interview in the Tokyo Shimbun newspaper last week, Takashi Hara, a political scholar and expert on Japanese railroads, said the policy of extending the Shinkansen was promulgated by Kakuei Tanaka, Japan’s prime minister from 1972 to 1974. “The purpose was to connect regional areas to Tokyo,” Hara said. “And that led to the current situation of a national Shinkansen network, which completely changed the face of Japan. Travel times were shortened and vibration was alleviated, making it possible for more convenient business and pleasure trips, but I have to say that the project just made all the [connecting] cities part of Tokyo.”
Except Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) would likely be a cheaper alternative, and one that could be initiated almost instantly, or as long as it would take to claim a lane for buses, and get enough buses to serve the demand. The added bonus is that BRT is flexible, and can be scaled or re-routed as needed to respond to demand and avoid road closures.

Here's An Idea: Why Not Have All Public Buses Be On-Demand? "MIT researchers have created a platform that could turn bus transportation into your own personal pickup service."
posted by kliuless at 11:04 AM on May 5, 2015 [3 favorites]


Here's An Idea: Why Not Have All Public Buses Be On-Demand? "MIT researchers have created a platform that could turn bus transportation into your own personal pickup service."


How does that work for people who don't have cellphones, though?
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 11:11 AM on May 5, 2015 [5 favorites]


ArbitraryandCapricious, DART has an on-call bus service that allows riders to make route reservations up to a week in advance by phone or computer (minimum of one hour in advance notice required). The routes are limited and all that, obviously, but I'd expect many other cities provide a similar service.

On-demand buses operating in real time according to requests sent by smartphone app might be a newER idea, but as a public service, it's not really "new."

I swear to god I don't work there anymore, you guys.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 11:21 AM on May 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


Since I often curse time and geography, for years I've wanted a reliable high-speed line from San Diego to Seattle (and points beyond) going all up and down the west coast. Like you'd expect from what is always trumpeted as the greatest country. Unfortunately, American exceptionalism only seems to extend to having your own arsenal and spending your life savings on medical care.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 11:24 AM on May 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


Here's An Idea: Why Not Have All Public Buses Be On-Demand? "MIT researchers have created a platform that could turn bus transportation into your own personal pickup service."

We already do that, it's called a taxicab. Supply and demand. And regulations. Currently all being tested and challenged by places like Uber.
posted by Melismata at 11:24 AM on May 5, 2015


I'd put my money on buses, if we get more robust competition like we did between the UK-owned near-monopoly Greyhound and the Chinatown bus operators. Paying 20% of the cost of a train ticket and getting picked up and dropped off curbside seems like a no-brainer. I've done both and don't miss seeing the ass-end of Trenton NJ from the train window.

Megabus already travels between Dallas and Houston for $4-$30, which I've got to imagine is cheaper than any realistic projection of high-speed rail. Maybe it won't take 90 minutes, but I'd bet the average door-to-door time isn't that far apart. (And it's much cheaper to change the route should demand change or projections be wrong)
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 11:24 AM on May 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


How does that work for people who don't have cellphones, though?

Presumably they would buy one, in much the same way that people purchased landlines and electricity service when they realized they were modern necessities.
posted by deanc at 11:25 AM on May 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


Japan had some good timing, in a sad sense, on rail though. Much of the country was destroyed in WWII (aside from the obvious Hiroshima/Nagasaki, many major cities were burned and destroyed in bombing).

As a case in point, Toyama and Fukui were leveled during the war (and a few years later Fukui was razed again by a massive earthquake). Both have trams. Kanazawa, a larger (and richer) city right between the two, does not. It's an old castle town that was not bombed in the war. Kochi City was flattened and when they rebuilt (the city looks practically identical to Fukui and Toyama) they put in trams.

The high-speed rail corridor between Tokyo and Osaka is turning into a major demographic problem. Some companies actually subsidize tickets so people farther and farther out can commute into the megacity.
posted by Nevin at 11:29 AM on May 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


Traffic is horrid in the DC-Boston corridor, and 60mph buses are just a low-end option.

