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I thought the Train would never come -- How slow the whistle sang --
May 15, 2009 11:38 AM   Subscribe

"There is at least one technology in America, however, that is worse now than it was in the early 20th century: the train." Why trains run slower now than they did in the 1920s.
posted by ocherdraco (103 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
The article is about passenger rail. The rail system as it exists now is optimized for freight. And when it comes to freight, speed isn't very important. What's important is capacity and efficiency. So that's what the rail system now is optimized for: moving as much bulk cargo as possible at the best possible price.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:48 AM on May 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


THAT'S IT I'VE HAD IT

I've outlined my hate of slate previously

But once again this is just more of the same. There are parts of the article that are actually interesting, but once again they skew the intent of these facts and figures in order to make a large, hyperbolic, contrarian claim. It posits the train issue as being a technological issue and even compares it other techonological issues, when the reality is that all these issues of train lateness and functionality purely result from the fact that we've stopped using them. Seriously, that's what they actually go ahead and talk about... which makes it a-technological issue and has nothing to do with their thesis. The article is really about what happens to antiquated technological systems. Not how our technology has worsened. It would be like saying "how come we haven't made better telegraphs lately!"

Completely typical to Slate: In the end it is just fucking nonsense.
posted by Lacking Subtlety at 11:52 AM on May 15, 2009 [11 favorites]


Well, you know who made the trains run on time.
posted by loquacious at 12:00 PM on May 15, 2009 [7 favorites]


Why do people in other countries use rail? The article makes mention of Spain's system taking away passengers from airlines. The U.S. system may be optimized for freight, but travel throughout this country would be a damn sight more pleasurable if we had a system optimized for passengers. I hate driving, whether it be across country or through metropolitan areas. Highways are dominated by trucks, and cities are clogged with traffic. Last time I was in Japan their rail system was a revelation to me. I could get on easily without the hassle of an airport and sleep peacefully on quiet transportation.
posted by pashdown at 12:01 PM on May 15, 2009 [3 favorites]


The biggest reason that trains run slower as I understand it is federal safety regulations. What wasn't said in the article is the number of deadly grade crossing accidents or general crashes which mandated slower speeds among other things.
posted by JJ86 at 12:05 PM on May 15, 2009


how come we haven't made better telegraphs lately!

Huzzah! I am somewhat disquieted of late, not by the shortcomings of these most pervasive of popular contriviances, but rather by their most superfluous of potentials; specifically the inclination of wayward scalliwags to utilize said apparatus in the discrete aquisition of derrogotypes, capturing the visage of comely young ladies, whilst traversing the public highway in such a manner as to intrude upon the virtue of the pure and cause hazard to their fellows.
posted by CynicalKnight at 12:06 PM on May 15, 2009 [28 favorites]


The article makes mention of Spain's system taking away passengers from airlines.

When I was researching a trip last year, the Spanish internal flights were far too expensive. Like a one hour flight from Barcelona to Valencia was $150-$300 one-way. The "fast" train took 3 hours, but it was only $50.
posted by smackfu at 12:12 PM on May 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


The author actually explains the issue of decreased ridership and freight prioritizatoin, and also that Amtrak needs to upgrade safety-related infrastructure (an effort which, I would imagine, would require a bit stronger federal funding) in order to improve speeds. I love to rant as much as the next guy, but please read the article before going off!
posted by serazin at 12:13 PM on May 15, 2009


Why do people in other countries use rail?

Most other countries are the size of like half of Utah cause they were invented by people in the dark ages. You can walk from one end of Belgium to another in 20 minutes. America is the biggest country in the world and so we have to fly if we go someplace. Pick up a book dummy!
posted by ND¢ at 12:21 PM on May 15, 2009 [20 favorites]


derrogotypes?

Deguerrotypes?
posted by odinsdream at 12:22 PM on May 15, 2009


specifically the inclination of wayward scalliwags to utilize said apparatus in the discrete aquisition of derrogotypes, capturing the visage of comely young ladies, whilst traversing the public highway in such a manner as to intrude upon the virtue of the pure and cause hazard to their fellows.

You don't like bad kids driving dangerously (... and obscenely?) while taking photos of hot chicks?
posted by WalterMitty at 12:23 PM on May 15, 2009


derrogotypes?

Deguerrotypes?


Daguerreotypes.
posted by ocherdraco at 12:24 PM on May 15, 2009 [4 favorites]


Also, I like trains.
posted by WalterMitty at 12:24 PM on May 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


America is the biggest country in the world
Pick up a book dummy!


