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Train in Vain
July 10, 2008 8:46 PM   Subscribe

"This could take exactly 77 hours and 15 minutes, if the trains keep to schedule. Most likely, they won’t." GOOD Magazine takes a cross-country train ride to examine exactly why America's rail system sucks so badly, and where we go (slowly) from here.
posted by 40 Watt (103 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
Maybe I just got REALLY lucky but considering this is coming from someone who likes to point out the failure of most government ventures, I was pleasantly surprised when I took Amtrak for the first time last week. Normally, I take Greyhound since I'm usually not in a huge hurry, but it turns out it was cheaper to take an overnight train than it was to go by bus and I could go to the old train station downtown than having to drive 30 minutes to the closest Greyhound station.

Anyway, there were far less crazy people than on a Greyhound, the stations were a lot better than most bus stations I've seen, there was more legroom than on an airplane or a bus, and my train actually arrived early into Chicago.

Maybe this is an exception and not the rule but frankly, I'm impressed.

Also, 77 hours cross country? No different if you took Greyhound or maybe if you drove cross country. If time is valuable to you, then take a plane. Otherwise, what you pay for is what you get.

This is not to say that there probably are problems with Greyhound, mostly due to the whole freight priority thing, and it would probably be better off if it was in private hands, but I must say, I'm planning on traveling via Amtrak again.
posted by champthom at 8:56 PM on July 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


At 15, I took this exact train ride with my then 81-year-old but very spry grandmother. All went well until we hit Omaha, where a barge hit a bridge and we had to wait for six hours for the Coast Guard (in Nebraska!) to say it was OK to cross. I still recall the slow anticipation as we crossed, and how I ran from the front of the train to the back so that I would be on all the cars as they passed over the bridge.

We hit Chicago and the conductor decided that a woman and her baby were more deserving of the sleeper my grandmother had reserved than we were. I spent the evening sitting in the cafe car with two traveling salesmen while my grandmother slept in one of those horrid coach seats. I saw the Chicago river and the great nothingness of Illinois in the death of lights we passed.

We finally made it to New York and we stayed at a hotel my grandmother recalled as grand: the Hotel Pennsylvania. It was not. She bought be a pocket watch at one of those $5 watch places that was in the lobby and then we went to Lindy's for cheesecake.

Betty went on the QE2 to England and I flew home a few days later from JFK after seeing my cousins in Connecticut. My homework assignment was to read War and Peace, unabridged and write a report about it. I read around 100 pages before realizing what a worthless venture it was to ask a teenager to read such a whale of a book and I suddenly lamented being one of only two ninth graders in a school of 32 staffed by a teacher who emphasized magical realism and sex education.
posted by parmanparman at 9:02 PM on July 10, 2008 [15 favorites]


Don't get me wrong, I love trains - I posted this as a huge fan of rail travel, and even of Amtrak in general. That said I think there's a lot that rings true in this article, if for no other reason than I've done the whole sitting-for-an-hour-waiting-for-freight thing far more times than I can remember just traveling the Detroit to Chicago corridor - which was IIRC supposed to be a high-speed rail section and of course didn't pan out that way...you can still see signs marked "CAUTION: HIGH-SPEED TRAINS" at rail crossings in parts of Kalamazoo.

I've also ridden many of the European high-speed lines with crazy acronyms (ICE! TGV!) and I can't fathom why we can't muster the political will needed to get beyond the Acela corridor here.
posted by 40 Watt at 9:09 PM on July 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


The US ought to have ten (-twenty!-) times the passenger rail capacity that it has now. Unfortunately we put all of our transportation eggs into the interstate system basket. For all but a very small portion of us, rail travel is basically a novelty. I think of how ubiquitous the train is in Germany or France, even little towns of the size that would be off the rail map in our nation have their own train stations, with regular service. Germany's train system, in particular, is jaw-droppingly awesome (from my American perspective, anyway). Makes me think of what life would be like if we didn't gamble everything we had on the automobile.
posted by brain cloud at 9:12 PM on July 10, 2008 [6 favorites]


That was a very interesting article, thanks 40 Watt. My daughter it taking a one-day train trip later this month with a family friend. She's very excited.
posted by amyms at 9:12 PM on July 10, 2008


I live in the Northeast. Maybe I'm in the minority here, but I have never had any trouble with Amtrak besides the no-smoking rule. It is a good way to get around and avoid the absurdity of modern airport traffic. Another advantage is that Amtrak often goes to exactly where you are headed to instead of going to a big regional airport and then having to call for transportation/take a taxi/ride a bus to your final destination. It's a good service and I wish the federal government would put more into it: no transportation service is really unsubsidized and profitable, so I don't see what the issue here is.
posted by Electrius at 9:19 PM on July 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


I frequently travel a route that should be about 2 hours outside Chicago and not having a car, I have to make the choice between bus or train. How?
1. Do I want a 3 hour ride with smelly crazy people in a cramped bus?
2. Do I want a comfortable, but unreliable train ride that could take from 2 to 6 hours?

I usually pick 2, because even if I am stuck for 3 hours on Amtrak, I'm comfortable and I have a place to plug in my laptop. But overall, neither choices are good. I'm hoping high gas prices will spur some improvements. I'd love to see some sort of luxury bus or private upscale rail targeted towards business people. I would still be cheaper than a car for me. Mass transit shouldn't have to be miserable.
posted by melissam at 9:21 PM on July 10, 2008


Taking the train from Seattle to Portland, at one point we were driving alongside a road watching the cars zip past faster than us. That's just fucking wrong.
posted by Artw at 9:21 PM on July 10, 2008 [3 favorites]


My Amtrak-sucks anecdote: My wife was spending a couple of weeks in Portland, so I decided to take the train down (from Seattle) to visit her the first weekend. Took a little longer than expected (5 hours instead of 3, I think), but it was cheap, smooth, and less aggravating than driving. The next weekend, I made another reservation to make the same trip. The night before I left, my wife called and asked, "Did you hear about the train?" No, I hadn't. Turns out they'd had an inspection that turned up trouble with the trains and canceled most of them indefinitely. Even though I'd made a reservation that included my email address, the only reason I didn't find this out by showing up at the station and being screwed is that a friend had done exactly that the day before. Oh, and I had to cancel the reservation manually to get my money back. Nice.

Next time I go to Portland and don't need a car at the other end I'll probably take the train again, but it wasn't a great confidence-builder.
posted by The Tensor at 9:24 PM on July 10, 2008


I was hoping for a much longer article — he spent 77 hours and those are all the column-inches he got? What weird little towns did he see, and what conversations did he listen to? Did he talk to any railfans? (I adore railfans, both the old jolly ones who hang out at the station and a younger one I know who sometimes spends hours poring over the "train" tag on Flickr.) I enjoy riding the train; there's a post I read once that explains something of how interesting it is to look out the window.
posted by dreamyshade at 9:26 PM on July 10, 2008 [3 favorites]


I was considering buying another clunker car, down near the CA border, and taking the train down to collect just last night. Imagine my surprise that I couldn't get within 200 miles of where I wanted to be. Rail is very efficient transportation. While I like giving folks trails to use, every "rails to trails" initiative makes me slightly depressed. Here we have infrastructure in place to do great things, and instead we turn it into a playground.
posted by maxwelton at 9:37 PM on July 10, 2008 [4 favorites]


For the Californians: Here's a link to the California High-Speed Rail Authority. The routing section is fun to play around with, and I would love to see this thing put in place in California. There's also the CHSR Blog, which has been tracking the politics behind Proposition 1.
posted by Weebot at 9:38 PM on July 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


I've taken that same route (and many others) at least a dozen times over the years. I love Amtrak. The all but inevitable delays over the course of a three day train trip on tracks where freight has the right of way are exactly 10,000x more enjoyable than being stuck overnight in an airport, which I've had happen more than I care to remember.

Delays expressed as a percentage of overall time spent in transit on rail vs. air travel would be interesting to see.
posted by quarterframer at 10:00 PM on July 10, 2008


Here's a link to the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

Wow. California really, really needs something like that. Personally, I think the "15,000 boardings per day" from San Jose to LA is going to be a bit of an understatement, especially on the weekends. It'll probably work both ways, too.

Man, if I had something like that growing up in San Jose, you would have never seen me again.

Another interesting thought: It would make living in Merced and working in LA possible. That could mean a renaissance for the Central Valley.
posted by Avenger at 10:13 PM on July 10, 2008


Where else are you going to take a long leisurely trip through everybody's back yards in this huge and beautiful country? Leg room, walking around, dozing, reading...and reading on the train is the best place in the world to read...man, I wish I had another lifetime of riding trains ahead of me.