Everyone complains about speed limits, so you'd think that if you pointed out that a train could travel more than 100mph without the hassle of airport checkin, people would think this is the greatest thing ever. But they don't.
posted by deanc at 11:30 AM on May 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


maxwelton: we don't require our major transportation subsidy, the interstate highway system, to "run at a profit".

Unless it's a toll road.
For most of us, a toll road is just another expense. But for a family with vast resources and a long investment horizon, it can be something quite different: a source of income.
Join with major multi-national companies and bank on the future use of infrastructure.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:33 AM on May 5, 2015


I really wish someone would reboot that game. Especially for iPad.

OpenTTD
posted by PenDevil at 2:19 AM on May 5 [5 favorites +] [!]


Transport Tycoon is nice but I dream of original alll-time classic Sid Meier's Railroad Tycoon
posted by Bwithh at 12:01 PM on May 5, 2015


Presumably they would buy one, in much the same way that people purchased landlines and electricity service when they realized they were modern necessities.

Actually, people couldn't and didn't really do that without the help of federal aid programs, giving us the Rural Electrification programs of the New Deal, rural electric cooperatives, rural telephone service programs, the Lifeline program for land lines, and the many related agencies and social relief programs it took to get people to the point where electricity and a phone are considered basic utilities. So it wasn't just that they woke up and day and realized "I need a modern necessity!" They were disadvantaged until federal programs and cooperatives developed to meet their needs, and funded those needs.

So, let them eat smartphones! The moment we want everyone to have a smartphone and we're willing to subsidize them, we'll all have those, too.
posted by Miko at 12:03 PM on May 5, 2015 [17 favorites]


At least for the East Coast, I think the smart money's on waterborne transport. If we could recreate a fraction of the steam network we had up and down the East Coast before the rise of rail, we could seriously reduce congestion and improve travel time.
posted by Miko at 12:06 PM on May 5, 2015


Car Culture is all about Individual Want.

Test Drive Of A Petrol Car: "How much does it cost to fill up at home, and how many free stations are there? The seller looked very puzzled at us and explained that it is not possible to refuel gasoline cars at home, and there are no free gas stations. Apparently you have to several times a month drive to the gas station to recharge your petrol car at extortionate prices."
posted by kliuless at 12:12 PM on May 5, 2015 [5 favorites]


Passenger rail cars should be mixed with freight rail cars and designed to be very quickly changed from train to train, maybe by swapping passenger modules without swapping undercarriages.

praecowity, that sounds like shipping containers. Except for passenger transport rather than freight. I like the idea.
posted by theorique at 12:19 PM on May 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


rural telephone service programs, the Lifeline program for land lines, and the many related agencies and social relief programs it took to get people to the point where electricity and a phone are considered basic utilities.

The tax that pays for providing people with landlines also provides cell phones. We live in a world where cell phones are not some kind of exotic luxury item but something that is commonplace amongst all class levels. What do you see all over poor neighborhoods? Independent cell phone stores that sell pay-as-you-go phones and other services with very low costs of entry and operating costs.
posted by deanc at 12:20 PM on May 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


We live in a world where cell phones are not some kind of exotic luxury item but something that is commonplace amongst all class levels.

Commonplace is not the same as universal, and it would be a major change cognitively, logistically, and socially to get those people without cellphones who depend on regular bus service to buy a gadget and shift their public transit from scheduled to on-demand.
posted by psoas at 12:32 PM on May 5, 2015 [4 favorites]


Car Culture is all about Individual Want.

It is also about busy people moving the kids to activities on a tight clock, getting grocery shopping and other errands done, getting to work, and satisficing and optimizing all sorts of other details of complex modern living. "Individual want" suggests a certain insouciant indulgence which doesn't jibe with people striving daily to meet the needs of their families.

Yes, it's possible for some people, in some cities, with some lifestyles to live without cars. In many cases, the deliberate choice to live without a car creates a lot more complexity than it solves.
posted by theorique at 12:35 PM on May 5, 2015 [5 favorites]


I live in Ohio. I literally know no one who has ridden a train to commute/for a purposeful reason. Maybe once for fun. I didn't even know amtrak was trains. It's not even part of the conversation here.
posted by Aranquis at 12:49 PM on May 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


Yes, it's possible for some people, in some cities, with some lifestyles to live without cars. In many cases, the deliberate choice to live without a car creates a lot more complexity than it solves.