Can you flag posts as trolls or what?
posted by Talanvor at 12:25 PM on May 15, 2009


Why do people in other countries use rail?

I think a few things come into play: population densities, costs of travel, and reliability.

Looking at modal share of railroads per country (percentage of travelers using rails), the US had 0.3% for 2004, by far the lowest for any of the 32 countries listed. Development in the United States is not focused around transportation hubs, but around the ever-present car. It's just not realistic for most people in the US to get from their home to the train and then to their final destination.

As smackfu noted, trains are cheaper forms of transportation in other countries, while most people in the US would prefer to fly. Taking Amtrak from LA to NYC costs about $300 by train, but takes 3 days. But it only costs around $100 to get from LAX to JFK, and that takes less than 6 hours. There might be some shorter distances that make more sense, but the speed of planes is usually a winning factor.

And then there are plenty of stories about train delays taking another half day, where a half day flight delay usually nets you a discounted future flight or some other consolation gift. That, and planes don't stop at every. podunk. town. between here and your destination. It's hard to get a train up to speed when you have to stop 30 miles down the way, as is the case in many stretches of California.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:25 PM on May 15, 2009


The article makes mention of Spain's system taking away passengers from airlines.

The train in Spain took euros from the plane?
posted by jquinby at 12:29 PM on May 15, 2009 [31 favorites]


But once again this is just more of the same. There are parts of the article that are actually interesting, but once again they skew the intent of these facts and figures in order to make a large, hyperbolic, contrarian claim.

Oh come on. If Slate just wanted to be contrarian, wouldn't they just hire Christopher Hitchens?

Oh wait.
posted by ALongDecember at 12:30 PM on May 15, 2009 [3 favorites]


The author actually explains the issue of decreased ridership and freight prioritizatoin, and also that Amtrak needs to upgrade safety-related infrastructure

Except they can't (mod a few places like the Northeast Corridor.)

*The* fundamental problem with Amtrak is that they basically own no track -- the total route milage of Amtrak trackage is 730 miles, almost all of it in the Northeast.

On the tracks they do own, the upgrades are, by and large, done. Most of those corridors are rated for 110mph passenger trains. The NEC is fully electrified, mostly grade separated, and is being upgraded further. Of course, the slowest sections of the NEC are track that's not owned by Amtrak.

The freight lines aren't going to upgrade their tracks or signals -- they're never going to move over 87mph, and most of them will never move over 65mph.

Add in the fact that an 150mph train will move at 65mph if it's behind a 65mph freight, and the problem is obvious -- Amtrak can't go fast because of the track, and they can't fix the track because they don't own it, and even if it could, they'd still be slow because of all the slower freights on those tracks. As long as Amtrak trainsets are second priority users of a track, they will be slow and frequently delayed by the primary users of the track.
posted by eriko at 12:31 PM on May 15, 2009 [3 favorites]


The train in Spain took euros from the plane?

By George, he's got it!
posted by RussHy at 12:32 PM on May 15, 2009 [5 favorites]


derrogotypes?

Deguerrotypes?

Daguerreotypes.


de la gare-otypes.
posted by infinitewindow at 12:33 PM on May 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


while most people in the US would prefer to fly.

I think it's more like "most people in the US don't have options OTHER than to fly"

When we hit WDW during Spring Break, I *really* wanted to use the Auto-Train. The idea of "hanging out overnight and arriving fresh" as opposed to "driving overnight and arriving cranky" was interesting.

But the fact that "The Trains DON'T Run On Time" ( and a 2 grand fare r/t for a family of 4 + the station wagon... ) killed that deal.
posted by mikelieman at 12:33 PM on May 15, 2009


Re: Rails, and the riding out of town there-upon, NEXT ON OPRAH!
posted by blue_beetle at 12:33 PM on May 15, 2009


I remember the old coal rails of my childhood where the train cars would go so slowly you could walk up to them and simply grab on.
posted by mrmojoflying at 12:36 PM on May 15, 2009


European countries with high rail usage are hardly postage stamps - the trains are faster and the infrastructure more modern.

Example: Between 0600 and 2100 there is one train an hour from Paris to Marseille, covering 662km in 3h19. There is one train a day from Cleveland to NYC, covering 649km in 11h32 and arriving at the extremely convenient time of half past three in the morning.
posted by athenian at 12:49 PM on May 15, 2009 [20 favorites]


but travel throughout this country would be a damn sight more pleasurable if we had a system optimized for passengers

Now if only the passenger airlines would be optimized for passengers.
posted by dhartung at 12:57 PM on May 15, 2009 [3 favorites]


Add in the fact that an 150mph train will move at 65mph if it's behind a 65mph freight, and the problem is obvious -- Amtrak can't go fast because of the track, and they can't fix the track because they don't own it, and even if it could, they'd still be slow because of all the slower freights on those tracks.