The luxury of your own little Pullman traveling hotel room is also an unmatchable experience.

Yes, Amtrak has its problems (!), but it's all we've got. We'll never have the wonderful Shinkasen in this country.

BTW, yesterday, in Livermore, CA my brother got stuck on the train because the 108 degree (F) weather had buckled the old tracks. If it ain't one thing, it's another. At least our cell phones run on time!
posted by kozad at 10:16 PM on July 10, 2008


I took the train from Los Angeles to New York a few years ago. I arrived half a day late. I love trains and felt like the extra half day was a bonus.

Who takes a 3+ day train trip when they've got a tight schedule?
posted by the jam at 10:21 PM on July 10, 2008


When I was a poverty stricken 20 something year old, I took Amtrak across the country twice. Both times I was broke as hell, and both times the train was late, but it was a wonderful experience. I think traveling (or working) on trains brings out the best in people - I had some awesome multi hour conversations in the bar car (we could smoke there back then - grrrr).

If you need to go across the country, and you don't need to get there today - then the train is the best deal you're going to get. Even if it stops for 3 hours to move a dead cow off of the tracks - YOU don't have to do it - and it rolls along even when you're asleep.

Man, I love trains.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 10:23 PM on July 10, 2008


My Amtrak horror story:
I was taking a train to visit a friend in Chicago while they were doing a work placement. Apparently, at a specific day of the month, during a specific time, they perform track maintenance at some point along the route.

Did they schedule around it? No. They had us sit there for over three hours. Did the arrival time accurately show the arrival in Chicago with the 3 hour adjustment? Nope. Did my friend end-up waiting for me for that length of time? Definitely (she has the patience of a saint).

I will never take an Amtrak train again. Seemed like something that would be so simple to schedule around.
posted by purephase at 10:36 PM on July 10, 2008


I've been on Amtrak twice. Both times round trip from White Sulphur Springs, WV to Atlanta, GA. Compared to Greyhound, it's a dream. However, I did have to travel to Charlottesville, VA on the way south and change trains before heading south to GA, and on the trip back, north to Washington, DC and change trains before heading back to WV. Still, I would much rather take the train than fly or ride Greyhound. I wish train travel was more accessible.
posted by wv kay in ga at 10:39 PM on July 10, 2008


I don't think the article is saying taking a train isn't enjoyable. It is quite enjoyable - pleasurable, in fact. But the fact that the only people who take them are those that can "take their time" surely indicates that taking a train, whether or not it is less expensive than a flight, is a luxury.

I think the article is saying, hey - why not make the trains enjoyable and efficient? Why can't they be timely? Why can't the move faster? Why do they have to run into constant delays?

"American trains would be the laughing stock of Bulgaria."

The overall rail system in the U.S. is pathetic. For a nation whose expansion relied on railroads, today's rail system - aka Amtrack - simply doesn't take itself very seriously. And neither do the lawmakers that could enable rail to become as efficient, bold and romantic as it once was, and should be. The technology exists, and it's better than ever; it's in use in every other industrialized nation in the world. We can afford it, and it could pay itself off. What I wouldn't give for a reliable and affordable rail system.
posted by jabberjaw at 10:47 PM on July 10, 2008


I've never taken Amtrak, only Via, the Canadian rail corp, but I've heard dozens of horror stories of the 5-hour trip from Montreal to NYC being stopped for 5-hour delays mid-voyage. I wonder what's so different there regarding infrastructure ownership... I've taken the 4-hour trip on Via between Toronto and Montreal many times and never experienced a significant delay.
posted by loiseau at 10:56 PM on July 10, 2008


Aren't most of the tracks controlled by descendants of the same Robber Baron companies that stole the land and built the railroads in the first place? They let Amtrak run on their tracks at their convenience. She is a second class citizen, barely tolerated.

There will never be good rail transportation until a system, including the tracks, are built specifically for transportation (no freight allowed!)
posted by eye of newt at 10:56 PM on July 10, 2008


If I were President of the Universe, the first thing I do to fix Amtrak is give them priority over freight on their long-haul lines. Sidelining passenger trains for hours in the middle of nowhere just ain't right.
posted by zippy at 11:12 PM on July 10, 2008 [2 favorites]


Another advantage is that Amtrak often goes to exactly where you are headed to instead of going to a big regional airport and then having to call for transportation/take a taxi/ride a bus to your final destination.

My boyfriend and I discussed this very point while drinking at one of the bars in Grand Central Station. It also means that train stations make excellent places for people to hang out or meet up, because there you are in the middle of town. No one wants to spend extra time at the airport.

On an overnight train trip from Wroclaw, Poland to Vienna, we had to make a 7 am connection at the Prague station. Our train arrived at 5:30 in the morning, and I hadn't slept at all. I was cranky and nauseous from lack of sleep, barely able to speak as we drank coffee in a haze of cigarette smoke up in the gorgeous old station. At some point a bus pulled up outside, and dozens of Japanese tourists poured out and into the station, milling around and taking photos. At the other side of the building a man approached from the platform. He was tall, with a long black overcoat, black umbrella, and thick blond ponytail. His unusual appearance and purposeful stride had caught my eye, and I watched him as he walked over to the crowd of tourists. He was at least a foot taller than all of them, and he walked right into the middle of the group, smiling hugely, and began speaking to them in Japanese! They were thrilled! He was their tour guide. He led them out of the station, after posing for pictures. It was enchanting. I'll never forget that sight. Stuff like that doesn't really happen in airports.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:59 PM on July 10, 2008 [4 favorites]


"... I think the article is saying, hey - why not make the trains enjoyable and efficient? Why can't they be timely? Why can't the move faster? Why do they have to run into constant delays? ..."
posted by jabberjaw at 1:47 AM on July 11

In a geographically big country like the U.S., airplanes beat trains as people movers because of the relative schedule flexibility air transport offers (not only for individual passengers, but for airline scheduling in the face of seasonal loads and shifting population patterns), and the much lower capital costs of building airports compared to acquiring and building out massive amounts of new track right of way for passenger rail. You can readily see that, as even large developing countries where rail and air travel compete, preferentially move people by air as soon as the economy can afford it. Moreover, one little appreciated financial factor favoring air transport over rail, is that aircraft leasing and locally guaranteed development bond financing for airport construction provide a stable, low cost financial base for air transport, that simply has no counterpart in rail transport planning.

One factor that might change this in the U.S., is the long term increase of fuel costs, as trains can potentially move people for about 1/2 the energy cost of even the next generation airliners, like the Boeing Dreamliner. But you'd still need fuel costs well north of $10 a gallon, and the promise that they'd stay there in the long run, to make rail's energy efficiency a compelling argument in passenger service scenarios. The long term good news for rail is that electrically powered rail can potentially compete on energy source flexibility much better than air transport can. In a post peak-oil world, electrically powered rail will work on energy from nuclear, wind, solar, bio-mass, coal, natural gas or other fossil fuels, whereas air transport is essentially based on petroleum fuel and lubricants.
posted by paulsc at 12:00 AM on July 11, 2008 [4 favorites]


You know, it's not really hard to figure out. The short answer is that America is very spread out compared to places like Japan and continental Europe, where inter-city rail works pretty well.

Another reason is scaling of capital costs. For railroads, they have to pay to create and maintain the rolling stock, the stations, and all the rail. For airlines they have to pay for aircraft and airports (and air traffic control), but the air between cities doesn't have to be paid for or maintained. (Also, railroads pay property taxes on their rail lines, but no airline has to pay taxes on the air.)

So for long distance travel, the costs scale better for airlines than for passenger rail. The capital cost for an airline trip between Boston and Washington DC is the same as between Boston and Los Angeles. The capital cost for rail between Boston and LA is probably four times as much because of all the rail lines that have to be built and maintained.

Rail works really well for bulk cargo, but it only works for passenger traffic in areas where population density is a lot higher than the American average. Which is why it works really well between Boston and Washington DC, but not really very well anywhere else. It just doesn't make economic sense, even ignoring the fact that long distance air travel is a lot faster and thus more valuable to the passengers.