It is too bad these two different kinds of cities developed completely randomly instead of by a series of conscious decisions. Luckily, there is absolutely no reason to reconsider the current "happy motoring" culture and its impacts on ourselves and planet.... It's completely sustainable.
posted by entropicamericana at 12:53 PM on May 5, 2015 [5 favorites]


I have nothing to say other than that, instead of flying, I'm taking Amtrak from Memphis to Michigan in a few months. For various reasons, some of which I'll list:

1) Flying is terrible, in so. many. ways. If I can support that any less than I absolutely have to then I'm thrilled to do so.
2) Conversely, Amtrak deserves and needs (among many, many other things) my support more than the airline industry.
3) The route was available, unlike nearly any other point in my life, for Amtrak to take me from *place I am* to *place I want to go to* instead of requiring some ungodly finagling on the front or end of the journey.
4) The price was similar, if a bit cheaper even, than a similar flight.
5) I can stand taking a 12+ hour trip instead of a 4+ hour flight because my sanity is worth it.

So, yea, I dunno what I'm getting at unless it's to say that I'm doing my part to support this service that I think has so much potential to be a functional option for travel in the USofA but isn't because [many, many] reasons.

If anyone has tips or tricks about riding for a newbie to the process then let me know via memail or something. Pardon the solicitation.
posted by RolandOfEld at 12:53 PM on May 5, 2015 [4 favorites]


Also, kind of expensive when I looked at some routes.
posted by Aranquis at 12:53 PM on May 5, 2015


Stealing and modifying a quote up thread ...

I grew up in suburb America and I didn't ride a train until I was in my 30's and it was a trip planned specifically so I could ride a train for the first time and involved a long car ride to get to the train. Trains came through my hometown all the time but none few of them carried passengers [...]. No one rode trains, they weren't even part of the conversation. They only became relevant to me when I moved to the West East Coast.

Part of the reason I picked where I live on the east coast was proximity to light rail (former shared freight lines, I think we get a couple freight trains per 24 hour period but not much) that shares with Amtrak as well.

First train trip was actually a car-free vacation. It rained, we were late, kids were bored, but once we got to our destination it was busses and light rail and walking the whole time. Kinda cool, wish we could do it more.
posted by tilde at 1:28 PM on May 5, 2015




At least for the East Coast, I think the smart money's on waterborne transport.

I don't really see how boats are a viable alternative to anything. Even a high speed catamaran is maxing out at 60 mph.
posted by smackfu at 1:41 PM on May 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


It's allusion to sea rise.
posted by entropicamericana at 2:00 PM on May 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


What the article failed to focus on and what most people don't get is that Amtrak and most other rail services depend on rail networks owned by multiple companies that care mostly about their freight service. Imagine if the entire rail network was owned by the government, like the highway system is but this will never happen and that is the problem. Amtrak suffers because of that.
posted by JJ86 at 2:10 PM on May 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


Digging around online after we eventually pulled out the consensus seemed to be that this sort of delay is common on that service, something to do with the fact that the track south of DC is owned by somebody else and is not maintained properly.

There's a similar problem with commuter rail in Chicagoland (and probably elsewhere). I ride Metra's Union Pacific Northwest Line to work every day. It's operated under contract by UP, and runs on UP tracks. There are frequently long delays when there is inclement weather in the area -- and "in the area" extends very far. I've been stuck sitting between Clybourn and Irving Park for an hour or more on numerous occasions due to "weather", when we hardly had anything worth noting.

I asked one of the conductors about it one time. He told me that Union Pacific has rules in place that require a freight halt any time winds on a track segment exceed a certain speed. Since we share tracks with freight, a freight backup means a passenger backup. To exacerbate it, the wind monitoring stations are very sparsely placed, so high winds somewhere many miles away can halt traffic all the way back to the city, leading to people sitting around for hours while a few rain drops spatter down. Apparently, Metra is investing a good chunk of change in the next year or two into installing more closely spaced anemometers for the benefit of UP in order to help reduce the impact of remote weather on local commuter operations.