How does Europe overcome this problem? (Asked in all seriousness -- you make a good point).
posted by one_bean at 1:07 PM on May 15, 2009


There is one train a day from Cleveland to NYC, covering 649km . . .

You need to check your facts athenian. We don't go kms in America. We go miles.
posted by ND¢ at 1:08 PM on May 15, 2009 [3 favorites]



How does Europe overcome this problem? (Asked in all seriousness -- you make a good point).


By having dedicated track for passenger rail, or giving passenger rail the right of way on shared track.

You need to check your facts athenian. We don't go kms in America. We go miles.


It's 465 american miles driving from Cleveland to NYC, or 748km. athenian's figure wasn't exact, but it's not all that far off.
posted by eschatfische at 1:17 PM on May 15, 2009


derrogotypes?

Deguerrotypes?

Daguerreotypes.

de la gare-otypes.


I apologise for:

(1) yielding to impatience and giving up after the first sucky spell checker let me down, even though I knew it was wrong.
(b) repeatedly derailing a post about trains.
(iii) forgetting to link to this
posted by CynicalKnight at 1:17 PM on May 15, 2009


He was wrong in either case, it's 465 miles, or 748km.

The whole attitude of "This is America, we do things the American Way" thing is really offputting though. It used to be that the American way was the best way, because the American way was to figure out the best way, and adopt it. By being a Melting Pot of cultures, forward-looking, rather than tradition-bound, we got shit done fast, and efficiently. Now we have people who will look at Europe and instead of saying, "how can we do what they have?" they'll say, "America is different. If you want trains, go move to Europe."

Sad.
posted by explosion at 1:18 PM on May 15, 2009 [16 favorites]


Australia isn't big on trains either. Are they sad too?
posted by smackfu at 1:20 PM on May 15, 2009


I used to commute weekends between Kansas City and St Louis, driving back and forth, in all sorts of nasty weather. I took the train once. It took forever because of all the little-town stops along the way, and then to top it all off, I got mugged walking home from the train station. I decided the driving wasn't that bad after all.
posted by nomisxid at 1:26 PM on May 15, 2009


One thing I noticed in that link to the reason for the 11-hour delayed train is that Amtrak has a lot of problem with snow/ice, and that seems to cause a huge number of delays.
posted by smackfu at 1:40 PM on May 15, 2009


Australia isn't big on trains either. Are they sad too?

No, they're too busy being drunk and fending off poisonous wombats.
posted by aramaic at 1:51 PM on May 15, 2009


This stuff has all been covered in previous posts.

Passenger trains are never coming back. Never. Where they are used now, people are dumping them and buying cars as soon as they can afford it. People (no, not everyone, not you, but lots of people, too many people) hate sitting with other people, they hate traveling on other people's schedules, and they hate having to get to and from the train on either end of the journey. Worse, they like owning cars, they like driving cars for every little trip, they like being in control and competing with the other drivers. They like being seen driving cars and they would be embarrassed to take the bus or ride a bike.

So make cars cleaner, safer, and more efficient. Save passenger rail for a small subset of trips people make every day. That's the only reasonable option.

Bonus point: To remove many freight shippers from the roads and rails while improving car and road efficiency (by making largely empty passenger vehicles do double duty), use private passenger vehicles to also carry freight. You, in your private vehicle (frequently a stupid truck anyway), drive where you are going, from A to B, but in exchange for reduced or eliminated tolls or even a profit, you also throw a sealed box or three in the back to carry from A to B. If the package doesn't get there in one piece and on time, you are responsible for the replacement value, etc., so you don't offer to carry anything you can't handle and you try to do a reasonable job of getting it there. If you do a bad job, they don't let you carry stuff again, and you're back to paying full tolls, etc. When you've carried a package as far as you're going, you leave it at the exit toll booth, where it is logged in, and you go on. Maybe someone else picks it up to carry it the next part of the journey. Maybe a professional shipper grabs the same package with a bunch of others and carries it on. Eventually a package arrives at the toll booth nearest to its destination, where a shipper or the local post office grabs it and takes it the last mile. Something like packet switching with real packets.
posted by pracowity at 1:54 PM on May 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


Airlines and rail as passenger systems scale differently in terms of cost as a function of geography. Airports cost a fortune, and so do jets, but the air between two airports doesn't cost anything. Whereas rail has to lay down two ribbons of steel the entire way. So the further apart your cities are, the more cost effective air travel will be.