(And before you say, "Yeah, but the rail already is there for bulk cargo so the incremental cost of using it for passenger rail is nil," that's not how it works. There's a fixed capacity, and if it's being used for passenger then it isn't being used for cargo, so the passenger rail system has to pay an amortized portion of all the capital and maintenance and tax costs for the rail. It still doesn't scale as well as air travel.)
posted by Class Goat at 12:04 AM on July 11, 2008 [3 favorites]


PaulSC, fuel costs would have to rise a lot further than that in order to offset the difference in capital expense.
posted by Class Goat at 12:05 AM on July 11, 2008


If I were President of the Universe, the first thing I do to fix Amtrak is give them priority over freight on their long-haul lines.

Making inanimate coal and a couple of engineers on a freight train wait for 500 people on a passenger train seems to make sense, but the coal is going to a power plant that generates electricity for thousands, so the problem's probably not as simple as it first appears, not with the reduced tracks available. The way it is now (with reduced infrastructure), scheduling on-time passenger service may be pretty near impossible over a couple thousand miles.

But the train could still be the best option for shorter distances. It can't be hard to schedule a fast train over a hundred miles of track so that it will not be interrupted by the local coal train rumbling along to Smokestacksville.

And to get competition back into it, Amtrak could start by letting companies put competing rail cars on the same train -- one train, one trip, but maybe two or three companies offering sleeping cars, dining cars, etc. Maybe two or three competing dining services in one car. Amtrak could get all of its money from the competing businesses it pulls, and then it would be up to those competing businesses to make enough money to stay in business.

Work on making it fast and easy to swap cars at stations. You pull into a station, clunk clunk clunk, and a minute later there's a new dining car inserted between two passenger cars.

I would start by offering a luxury shit and shower module on long-distance trains -- full shower, plus toilets that cost you by the credit card minute (take your time, but they have your credit card and the meter is running) and that are guaranteed clean because an attendant inspects and cleans each toilet after each use. And people wouldn't be pigs in shower or toilet because the attendant would throw an extra cleaning charge on your card for unnecessary nastinesses left behind. You pay for it, but you get off the train feeling and looking good, not like you've just had the typical long-distance train ride.

Party cars. Observation cars. Cheap stand-up commuter cars. Fast-food cars. Entertainment cars. Gym cars. Education cars for daily commuters (get your degree at Amtrak U). Light freight. There are lots of services you could sell to people who otherwise feel they are wasting their time just going along.
posted by pracowity at 12:26 AM on July 11, 2008 [11 favorites]


"PaulSC, fuel costs would have to rise a lot further than that in order to offset the difference in capital expense."
posted by Class Goat at 3:05 AM on July 11

There's a tipping point issue that works in favor of rail at some point, Class Goat, because you can increase rail efficiency on heavily used routes, by adding additional cars to trains, without a linear increase in fuel or other operating expense. Aircraft capacity comes only in fixed increments. In fact, longer trains and smaller crews (increased efficiency) was one of the principle strategies for the survival of rail in the lean '70s and '80s, even in the freight business. At $10+ bucks a gallon fuel cost, mid-range rail routes like NYC - Chicago could again be a successful overnight alternative for business travelers, without Amtrak subsidy, as airlines raise ticket prices to account for fuel costs.

Remember that airline ticket prices have yet to fully reflect the rise in fuel costs, as fuel contract hedging is still keeping the actual costs of Jet A below $4.50 a gallon for most carriers. And yet, the IATA estimates that is an $85 billion operating surcharge to airlines, compared to FY 2000 expense. An additional $85 billion dollars of travel expense to the public, per year, can provide quite a bit of new rail capacity on short and mid length routes, if the public are convinced it is reliable, convenient, and comfortable.
posted by paulsc at 12:31 AM on July 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


Having a European-style high-speed rail system would be great for this country. I bet most people would much rather travel from point A to point B without having to take off their shoes, put their shampoo in baggies, have a machine blow air at them, turn off their laptops and sit still in one place for hours on end.
posted by joedan at 1:27 AM on July 11, 2008 [2 favorites]


a few years ago, I took my bicycle on an Amtrak Regional from Boston to Springfield, MA; rode around the Berkshires and upstate New York and reflected on how, without having had to deal with highway traffic or airplane waits, it was the most remarkable stress-free weekend road trip I'd ever taken, and if the Amtrak schedule were only more convenient then I'd have done this more often.

Then I waited four hours for my return train to arrive later that weekend, and realized that if I had more energy, I could almost have beaten the train home on my bike. That minorly sucked.

But, when I used to have consulting gigs in New York and DC, I always took the Acela whenever I had the chance. It's a grand way to traverse the northern half of the BAMA sprawl.
posted by bl1nk at 2:08 AM on July 11, 2008


Fuck European-style high speed rail. I want a maglev in an evacuated tube built across the country and up and down both coasts that runs at 1100 miles an hour. Yeah, I know that's not practical.
posted by BrotherCaine at 2:11 AM on July 11, 2008 [3 favorites]


For a nation whose expansion relied on railroads, today's rail system - aka Amtrack - simply doesn't take itself very seriously.

Amtrak is not the rail system. And I don't think the U.S.'s expansion really relied on passenger railroads quite as much as freight.
posted by grouse at 2:23 AM on July 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


pracowity writes But the train could still be the best option for shorter distances.

I think this is exactly right. A series of regional rail lines, like the one proposed in California that Weebot mentioned, would be great for this country. Furthermore, the development of regional rail lines could be followed by the development of rail lines within major cities. The California High-Speed Rail would be fantastic, but wouldn't it be even better if it could connect to something like this in LA?

A few years down the line, these regional rail lines could serve as starting-point for a national rail line; once you have regional rail lines going, setting up a cross-country rail line would be as easy as connecting the regional lines. In doing so, rail could replace both the airlines and the highway system and become the primary mode of transport in this country.

...and once the technology advances enough to make it economically feasible, we can replace all the trains with maglevs...
posted by joedan at 2:32 AM on July 11, 2008


Basically rail is brilliant for anything under around something like 300-400 miles. So, as a Brit (worst trains in Europe) I'd take the train to Scotland or Paris or Brussels, but not Madrid. The only places I'd fly in the UK are islands and perhaps the very far north. As others say this means that rail would work well for desnely [populated areas like Boston-Washington (where it does already), southern California, Florida and so on. You wouldn't fly from DC to LA.

What makes rail great for these mid distances is not so much the journey speed as the hassle at either end. If you fly to edinburgh from london (and a lot of people do), it takes maybe an hour. The train takes three-ish. But you go city centre to city centre, it's not cramped and you can work or eat easily, there's no security and there's no check in meaning rail is often quicker.

Mind you, from 2006, you've been able to go from London to Marseilles (on the Med) in six and a half hours (770 miles); that's got to be worth trying, assuming you want to go to Marseilles.
posted by rhymer at 3:03 AM on July 11, 2008


Traveling long-distance by train or bus in the US, you're bound to encounter a whole lot of characters. The fact that most travelers are paranoid of flying, in it for the thrill or just behind the times is no doubt a factor. I've attempted this only twice, once with Amtrak, once with Greyhound. On the train, I passed the time with a Peruvian chef who insisted on doing lines of brownish coke in a crowded car (He had to unroll his ticket when the conductor came). On the bus from NY, I hung out with a seven foot giant who had lost his job as a security man at a casino. His story: an uncle died, leaving him a farm in Oklahoma (and two dogs that he'd seen only in pictures). He'd managed to get himself fired, so as to collect unemployment, by picking up the "yellow hag" cleaning lady and locking her up in a closet overnight. He was generous with his cigarettes during the six hour wait when we were pulled over for mysterious reasons upstate.
posted by harhailla.harhaluuossa at 3:03 AM on July 11, 2008 [2 favorites]


The fact that most travelers are paranoid of flying, in it for the thrill or just behind the times is no doubt a factor.

Yes. And money, of course, plays into it. If you're taking the slow, cheap route to somewhere, there's a good chance (compared to flying, anyway) that you don't have a job and prospects aren't great but there's a couch waiting for you at your Uncle Larry's in Abilene assuming you're willing to work hard during the busy season. Some people can't or won't hold down jobs, and they are the most interesting people to sit next to.
posted by pracowity at 3:32 AM on July 11, 2008


I rode the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara earlier this year and discovered that besides freight, this train was at the mercy of local commuter rail traffic. So the pecking order seems to be freight, short distance commuter, long distance passenger trains. It's no surprise that Amtrak is favored by those with time to get where they're going.