This isn't going to help the routine 30 minute delays due to "mechanical problems" on the more frigid winter mornings, though. Cuz, you know, Chicagoans aren't used to cold, or anything...
posted by jammer at 2:36 PM on May 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


The Lady Fez and I would use the hell out of Amtrak, even in its broken and near-useless state*, if they'd permit us to carry on sufficient liquid oxygen (or ensure an outlet into which we could plug in a concentrator...which they also prohibit) to make a trip. It's the only viable option to driving for her and yet a stupid rule makes it a non-starter. So instead every few years we rent a van and haul two 41l liquid oxygen reservoirs halfway across the country. Rail could be a godsend to humans who do not fit into the prescribed footprint for air or bus travel but we don't let it happen here.

* being no real fault of the agency as they are a victim of their circumstances and not allowed to succeed
posted by Fezboy! at 3:06 PM on May 5, 2015 [2 favorites]




I have been riding the amazing and abundant trains of Switzerland the last few days, and I too am thinking about why North America can't have nice things.

But the biggest reason, I think, isn't density or subsidy or even the crappy federal politics. It's the way in which cities are massively sprawled out with poor or nonexistent local/regional transit, huge subsidies for suburban development, downtown zoning restrictive of growth, cheap fuel, zoning-mandated glut of cheap/free parking, etc.

Taking the train works so well in Japan and Europe because you have meaningful destinations reachable from both ends without a car. The U.S., and Canada to a lesser extent, have spent most of the last 70 years decreasing the proportion of destinations reachable from city centers without a car. More funding or political will at the federal level can help make a better rail system, but it won't undo that damage.

That said, the Northeast Corridor is very much a problem of the funding and the politics.
posted by parudox at 3:35 PM on May 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


Even a high speed catamaran is maxing out at 60 mph.

Spoken like someone who doesn't often have to drive from Northern NJ to Western CT, where if you're averaging 20 mph, you're doing well. I'm not joking about waterborne transport, nor alluding to sea level rise. It's a growing industry, especially along the East Coast. The area I grew up in had no water links to Manhattan when I was a kid; now it has several, and they run full every day. There's more capacity there, especially if price comes down.

Here's the other thing about both train and boat, especially if you're an executive time: you can reclaim the time. Driving is a total loss. You can be on the phone, maybe, and you can listen to podcasts, but your productivity pretty much ends there. But I can get on Amtrak from Boston to NYC and count on 2-3 hours of solid work time. And I'm comfortable, unlike on a plane where there is no longer room to unfold a laptop and still type and see the screen at one time. I can get up and stretch my legs, visit the snack car, get a bourbon and soda. The boat is similar: comfy seats, tables, amenities. That is traveling well, and it gives you back usable time that would have been lost on a drive.

The tax that pays for providing people with landlines also provides cell phones.

Some cell phones, to some qualifying applicants. My point was that we don't get everyone into the same network without subsidies. It's not just because people decide to join the future - they need some help (and some incentive) to take on the expense, especially if they are already maintaining a landline, or already sharing a phone.
posted by Miko at 5:10 PM on May 5, 2015 [5 favorites]


Flying is only cheaper if you book way in advance. Airfares for emergency trips back home will really ding your wallet.

Which is why regulation is still the dumbest shit. If i don't buy that last minute ticket, that seat will just be empty. So it should be cheap, because that's better than nothing right? But they know i need it, so they charge out the ass. Which should be illegal.

It's bad for the same reason that selling water bottles for 5x price during a natural disaster is bad.

I recently discovered that you can buy super last minute tickets very cheap on hotwire if you don't pick the time, simply the day... but seriously, what the fuck happened to flying standby?

Why can't i just buy a cheapass ticket and go "i'll get on whatever plane has a seat that would otherwise be empty". That should not be a premium service.

It's like if hot dog carts outside of bars that close at 3am decided to charge extra for the last few hotdogs they're going to throw out if no one orders, rather than giving them away or selling them cheap. That space is going to go unused and cost you money. We're doing eachother a favor here.