That's why the only place in the US where passenger rail really makes any sense is the NE corrider. Population density there is about like Europe, where it also makes more sense. On the other hand, passenger rail between Chicago and Seattle makes almost no sense at all. Or between Seattle and Los Angeles.

However, once Amtrak was formed, Congress wouldn't permit it to only operate in places where population density was high enough to make it economically viable. Amtrak had to cover the whole country, and nearly every state, and that meant that Amtrak could not be self-sustaining.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 1:55 PM on May 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


Now we have people who will look at Europe and instead of saying, 'how can we do what they have?' they'll say, 'America is different. If you want trains, go move to Europe.'

Same thing with health care. You might thinks that Americans--especially conservatives--would be all over spending less and getting better results. But no, all we get is increasingly pathetic slurs of socialism. Are you telling me red-blooded can-do Americans can't do better than poncy Europeans? [NOT EUROPEANIST]

posted by kirkaracha at 1:56 PM on May 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


European countries with high rail usage are hardly postage stamps - the trains are faster and the infrastructure more modern.

Example: Between 0600 and 2100 there is one train an hour from Paris to Marseille, covering 662km in 3h19. There is one train a day from Cleveland to NYC, covering 649km in 11h32 and arriving at the extremely convenient time of half past three in the morning.


There is a lot in this post that is misleading so where do I begin. Picking NYC and Cleveland and complaining about how there's only one train is a joke. Cleveland is a relatively small city that is not a destination for anyone in NYC. A better choice would be Washington DC and Boston where a lot of people use the train line to get between the two. There are 10 trains that run during the day and they take about 6.5-7.5 hours to cover 440 miles or about 710 km. This is a long time to be sure, but the train from Paris to Marseille has at most 2 stops in between. DC to Boston has at least 13. The Paris to Marseille train is a high speed train, the one from DC to Boston is normal speed. If you want to compare normal speed trains, the distance from Paris to Mende is less than 600 km with five stops in between and that takes 6.5 hours.

Let's also keep in mind that the Amtrak train has to deal with all the local train traffic in the busy NE Corridor as they run on the same lines through the most densely populated part of the country.

So really your post about how the trains are faster and the infrastructure is more modern is correct in the sense that we don't have a high speed rail line yet...which is what Obama wants to build. Why don't we have it yet? Because rail travel is extremely inefficient and costly for most people because of the way the US developed.
posted by crashlanding at 1:56 PM on May 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


Passenger trains are never coming back. Never. Where they are used now, people are dumping them and buying cars as soon as they can afford it. People (no, not everyone, not you, but lots of people, too many people) hate sitting with other people, they hate traveling on other people's schedules, and they hate having to get to and from the train on either end of the journey. Worse, they like owning cars, they like driving cars for every little trip, they like being in control and competing with the other drivers. They like being seen driving cars and they would be embarrassed to take the bus or ride a bike.

Do you have any evidence to back up this nonsense?
posted by octothorpe at 1:59 PM on May 15, 2009 [5 favorites]


Supertrain!
posted by acro at 2:02 PM on May 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


THAT'S IT I'VE HAD IT

posted by Lacking Subtlety


Eponysterical?
posted by Saxon Kane at 2:05 PM on May 15, 2009


The article touches on a sensitive subject for me, but then fizzles so poorly, I too want to rush Slate with torches. No mention of GM and firestone buying up commuter systems and tearing them down, or of GOP-Dem policies of tearing up rail lines, expanding freeways instead. Nicely evaded.

On trains: this is one of very few subjects of national interests for which I regularly write missives to my congresspeople. Might as well get old tyme uppity about what amounts to an old tyme subject in america. But I've traveled Amtrak across the country at least 40 times. It is a gentlemanly method of travel, even in these degenerate days for rail. You can get up, move around, meet people, see the landscape, (smoke at one point), take a quiet shit, walk around more,, do calisthenics, fall asleep, read....

Who uses Amtrak? All the varieties of the unseen classes: Military, migrants, hippies, retirees, Mennonites, farmers, factory workers. fact is, it's still fairly cheap -especially for those who don't own a car, and involves far less hassle than air travel. But just like its passengers, Amtrak is the beaten down black sheep of transportation. I've waited 8 hours for a freight to pass. One conductor said it simple: freight's more valuable than people on the rails.