First and foremost freight owns the rails, and as freight becomes more expensive to move across country by truck freight traffic on the rails will likely increase. Most railroad main lines consist of two tracks, one running in each direction. So much could go wrong on those two tracks that it's pretty amazing the system works as well as it does. And it isn't terribly easy to improve on the infrastructure to handle increased volumes. First you'd have to widen the right-of-way. While this isn't a technically impossible feat, think about a few of the complications: If you're in a populated area you'd have the neighbors up in arms about the added noise and traffic that would slow their automotive commute; you'd have to buy up property to handle the extra tracks; roads over rail crossings would have to close to accommodate new, wider crossings. Government funding for Amtrak has been gutted over the years, so the costs associated with this would have an uphill fight if it were to be publicly funded. The railroads aren't interested in moving passengers because there's more money to be made in hauling freight.

All that said, I believe there is a place for passenger rail travel in the States. Maybe the sweet spot is those ~300 mile routes. It's certainly worthwhile including rail in a nationally comprehensive transportation plan.
posted by SteveInMaine at 4:04 AM on July 11, 2008


Is it just a coincidence that the California High-Speed Rail Authority logo looks like the Obama logo?
posted by acb at 4:11 AM on July 11, 2008


rhymer: Taking the train to Scotland from where? London? Berwick-upon-Tweed?

From what I've heard and read, most Britons choose flying for any distance within Britain longer than, say, London to Birmingham. There has been tremendous growth in rail patronage, but it's mostly short-distance commuter rail, between city centres, dormitory towns and airports.

On the continent, it's quite different; from the Eurostar link onward, rail is much faster. This has distorted the map of Britain and Europe, to the point where Berlin is, in terms of travel times, closer to London than the Scottish highlands. Also, the north of France is now virtually in the London commuter belt.
posted by acb at 4:59 AM on July 11, 2008


I must say that we Europeans should be careful not to turn this kind of thread into LOLAMERICANZ. While passenger rail does indeed work better at all levels in Europe, we utterly fail to make the same use of rail than the US for something for which rail is fundamentally better suited, namely freight, leading to our roads being chockablock with energy-guzzling and dirty trucks.
posted by Skeptic at 5:08 AM on July 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


I have long said that the interstate highway system may just end up being the rail system in the future.
The arteries are already laid out, just add tracks.
It will be interesting to see how we transition away from fossil fuel and cars etc... Rail transportation will have to come back in some way.
I have always wanted to buy one of the pickups outfitted with the rail wheels they use to maintain the lines so I could drive the dead tracks in upstate NY. Or better yet, one of those hand operated lever dealios, so I could get a workout in at the same time. I bet that kicks your ass!
posted by a3matrix at 5:22 AM on July 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


When I was in school I took the Amtrak from here in Rochester (former home of a magnificent NY Central station) to Grand Central Station in NYC. It was always around a 9-10 hour trip, thanks to frequent stops and freight trains. But this was in the mid-70s when the speed limit was 55 and driving took about 8 hours so it didn't seem so bad. Since then speed limits have changed and more interstates were built so you can make the same trip by car from here in under 6 hours today. Since I had to get from Grand Central to Penn Station to pick up the LIRR and then take that to get to my hometown, we're talking 2x the travel vs. a car. No thanks.

Still, put in a reliable, high-speed train that can do that trip in a couple of hours and I'm there!
posted by tommasz at 5:29 AM on July 11, 2008


loiseau: I've never taken Amtrak, only Via, the Canadian rail corp, but I've heard dozens of horror stories of the 5-hour trip from Montreal to NYC being stopped for 5-hour delays mid-voyage.

In 2001 (I remember because we actually got to go up in the World Trade Center the summer before 9/11), my family decided that we should travel by train from DC to Montreal with a stop in NY. We took the regular NE corridor train to NY and it took a while -- probably about 5+ hours, factoring in a couple of random stops and stops at a number of stations along the way (not accounted for by Amtrak, which claims the trip is 3 hours). The trip from NY to Montreal, which according to Google is a ~6 hour drive, took at least 11 hours. Hell, Amtrak is even up front about it. We stopped at random points for half-hour (plus) periods of time, often for no apparent reason. I remember specifically that the customs inspection when we reached the Canadian border took at least 2 hours.

The train was comfortable, yes, and somewhat interesting -- the trip up along the Hudson is pretty nice -- but it was very, very long and at points very, very boring. And I consider myself to be a proponent of rail travel.
posted by malthas at 5:54 AM on July 11, 2008


Every country has its own quirky rail system, each different, a reflection of the country and culture. It's where Paul Theroux got the title for his book The Great Railway Bazaar (1975) as he traveled from London to Japan and back along the rails, it was a bazaar of railways. One of the classics of travel literature. Compared to most of the rails he went on (this was the 1970s) the US system is still par excellence.
posted by stbalbach at 6:03 AM on July 11, 2008 [2 favorites]


I remember specifically that the customs inspection when we reached the Canadian border took at least 2 hours.

This is why I've been taking the bus between New York and Toronto recently instead of the train. Instead of a couple hundred people on the train, all of whom have to clear customs before the train can proceed, you've only got a handful on the bus, and you can get through sometimes in less than half an hour.

That, and the bus tends to be cheaper, and in some cases, $2 round trip.
posted by oaf at 6:05 AM on July 11, 2008


I keep wanting to take Amtrak instead of flying, but since I want to go long distances and not have to be sitting in a coach seat for upwards of 24 hours, I'd rather a roomette (or better, one of the bedrooms, since I'd likely be travelling with the rest of my family). And then the price is just prohibitive.
posted by leahwrenn at 6:17 AM on July 11, 2008


America may have its aging infrastructure, but Europeans sure do love to go on strike. We had to spend the night in Paris (not as fun as you'd think, near the airport) due to an air strike, and my parents sat several hours on a train due to a rail strike. The Italians were nice, though, and brought them espresso ;)
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 6:18 AM on July 11, 2008


Is it just a coincidence that the California High-Speed Rail Authority logo looks like the Obama logo?

No coincidence. If you look closely at those future-trains, you can tell that they are actually made of hope.

My Amtrak story:

I took Amtrak cross-country last year when I moved from California to New York. I took the same routes as the author of the article, but in reverse. On the whole, it wasn't horrible.

The Zephyr was enjoyable and very relaxing, partly because of the fantastic scenery (the bits along the Colorado were especially beautiful), but mainly because I had a sleeper all to myself (one of the "roomettes" that the author describes). It's like traveling in a college dorm, complete with communal bathrooms and a common dining area, both of which weren't half bad. There were delays, of course. We got into Chicago about seven hours late, and part of that was the freight, but we were told that the delays were mostly because of all the "track work" that was being done, whatever that means.

Anyway, not only did I miss my connecting train, by the time we got into the city it was around midnight, and at that point there shouldn't have been any more trains leaving Chicago for the night, but they ended up holding the last train to New York for a couple of hours, just for us. I thought that was rather nice of them.

So then it was 24 hours sitting in coach on the Lake Shore Limited, wondering at what ungodly hour in the morning we'd finally pull in to Penn Station. I guess theoretically train coach is better than plane coach, but you rarely have to spend an entire day on an airplane. I couldn't sleep, and that whole part of the trip I was cranky, tired, and in dire need of a shower. On top of that, there was a mix-up with my baggage, and I wasn't able to pick it up until a couple of days after arriving in NYC.

Still, I'm glad I did it, if only "for the experience". I wouldn't do it again, but I'd have no problem taking the train shorter distances, and I'm happy to see that high-speed rail is finally catching on. A nationwide system probably wouldn't work, just because air travel is (for now) so much more convenient, but it works well here in the northeast, and I'd bet it'd work well in California too, and possibly a few other places.
posted by Silune at 6:22 AM on July 11, 2008


Aren't most of the tracks controlled by descendants of the same Robber Baron companies that stole the land and built the railroads in the first place? They let Amtrak run on their tracks at their convenience. She is a second class citizen, barely tolerated.

Union Pacific blocks Los Angeles to San Francisco bullet train

A couple of years ago the San Francisco Chronicle* sent to reporters from downtown San Francisco to downtown Los Angeles, one by train and one by plane, and they arrived around the same time.

* I think; it might've been one of the local independents.
posted by kirkaracha at 6:22 AM on July 11, 2008


North Carolina, surprisingly enough, has been doing better on trains lately. The Charlotte to Raleigh ride costs around $30, usually takes at most an hour more than driving (4 hours vs 3 hours) and provides complementary cokes and snacks. It stops at a lot of medium sized towns along the way, including several with large college student populations who seem to use the train heavily.