There's just something opportunistic and gross about it. No other form of transportation really works that way, but they've managed to twist and spin the narrative of "entitlement" to sell it as a luxury service.
posted by emptythought at 5:26 PM on May 5, 2015 [3 favorites]


5) I can stand taking a 12+ hour trip instead of a 4+ hour flight because my sanity is worth it.

Additionally, that 4+ hour flight gets at least couple of hours of time on the front end due to security theater and "get to the airport early" risk management. Security measures on trains are much more reasonable.
posted by theorique at 4:37 AM on May 6, 2015 [3 favorites]


They do have TSA, dogs, and ID checks at some larger train depots.
posted by tilde at 4:44 AM on May 6, 2015


They do have TSA, dogs, and ID checks at some larger train depots.

Some, but it is rare from what I have seen. Union Station in Chicago surprisingly has none. In Spain because of 11-M they x-ray baggage at big Renfe stations but it is quick and non-invasive.
posted by JJ86 at 5:51 AM on May 6, 2015


As fuel prices increase over time I expect rail service in the US to make a comeback, just because of the higher efficiency as compared to air travel. When you can save hundreds of dollars by taking an overnight train with meal service, a nice bed, a hot shower, and internet access, that suddenly looks a lot more attractive. As I've said before, in the long run cities are going to regret removing all their rail infrastructure.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 6:37 AM on May 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


Some, but it is rare from what I have seen. Union Station in Chicago surprisingly has none. In Spain because of 11-M they x-ray baggage at big Renfe stations but it is quick and non-invasive.

Man, remember when just x-raying your carry-on and walking through a metal-detector was considered a hassle and it took a supreme court ruling to clarify the issue?
posted by mikelieman at 6:44 AM on May 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


but seriously, what the fuck happened to flying standby?

They still use a standby system if you get bumped or miss your flight due to a delay, but I think the TSA basically killed being able to buy a standby ticket and get into an airport gate area without a specific flight number you're expected to be getting on.
posted by Miko at 10:23 AM on May 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


> America is far less dense than, say, Spain or France.

> Well, I regularly take the TGV from Paris to my still-trying-to-sell apartment in Nice, and that's 970km through some of the least dense parts of the country,

Yeah, I don't see density as the issue. I travelled from Paris to the Dordogne to Bordeaux to Anjou via rail last summer on vacation, and I don't think people realize just how rural much of France is. I thought I had a pretty good idea and was still surprised by HOW sparse. There are hours and hours of open land, farms, and small villages between medium-sized cities.
posted by desuetude at 11:51 AM on May 6, 2015


Nope. Basically every department in france is more dense than the 2 yellows on this census map of population density by county

https://www.census.gov/dmd/www/pdf/512popdn.pdf
posted by JPD at 12:32 PM on May 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


Nope. Basically every department in france is more dense than the 2 yellows on this census map of population density by county

So what's the excuse for all the orange and red counties? Most of the US east of the Mississippi looks suitable if density is all that matters, as does the I5 corridor on the west coast.
posted by dialetheia at 1:04 PM on May 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


I don't think anyone is making an excuse for them for regional networks. The density argument is about a nationwide network

(also lots of the orange is less dense than France)

That and the truly low density parts of France - at least in the Centre don't have great trains.

I don't think people really realize how densely or sparsely populated places are - they are very biased.
posted by JPD at 1:16 PM on May 6, 2015


Myself: Which is why regulation is still the dumbest shit.

Oh, and to be clear, i meant DEregulation. Stupid autocorrect.
posted by emptythought at 2:04 PM on May 6, 2015


acb: "a lecture on how public transport cannot work in Australia because it's too sparse, and the trains they're wasting taxpayers' money on are mostly empty because everyone, sensibly, drives. "
The train I catch every weekday morning is known colloquially as the 'bombay express' for a reason. At peak periods, every 10-15 minutes a train heads north with upwards of 500 people on board, many of them facing a trip upwards of an hour either standing or sitting on the floor. The process is reversed in the afternoon.

I think America and Australia have the same problem at the heart of all this - we like to drive and we're selfish enough to put our own personal convenience ahead of the common good.
posted by dg at 4:23 PM on May 6, 2015 [3 favorites]


JJ86: "Union Station in Chicago surprisingly has none. "

They did for a while after 9/11 ... and from what I've seen, Chicago will put bag-checks, etc., in place if there's a specific threat or if there's an elevated transit threat in the city generally. But most big cities (including Chicago) seem to have the ABILITY to do extensive baggage- and passenger-checking (and renovated to make sure they had that ability after 9/11), but only use it when there's a specific reason to.

Which makes sense since you get an hour outside Chicago and you're in a little old-fashioned half-heated-hut-with-platform type station where you can basically park six feet from the track and walk right on the train without even entering the station. A determined train terrorist just has to get on at Galesburg instead of Chicago.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:53 AM on May 7, 2015




I don't know anything about anything but I always thought it was crazy that there isn't a high-speed train between like New York and Chicago. That's pretty much a straight line. I don't know how many people really go back and forth between Chicago and New York but they're pretty big cities so presumably it's a lot.

But don't feel too bad: Australia continues to be dumb in the same way (though in fairness we have a smaller gene pool). There should have been a high speed line along the east coast a decade ago. But we're all about roads (endless roads clogged up by trucks carrying bullshit) and tunnels (endless tunnels that nobody uses).
posted by turbid dahlia at 5:09 PM on May 10, 2015


a high-speed train between like New York and Chicago. That's pretty much a straight line.

Uh, the fact that you can draw a straight line between those two cities isn't really suggestive of there being a workable straight-line rail route along that same line. Not without the substantial use of nuclear weapons to obliterate the inconveniently-sited mountains or something. (Which I suspect was probably considered in the 1950s.)

Getting trains from New York to Chicago was a significant engineering challenge; there were (and to a certain extent, still are) two competing routes: the New York Central's "Water Level Route" and the Pennsylvania Railroad's "Main Line" route. Both were the crown jewels of their respective sponsoring organizations and represented something like the 19th century equivalent to Apollo-program resource commitment. Both were achieved with significant state sponsorship and public funds, not accidentally.

The Water Level Route involves going north out of New York and up the Hudson River valley, then west out the Mohawk River valley, sort of paralleling the Erie Canal. It then follows the shore of the Great Lakes around to Chicago. It takes advantage of the natural geography to avoid steep grades but isn't particularly direct. To make it competitive, the New York Central made extensive use of track pans in order to replenish water without stopping—sort of the steam era's equivalent to in-flight refueling.

The PRR's route, which on a map appears to be the more logical one, has some very severe grades as it goes through the Allegheny Mountains, and was probably more challenging from a civil engineering perspective. It required the construction of the Horseshoe Curve, as well as innumerable cuts and fills (with associated culvert work to streams and creeks) to get through the mountains. Even modern locomotives have difficulty on some of the sections. To build the same thing today would be easily in the billions or trillions of dollars, and take centuries just for the red tape. That's probably something of a conservative estimate, since the first time around it did take a century; the railroad followed the route of a canal (built largely with public funds, then sold to the railroad for a song; 'subsidize risk and privitize profit' is not a new concept) which had been discussed on and off from colonial times.

While I stand by my earlier statement that the reason our (passenger) rail system in this country sucks is mostly because of lack of will, it should also be kept in mind how really hard this stuff is. Even the seemingly limited system we have today—which, in fairness, is also hands-down the worlds' best system for moving bulk freight over land—is the result of a staggering amount of effort expended over the course of many generations. The fact that you can take a train from Philadephia to Pittsburgh at all is, when you dig into how it's done, a pretty neat trick. The fact that the hard work has already been done for us, and we can't bother to maintain it or do something as comparatively easy as electrify it and speed it up, is our own damn fault though.
posted by Kadin2048 at 6:00 PM on May 10, 2015 [8 favorites]


An then last night we had this: At Least 7 Dead, Over 200 Hurt After Amtrak Train Derails, Rolls on Side in Philadelphia, though it's too early to say whether the cause is deteriorating infrastructure or something else.
posted by Karmakaze at 12:34 PM on May 13, 2015 [1 favorite]




And then further on in that article there are people quoted who talk about how the estimated $13.2 billion the "positive control" technology that might prevent accidents like this could be "best spent."
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 6:02 PM on May 13, 2015


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