The trip between the state's largest city and the capitol is one a lot of people need to make from time to time. It's longer than a commuter line, but shorter than you would want to fly--this seems like exactly the sort of thing that passenger rail ought to be doing more of.
posted by hydropsyche at 6:52 AM on July 11, 2008


Amtrak actually owns the track in the Northeast (the Northeast Corridor), so their trains actually have priority in that area of the country. So you can theoretically be on time if you travel from Boston to DC.
posted by giraffe at 7:05 AM on July 11, 2008


I'm from the UK and took the train from Toronto to New York a couple of years ago. It was incredibly strange compared to the rail service over here. Idling along at about 30 miles an hour or so, sitting for ages in the middle of nowhere, etc, etc. I was actually quite enjoying it, until I realised that we were actually quite a way behind schedule - not from any announcements on the train, or information from the staff, but from picking up a wi-fi connection when stopped in a town and looking at the timetable. Seeing as I was meant to get into New York at 10pm and then get a connecting train out towards Pennsylvania, that was a bit of a problem.

Went and found the guard to see what the situation was. Yes, we were running behind schedule. No, she didn't know what time the last connecting train was. No, she wasn't going to find out for me. Called up my Dad to check online, and found out that as we were going to get into Penn Station after midnight, I had no chance of making the last connecting train. Went back to speak to the guard. No, Amtrak wasn't going to get me a cab out to Pennsylvania. No, there wasn't any kind of plan in place for this sort of thing.

That's the bit that pissed me off - no information that there's something screwed up with the journey, and despite the delay being their fault they felt no need to look after people who would be stranded in New York. If I got a train in the UK and missed the last connection due to delays, I'm pretty much 100% certain I'd get a taxi to take me where I was going. No customer service or taking responsibility on Amtrak's part in my experience.
posted by MattWPBS at 7:10 AM on July 11, 2008


Haven't RTA (I will, printed it for my mid-afternoon break), but from the comments this seems typical Murka-think. "If the rail system cannot get me all the way across the country as comfortably and quickly as an airplane, then rail is bullshit." Clearly, to travel 3,000 miles, air is the way to go. However, there is no reason that I should not be able to get from Chicago to Duluth (470 miles) more comfortably and quickly by train. At an average speed of 80, this should take 5 hours. I can drive it in 7 1/2, or fly-- that takes 9 hours because of the wait at check in, the transfers and the delays.

Our entire system is based on absurdly subsidized air and road, and constant denigration of any other option (we don't ask our roads to cover their costs, why do we insist that rail and public transit cover their costs?). Why can't we have a sensible transportation policy (um, *any* transportation policy) that combines air, rail, road, and local public transit? Oh, yeah, now I remember: all taxes and government regulation are bad and unpatriotic, especially the ones that would solve the problems that the rich people who make our laws never have to experience (i.e. schools, health care, transportation).
posted by nax at 7:29 AM on July 11, 2008 [4 favorites]


No, Amtrak wasn't going to get me a cab out to Pennsylvania.

Possibly because that's an utterly ridiculous demand. The drive from Penn Station to 30th Street Station is a hundred miles. That's $202.60 in cab fare.

no information that there's something screwed up with the journey

1-800-USA-RAIL. "Train Status." "Six three." "New York Penn Station."
posted by oaf at 7:31 AM on July 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


Whoops, 64 is the New York-bound train.
posted by oaf at 7:33 AM on July 11, 2008


Nationalising rail is the new black. As transport costs increase rail travel becomes more attractive to all but the rich. Things are going to change for countries where car-reliant suburban satellite lifestyles have previously been popular. Short and long distance rail travel will certainly become very popular.

Heinz Wolff says that societies need a group project to help promote cohesion and purpose for a society. I am sure he is not the only one and I can definately see where he is coming from. He likes to promote the idea of space travel as one we can all get behind. Personally, I would be more interested in having a reliable integrated travel system that I can use than sending any more people off on inter-planetary jaunts.

I wish we would get on with it in the UK. If only the Labour party would show some testicular fortitude and have a bash at being a progressive left wing party rather than a weak-willed centrist herd they may have a chance to do some good before the fecking Tories are re-elected to sell off any remaining assets the country may have to their cronies. I am aware that this would mean a change in direction for the floppy party, as their record on selling off things is pretty dire.
posted by asok at 7:50 AM on July 11, 2008



North Carolina, surprisingly enough, has been doing better on trains lately.


I'm impressed with the Raleigh Charlotte corridor. I wish they'd add a Raleigh-Asheville (though, Asheville no longer has any passenger rail going into it--closest Amtrak is Greenville, SC) and maybe a Raleigh-Wilmington.

Of course, I'd be willing to hold off on the Trains to Vacation Spots for a few years if the Triangle Transit Authority folks could resuscitate plans for those commuter lines I've heard so much about of the years.
posted by thivaia at 7:57 AM on July 11, 2008


>No, Amtrak wasn't going to get me a cab out to Pennsylvania.

Possibly because that's an utterly ridiculous demand. The drive from Penn Station to 30th Street Station is a hundred miles. That's $202.60 in cab fare.


Why is that a ridiculous demand? If they make you miss your connection and strand you at Penn Station in New York, then they should put it right.


>no information that there's something screwed up with the journey

1-800-USA-RAIL. "Train Status." "Six three." "New York Penn Station."


I'm on the train. There's a guard on the train who's got the information and a public address system. Why on earth would I call a phone hotline?

Think that really points out the differences between US rail culture, and that elsewhere. I'd expect the train company to take responsibility if they screw up so comprehensively that they're that late, and I'd expect them to actually tell people on the train if things are going wrong - not rely on the passengers to know there's a phone line to call for updates.
posted by MattWPBS at 7:58 AM on July 11, 2008


Hee, hee.

"Suggested Oklahoma City to Denver route:
- Oklahoma City to Fort Worth, TX Approx Duration 4h 14m
- Fort Worth to Springfield, IL Approx Duration 20h 10m
- (Bus) Springfield to Galesburg, IL Approx Duration 2h 15m
- Galesburg to Denver, CO Approx Duration 15h 37m"

Yahoo Maps Oklahoma City to Denver travel time: 9 hours, 57 minutes
posted by ormondsacker at 8:06 AM on July 11, 2008


I wish they'd add a Raleigh-Asheville (though, Asheville no longer has any passenger rail going into it--closest Amtrak is Greenville, SC) and maybe a Raleigh-Wilmington.

That's my dream right there: Walk from my house to the Durham train station. Sit on the train for a few hours. Walk or take the bus from the train station to my vacation. Reverse.
posted by hydropsyche at 8:09 AM on July 11, 2008


But the fact that the only people who take them are those that can "take their time" surely indicates that taking a train, whether or not it is less expensive than a flight, is a luxury.

Sad triumph of capitalism that zooming anywhere in the country within a few hours isn't the luxury, not getting anywhere within a few hours is.

All you people complaining about Amtrak I guess have never taken the Greyhound.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 8:13 AM on July 11, 2008


It is a shame that rail travel is so lame in North America, with the possible exception of commuter trains in urban corridors. I believe the biggest problem is that, unlike highways, the rail right-of ways are not public, they are owned by private rail corporations, who have little incentive to even maintain them properly, let alone make them up-to-date and suitable for high-speed trains. At least here in Canada, alot of the mainlines are in rough shape, causing slowdowns and even derailments.

And of course, the railroads give priority to their revenue-generating freights over these outdated rails.

Around Toronto we have GO Transit which does a fair job as a commuter rail service, but nowhere near the service level of European urban lines.

I don't know the best way to do it, but if the rail routes were considered as more of a public utility (like the highways) than a private asset, then either they would be maintained by a government corporation and leased to the railroads, or at least the railroads would be obligated (and maybe subsidized) to maintain and update them to a higher standard. I've read that this could also level the playing field for rail freight, since trucking currently doesn't bear the responsibility for highway upkeep.

I've been a train junkie since I was a kid, I rode some trains in Japan in 1993, and we just got back from 3 weeks in Europe, where we only took trains (EurailPass).

In Europe - the stations... the trains... WOW - clean, modern, frequent, FAST... great schedules, immediate announcements and apologies if a train is like 10 minutes late... (OK we had one glitch - a train strike in France caused us one day's delay in Nice)
posted by Artful Codger at 8:14 AM on July 11, 2008


If they make you miss your connection and strand you at Penn Station in New York, then they should put it right.

And they did, by letting you get on the next train to Philadelphia, which was within three hours of when you got there. Expecting them to hire a cab to drive you there is ridiculous. Deutsche Bahn wouldn't do that.

I'd expect the train company to take responsibility if they screw up so comprehensively that they're that late

Amtrak likely did not screw up at all. The scapegoat you're looking for is CSX (or possibly CN).
posted by oaf at 8:17 AM on July 11, 2008


Around Toronto we have GO Transit which does a fair job as a commuter rail service, but nowhere near the service level of European urban lines.

That's probably because practically everything but the Lake Shore line is single-track, and some of the stations have four trains a day (two in each direction) serving them.
posted by oaf at 8:19 AM on July 11, 2008


Possibly because that's an utterly ridiculous demand. The drive from Penn Station to 30th Street Station is a hundred miles. That's $202.60 in cab fare.

It is not a ridiculous demand and that's the point. Any rail company worth it's salt would organize for some sort of alternate transportation if they made you miss the connection. It happens all the time here in Finland for distances quite comparable to a hundred miles. Also you shouldn't have to dial a number to know the "train status" of the train you are traveling in.
posted by Authorized User at 8:20 AM on July 11, 2008


Any rail company worth it's salt would organize for some sort of alternate transportation if they made you miss the connection.

As I said above, there was another train that goes from New York to Philadelphia available to MattWPBS. A taxi is unnecessary, and an excessive demand.
posted by oaf at 8:25 AM on July 11, 2008


MattWPBS specifically said he missed the last connection. After that, you said that the next train to Philadelphia was within 3 hours, I presume this is from perusing the timetables. Either way, 3 hours might just be too long a wait. Missing a meeting? Missing a trans-atlantic plane? Why does Amtrak even bother having timetables if they're not going to honor them in any way?
posted by Authorized User at 8:32 AM on July 11, 2008


MattWPBS specifically said he missed the last connection.

That's about like missing the last subway train. You can't.

Either way, 3 hours might just be too long a wait. Missing a meeting?

Who has a meeting in Philadelphia at 4:30 in the morning?

Why does Amtrak even bother having timetables if they're not going to honor them in any way?

If you read all the comments in this thread, you might discover that Amtrak is not in control of its train movements outside a very limited area.

Why do you expect more from Amtrak than you do from the airlines?
posted by oaf at 8:36 AM on July 11, 2008


If Amtrak lacks the basic sense to make contracts that include actual traffic planning of the rail sections it uses, it is hardly our problem. It is not exactly rocket science to figure out when your train is going to pass and pay rent or whatever for that timeslot. This is pretty much basic train stuff.

I do not except anything more of Amtrak than I expect of any other train company. An honest effort at trying to get the passenger where he is going at the time he has to be there. From reading the article and the thread, it seems to me like they have next to no interest in sticking to their timetables.

Who has a meeting in Philadelphia at 4:30 in the morning?

Who cares? The point is, if the train company's timetables say you get there by 4:30, the company should at least make an effort to get you there by 4:30.
posted by Authorized User at 8:47 AM on July 11, 2008


The UK train operating companies do not operate the track they run on, yet they have contracts with the entities that do (usually Network Rail) that result in payments when the track operator or another TOC messes up and thereby causes damages to the first one. That way they can treat their customers properly. My local TOC offers a 50 percent refund for a train that is 30 min late, and a full refund if it is 60 min late. They promise in their passenger's charter to get me to my destination station by alternative transportation if necessary.

Why do you expect more from Amtrak than you do from the airlines?

I don't. When something goes wrong with the airlines due to their negligence or that of their business partners, I expect that they will get my to my destination using other carriers regardless of the greater expense to them, and they do.
posted by grouse at 8:50 AM on July 11, 2008


I've also ridden many of the European high-speed lines with crazy acronyms (ICE! TGV!) and I can't fathom why we can't muster the political will needed to get beyond the Acela corridor here.

The overall rail system in the U.S. is pathetic. For a nation whose expansion relied on railroads, today's rail system - aka Amtrack - simply doesn't take itself very seriously...

Aren't most of the tracks controlled by descendants of the same Robber Baron companies that stole the land and built the railroads in the first place?...


I did a bit of research on this about 2 years ago and the whole enterprise of US rail is broken and fragmented in such a way that it's difficult to track (no pun intended) the guilty culprits.

CSX owns almost all of the railbed in the country though it's anyone's guess how all that property accumulated for public rights of way fell into private hands is anyone's guess, just as Amtrak had to turn to a relatively new Canadian Armature company to manufacture new trains when both the technology and surplus high-speed train technology already exist in Europe.

Ultimately, this whole thing boils down to that old infrastructure bugbear again. These past years that the Cheyney Administration has been making sure it's former clients and enterprises remain paid, they should have been paying more attention to the American infrastructure rather than *ahem* spending good money to destroy Iraq's infrastructure for the sole purpose of contracting Halliburton and KBR to rebuild it again -- Americans for American jobs, people, not American Corporations for SE Asian slave wages.

I have Republican colleagues that would say that Buy-low, sell-high is the American way, but it seems to me they forgot the whole part about expensive foreign adventures and angry foreign insurgents trying to blow up your supply lines every night because you invaded his country and killed half his family.

If, god forbid, there's a Bush or Cheney 3.0 administration, I hope that they remember to keep some of those jobs at home, Just as somebody's got to pay taxes and somebody's got to shut off the lights -- just because those bastards have been living off of their expense accounts their entire lives, the average citizen doesn't have that latitude.

The capacity of our infrastructure -- rail, electricity and communications -- have been at a virtual standstill for the past 40 years unless you count the fiber-optic bump that we got in the late '90s. We're 30 years behind both Europe and parts of Asia. There's PLENTY of money to be made from improving the American infrastructure, the pols and the greedheads just need to wake up and smell the echinacea.

These fuckers -- the bankers, lawyers and businessmen -- heed to STOP treating this country as if its an exploitable resource and PUT SOMETHING BACK INTO THE SYSTEM.

There comes a time when it's impossible to leverage or monetize hot air, y'know.
posted by vhsiv at 8:53 AM on July 11, 2008 [3 favorites]


It is not exactly rocket science to figure out when your train is going to pass and pay rent or whatever for that timeslot. This is pretty much basic train stuff.

What if there's a breakdown? Should Amtrak plan for the very worst-case scenario in all cases, and intentionally slow its trains down if they happen not to break down or get delayed by a disabled train and then end up behind ten miles of freight trains (which get priority)? Then you'd be complaining that your train left Syracuse ahead of the then ridiculously padded schedule, and you had to take the next one.

The point is, if the train company's timetables say you get there by 4:30, the company should at least make an effort to get you there by 4:30.

And they do. Why do you expect more from Amtrak than you do from the airlines?
posted by oaf at 8:55 AM on July 11, 2008


When something goes wrong with the airlines due to their negligence or that of their business partners, I expect that they will get my to my destination using other carriers regardless of the greater expense to them, and they do.

Not sure what airlines you're flying, but unless there's only one flight a day, you're not going to end up on a different carrier.
posted by oaf at 8:57 AM on July 11, 2008


An honest effort. If they knowingly run trains on lines that they cannot control and thus have no way of knowing how long the train will take, they're not trying to run on time. The same goes for not helping the passenger make their connection and in fact, not even telling them they are missing their connection. Answering your question, no they should not plan for the very worst-case scenario, but they should at least have some sort of plan to get the train to the destination in time.

And I expect more from Amtrak because I know it's possible and can be done cost-effectively. Other train companies do it.
posted by Authorized User at 9:05 AM on July 11, 2008


If they knowingly run trains on lines that they cannot control and thus have no way of knowing how long the train will take, they're not trying to run on time.

What other option is there?
posted by oaf at 9:06 AM on July 11, 2008


Like I said, having contracts with the rail line owners where they get a timeslot on the line. Now, like you said, there are always some breakdowns and such, where they are going to miss the spot and be really late, but at least they'd be trying to run on time. And I have no doubt they could succeed too. They're not idiots, they just aren't trying.
posted by Authorized User at 9:10 AM on July 11, 2008


Like I said, having contracts with the rail line owners where they get a timeslot on the line.

You make the mistake of assuming that they can afford such a contract. The freight railroads do the least that is required of them.
posted by oaf at 9:12 AM on July 11, 2008


And they did, by letting you get on the next train to Philadelphia, which was within three hours of when you got there. Expecting them to hire a cab to drive you there is ridiculous. Deutsche Bahn wouldn't do that.

Right, I've just checked the timetable, and there is a 3:00am train to Philly. The guard on the train from Toronto wasn't able to (or wouldn't) give me that information. I don't know if Deutsche Bahn would make you hang around to the first train the next morning if they miss the last connection of the night, but I know that South West Trains in the UK won't.


Amtrak likely did not screw up at all. The scapegoat you're looking for is CSX (or possibly CN).


Nope. My dealing's with Amtrak - they've either screwed up by having their staffing wrong, or by failing to keep things organised with the rail owners. Either way, it's not my lookout as to why Amtrak have screwed up - it's just that they've screwed up. See Grouse's comment further up - in the UK the train companies have contracts which build in stuff like punctuality, and allow them to take compensation from the track operators or other parties if things go wrong because of them. If you want to use the example of airlines - if a flight is delayed by 2 hours getting into Heathrow, and all the buses and trains have stopped, then yes - I expect the airline to pay for me to get to my final destination.

If you're interested - the reason I needed to get out to PA that night was to be at my dad's for the next morning to surprise my 7 year old half brother on his birthday. Not a meeting or anything, but getting out there at 4:30am instead of midnight would have put a hell of kibosh on it the next morning with me and my dad being knackered.
posted by MattWPBS at 9:13 AM on July 11, 2008


Though if freight takes precedence on American railroads, perhaps the best option for those who really want to travel by rail would be to buy a Pullman car, convert it into a home and get Union Pacific to tow it to where you need to go.

Apparently some of those sidings even have cable and ADSL. Sweet!
posted by acb at 9:17 AM on July 11, 2008


You make the mistake of assuming that they can afford such a contract. The freight railroads do the least that is required of them.

Now I have no knowledge of the economics of train scheduling the United States, so I cannot comment on the price of such hypothetical contracts. Like you said, currently the freights railroads simply do what is required. The point is running trains on schedule, including mixing freight trains and passenger trains is basic railroad stuff. Presumably the freight railroads have schedules of some sort and having a slot in the schedule is "all" that is needed for the trains to have an actual chance of running on time.
posted by Authorized User at 9:18 AM on July 11, 2008


Either way, it's not my lookout as to why Amtrak have screwed up - it's just that they've screwed up.

Again, it's CSX that's screwed up, not Amtrak. Amtrak has nothing going for it other than that freight railroads are required to let Amtrak run on their tracks in return for not having to run passenger service themselves.
posted by oaf at 9:19 AM on July 11, 2008


If Amtrak cannot afford to lease track segments in a way that would allow them to run a reliable service, then the problem is a structural one, a symptom of the way the system is organised. Which will be a matter for politicians to bring sufficient force to bear to resolve, one way or another (either by changing the regulations of the industry or spending the money to acquire more reliable rights of way). Surely America's railroads being unfit (by any reasonable criterion) for passenger traffic is an issue of national interest (or will be, when oil prices rise sufficiently).
posted by acb at 9:23 AM on July 11, 2008


Presumably the freight railroads have schedules of some sort and having a slot in the schedule is "all" that is needed for the trains to have an actual chance of running on time.

Right, but if there's any sort of delay, due to disabled trains (of any sort), track work, inclement weather, or whatever else you can think of, all the freight railroads' trains are going to go first, even if they got there after the Amtrak train.

You can see something similar on weekends when they're doing maintenance on one of the tunnels under the Hudson River, and you're on an NJ Transit train, and you inexplicably stop dead either in the tracks just west of Penn Station or at Secaucus. Inexplicably, that is, until an Amtrak train blows by to jump the queue.
posted by oaf at 9:23 AM on July 11, 2008


Did anyone ever make your rail system "more efficient" by splitting it up and introducing "competition"? 'Cos we had that in the UK, and it fucks things up good and proper.
posted by Artw at 9:27 AM on July 11, 2008


If Amtrak cannot afford to lease track segments in a way that would allow them to run a reliable service, then the problem is a structural one, a symptom of the way the system is organised.

Well, yes, but people shouldn't be blaming Amtrak, whose hands are effectively tied outside the Northeast Corridor, the Keystone Corridor, the line between New Haven and Springfield, and a short stretch of track along the west side of Manhattan. That's just about all the track they own.
posted by oaf at 9:32 AM on July 11, 2008


I would like to see them try to use something like best-effort delivery, using rail cars instead of network packets, and switching systems that would allow cars to be added and removed very quickly. If your car has high priority because you all paid more, your car goes first. If your car has low priority because you all paid less, you probably will get there later. Depending on the load on your route, your car might be hitched to a fast long-distance passenger liner or a short-distance intercity commuter or long, slow freight train. If you bought a ticket on the cheap bastard plan and your car was making no progress at all, maybe because you were the only cheap bastard on it, you might get booted off in Santa Fe with a partial refund (or none -- you takes your chances) so your car could be put to better use going back the other way, and you would have to wait for the next train going your way. The railway might inject some extra engines into the system to increase carrying capacity. But it would all depend on having redundant routes, improved infrastructure that allowed trains to route around trouble. For certain situations where an alternate travel method might offer a quick fix, however, you could have the passenger cabin detachable from the rail car and mountable on a truck chassis or loaded on to a ferry or plane, so your packet always keeps moving along the best available route for your payment level. You fall asleep in the mountains and wake up on a river or in the air. Or a siding in Albuquerque.
posted by pracowity at 10:17 AM on July 11, 2008


Mind you, from 2006, you've been able to go from London to Marseilles (on the Med) in six and a half hours (770 miles); that's got to be worth trying, assuming you want to go to Marseilles.
posted by rhymer at 11:03 AM on July 11 [+] [!]

I did just that last year, and it was a really good journey, much much much better than flying, and as has been pointed out here and in the article, you step off the train right into the city centre and can immediatley taste the flavour of the city. Marseilles is fine for a day or two.
I am planning to the do the route described in the article next year and haven't really been put off as I like long distance train travel, but the idea of arriving at 2AM seems a bit crap. I'd rather it was delayed another 6 hours!
BTW - that Californian to Las Vegas Maglev? I really can't see that happening. It would be fantastic for world train travel if they pulled it off, but it's been tried and failed elsewhere at the cost of billions of dollars. Even the "progress at the expense of anything" Chinese have thought twice about extending their tiny Maglev track. I still live in hope of seeing a Maglev from Sheffield to London though! I went on the one in Shanghai, and crickey it is quick. That said, the newer TGVs aren't that much slower.
My god. I've just realised what an utter geek I am. Jesus.
posted by chill at 10:34 AM on July 11, 2008


Err, replace "Greyhound" with "Amtrak" in my last paragraph. Otherwise, it could be misleading.
posted by champthom at 11:08 AM on July 11, 2008


loiseau: I've never taken Amtrak, only Via, the Canadian rail corp, but I've heard dozens of horror stories of the 5-hour trip from Montreal to NYC being stopped for 5-hour delays mid-voyage. I wonder what's so different there regarding infrastructure ownership... I've taken the 4-hour trip on Via between Toronto and Montreal many times and never experienced a significant delay.

As others have said, the major delay on the Montreal-NYC train is simply customs.

Of course, there are also just the regular, unexpected, multi-hour train delays but Amtrak by no means has a monopoly on these. Contra your experiences, loiseau, I've taken the train from Montreal to Toronto (and back) about 10 times, and six of those had delays of 90 minutes or more. (4-hr delay in the worst case.)

The train system in Canada is just as bad - maybe worse, as the prices are exorbitant.
posted by Marquis at 11:26 AM on July 11, 2008


Man, I just got back from spending 17 days in France, and was that ever a glorious illustration of just how stupid a country America can be.

Got from the Atlantic coast into Paris in next to no time for way cheap ... and the food on the TGV puts the Amburger to shame.
posted by Relay at 12:02 PM on July 11, 2008


Amtrak is not the rail system. And I don't think the U.S.'s expansion really relied on passenger railroads quite as much as freight.

Actually, in California it did, but not in the way most people expect. The Big Four (Stanford, Huntington, Crocker, and Hopkins), made vast amounts of money of railroads, not only making San Francisco the biggest financial center West of the Rockies (this is the reason it was, and is still called, "The City"), but also by setting a model for other entrepeneurs to follow suit. They made no money directly from running a railroad, instead making highly lucrative deals in real estate (and in fact, cheating the US Gov't out of millions of dollars in bonds). Smaller local railroads mimicked this model, buying up tracts of land, building out gas or electric rail lines, and then selling the parcels of land and leasing right of ways. Apparently very few of the rail lines actually made a profit on ticket sales, and many of the larger companies who could afford greater losses would undersell in order to put competitors out of business and then buy them up. Naturally these rich and powerful men also were heavily involved in the politics of this state.

The transcontinental railroad had been lobbied for by Theodore Judah not only as a useful means of transportation, but as a means of planting the flag of the Union in California territory. He argued that a transcontinental railroad was a symbolic gesture as well as a military one (he pointed out that the English could ally with the Secessionists and land a fleet on the West Coast). The federal subsidies to build the railroad helped insure that California would join the Union as a Free State. Thousands of Chinese workers were imported by Charles Crocker to be the unskilled workforce, leaving a lasting impact on the diversity and history of California. Just as importantly, trains allowed for the migration of people from the East Coast who did not have the gritty pioneer spirit to sell all their possessions and embark across mountains and deserts in a covered wagon, creating a whole new middle class in California society. Symbolically, California now had a direct link to the rest of the United States, when formerly the closest neighbors were the Mexicans, British, and Russians. So for this state, the railroads were hugely significant; and as the center of finance in the West, California's success certainly helped other Western Territories, though possibly less as a direct result of railroads.
posted by oneirodynia at 12:48 PM on July 11, 2008 [3 favorites]


(I should have made clear in the first paragraph that the local rail lines that were part of the big boom in suburban real estate were passenger lines.)
posted by oneirodynia at 12:57 PM on July 11, 2008


The one time I took it (from Chicago to Dallas) it ended up 6 hours late, was no cheaper than flying, and I had to sit up the whole next to a variety people who insisted on repeatedly explaining that they weren't afraid of flying.

Oh. And the smoking car was FULL of young, crabby, chain-smoking old-order Mennonites.

So, yeah, if ever I have the luxury to conduct relevant anthropological research I might ride Amtrak again.
posted by small_ruminant at 1:09 PM on July 11, 2008


George F. Kennan thinks the US could use a little more dirigisme. Around the Cragged Hill:
At no time in its entire history does the United States appear to have had anything in the nature of a rational and sustained governmental policy on transportation. The government, with public approval, seems to have been content to leave developments in this field entirely to the chaotic workings of the free-enterprise system, allowing those workings to carry us where they might, regardless of the growing evidence that they were having profound effects on the social and economic conditions of our society.

Thus there was a time, in the 1840s and 1850s, when speculative calculations appeared to favor the building of canals. The result was that great quantities of capital and of backbreaking labor were poured, with the government's blessing, into such enterprises, only to find most of them suddenly and wholly overtaken, a few years later, by the development of the railroads, leaving a great part of the canal investment and its results wasted and abandoned. Society, one way or another, was the loser. The same thing happened little more than half a century later, when what was by then the world's greatest railway network, constructed at vast cost and representing a veritable triumph of American engineering and technology, was sacrificed, with equal abruptness, recklessness, and abandon, to the compelling commercial intrusion of the automobile. In each case not only were enormous capital investments and material values lightheartedly sacrificed, to the ultimate detriment of society as a whole, but the trends of urban development, sensitive as these are to the available means of transportation, were whipsawed mercilessly by these abrupt and profound changes. Government, in each case, appeared indifferent.
posted by russilwvong at 3:08 PM on July 11, 2008 [2 favorites]


Just FWIW, Amtrak does have priority over freight traffic when they're on time. I think it's something like a 30 minute window. The problem is that their priority window is so small that it's very easy for one little issue to delay them enough that they have to wait behind the freight trains.

Once that happens, there's no possible way to get back on schedule due to the cascading delays of waiting for freight, so the delay keeps piling up.
posted by wierdo at 3:36 PM on July 11, 2008


Marquis said: "As others have said, the major delay on the Montreal-NYC train is simply customs."

Oh no, not the stories I've heard. I know there's a border there. But that's fine, they may be outliers.

As for Toronto-Montreal, I've taken it less (maybe 7-8 times) but I think almost always the 4-hour express train... I wonder if that has something to do with the lack of delay.
posted by loiseau at 6:45 PM on July 11, 2008


I know there's a border there. But that's fine, they may be outliers.

The only time I have gotten through customs on an Amtrak train entering the U.S. in less than 90 minutes was on a train that had maybe 50 people on it. It's usually two hours or more.
posted by oaf at 7:12 PM on July 11, 2008


I want to take the train one of these days, so I look through the schedules. I'm suprised Acela isn't faster. From New Haven to DC, it's around 4.5 hours vs 5.5 hours on the regular train, and twice as expensive. Is it really worth it?
posted by smackfu at 7:20 PM on July 11, 2008


First of all, being used to Asian/ European rail, was frustrated as hell about the CalTrain system when I was vacationing in the Bay Area; absolutely did not see why it should take two hours+ to go from Santa Clara to San Francisco; the BART system covered Fremont to Market Street far more quickly, I thought.

Reading the article has now made me feel thankful for the CalTrain system, and the cheap transportation it provides. Although, I'm still grumbling about the fact that there's exactly one train every hour after 730PM, and that buses inside San Jose kinda thin down after 8pm; out here in Singapore, I don't think twice about taking a bus at 3AM from the downtown to the suburbs. Different rant that.
You can readily see that, as even large developing countries where rail and air travel compete, preferentially move people by air as soon as the economy can afford it.
Not any more. Plane tickets in India have increased by 50% in the last two years; when I went from Hyderabad to Delhi in 2006, I paid INR 3000-ish for a single-journey trip. Now the same trip would cost me INR 7000+. Know quite a few people who're shifting to Rajdhani's, Shatabdi's and other "high-speed" trains.

Besides, the linked article was an exercise in sheer sophistry. Full points for anyone who notices the disconnect in the following sentences:
train. In 2003, 10 million Indians travelled by air domestically. In 2004, 25 million took to the skies within India and 6 million Indians travelled abroad. [...] Around 100 million travellers every day on state-owned Indian Railways,
Yes, that's right. 25 million flew domestic in all of 2004. 100 million take to the trains every day. I remember reading somewhere that even the new airports such as the one in Hyderabad are designed to handle only 10 million passengers every year (or at least in Phase 1, which is operational now)

Fact is, air travel can never become the dominant mode of transportation in India. While five years of boom time, and low-budget airlines have made a lot of Indians turn towards air, you can never see the percentages you see in the US.
posted by the cydonian at 9:07 PM on July 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


a3matrix: Something like this, then?

ormondsacker: I don't really take your point. No one here has disputed that it's wise to explore your options before making travel plans, nor said that rail is always faster, or even usually comparable, for any arbitrary pair of endpoints. Many people here have commented on how speed of travel is only one of the issues, along with ability to do other things while moving (train yes, driving own car no), opportunity to see unique and pleasant scenery (train yes, interstates not so much), sociability, et cetera. Many people have also discussed how we might improve rail travel in the US, rather than just pointing out that sometimes it sucks. Why don't you come on over and join us in the conversation we're actually having?

ArtW: Actually, yeah, Amtrak exists because the private passenger rail companies weren't making it in the competitive marketplace. Of course, now we've got it exactly backwards: Government should be providing material infrastructure and leaving the provision of services to people who are motivated (by profit) to do it well, and instead government is providing weak-sauce service and the private infrastructure owners grudgingly permit the use of their spare rail-hours. It's embarrassing, compared to the other trains I've ridden: Ukraine has plenty of post-Soviet government inefficiency, and the rail company has a state-enforced monopoly, but the trains run on time to the minute, and Taiwan's government isn't even recognized by most states and yet managed to achieve both a wholly adequate ordinary rail system and (in an enormous public-private partnership) a marvelous new high-speed service. Why can't we get our act together?
posted by eritain at 4:53 PM on July 12, 2008


eritain - I live in Oklahoma City. I was thinking of visiting Denver later in the year. I had vaguely considered using Amtrack. Reading the thread prompted me to actually check out scheduling, and the result amusingly illustrated how underdeveloped Amtrak currently is in fly-over country. (Again, that 10-hour car trip involves a 42-hour (excluding delays and three station layovers) train and bus trip, including a 20-hour non-stop jaunt in the wrong direction.) If I wanted to use Amtrak (which I kind of did), the infrastructure that you're discussing isn't just poor, it's effectively nonexistent.

In conclusion, we might improve rail travel in the US by adding more routes in under-serviced areas.
posted by ormondsacker at 8:41 AM on July 15, 2008


Fair enough!
posted by eritain at 2:15 PM on July 15, 2008


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