Doesn't change the fact that if you want to meet americans you otherwise never would, and want to have real unhurried discussions whilst viewing the true beauty of the continent: no better way than Amtrak. Just don't expect to be on time ever.

And yes, after traveling in Europe and Japan I know how truly shitty Amtrak is. But I don't blame Amtrak. Amtrak is the result of a very concerted effort to marginalize rail travel, not unlike the marginalization of poor who rely on rail travel. The biggest difference I see is the adamant notion that we must have cars, "the freedom!!!" of sitting in traffic and parking lots! Trains are far far more reliable and cheaper for lower income earners than relying on cars. But making life easier for the poor is political poison. That's the hurdle as I see it, getting over our utterly uncharitable, illogical hatred of non-rich people.
posted by sarcasman at 2:16 PM on May 15, 2009 [20 favorites]


There are parts of the article that are actually interesting, but once again they skew the intent of these facts and figures in order to make a large, hyperbolic, contrarian claim.

And what would that claim be? All I saw was an article discussing why passenger trains are slower in the U.S. nowadays. It was pretty interesting.

Also, from the article:

... Spain's AVE... has been thieving market share from the country's airlines.

Thieving is a verb now?
posted by yath at 2:17 PM on May 15, 2009


how come we haven't made better telegraphs lately

Twitter?
posted by johnny novak at 2:22 PM on May 15, 2009 [3 favorites]


We just took the train from Tucson to Chicago in coach, and back again in a roomette. Can't recommend a long trip in coach, but the roomette was great. All meals are included. They're about what you'd get at a decent hotel restaurant and priced that way for people in coach, so, effectively, the roomette is free.

loquacious, except he didn't.
posted by shetterly at 2:22 PM on May 15, 2009


People (no, not everyone, not you, but lots of people, too many people) hate sitting with other people, they hate traveling on other people's schedules, and they hate having to get to and from the train on either end of the journey.

If only there were some way to change the ways people think about things. Still, I guess we're going to be smoking cigarettes, being sexist to women and segregating buses forever, right?

Of course, the best way to alter behaviour is proper incentives. Train stations should be equally as pleasant as airports -- it's an easy target to meet when you can strip away all the security. In-train business class and first class should be models of luxury; in-train entertainment should rival that in-flight.

Planes are cramped and uncomfortable, and airports are hellish. The only compelling advantage they have is their speed. People are always going to prefer that coast-to-coast, but when the difference is a matter of hours (especially when you factor in airport and check-in times), the train could make a case for itself.

Whether or not America has the political will to make it happen is another thing, but the task isn't impossible. Well, if you stop prioritising freight traffic and holding back Amtrak with the universal service mandate it wouldn't be, at least.
posted by fightorflight at 2:43 PM on May 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


I can't quote pracowity due to being on an iPhone but being in the Uk - just a couple of reasons I prefer the train to the car.
1 - I can have a beer
2 - I can fall asleep
3 - I don't have to own a car and pay for its upkeep in time and money
4 - I do not have to park

There are more.
posted by edd at 2:47 PM on May 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


> Well, you know who made the trains run on time.

Emperor Hirohito?
posted by Antidisestablishmentarianist at 2:49 PM on May 15, 2009


Thieving is a verb now?

From the OED:

thieve, v. 2. trans. To steal (a thing). 1695 Wood Oxford (O.H.S.) III. 172 A brass plate having been theeved away.

There are also entries for 1760-72, 1867, and 1901.
posted by jedicus at 2:51 PM on May 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


>But once again this is just more of the same. There are parts of the article that are actually interesting, but once again they skew the intent of these facts and figures in order to make a large, hyperbolic, contrarian claim.

>Oh come on. If Slate just wanted to be contrarian, wouldn't they just hire Christopher Hitchens?


Actually, my shortcut for inferring the Slate take is to a) imagine Mickey Kaus' position; b) dial it back two notches, editing out the exclamation points in the process; c) toss in a tossed-off Malcolm Gladwell "New Yorker" column and a 1998 DLC memo; d) and then hit "Blend".

Okay, that's not really a shortcut.

Maybe a decaffeinated, post-blood transfusion Mickey Kaus reclining in a slow-moving freight modern passenger train.
posted by darth_tedious at 2:54 PM on May 15, 2009


Nobody cares about the railroads anymore.
posted by hangashore at 3:22 PM on May 15, 2009


An article in The Walrus about rail in North America.
posted by Alex Voyd at 3:23 PM on May 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


More to the point on WHY rail system in america is so shitty: utterly backwards ownership policies.

In our country the rails are privately owned, and the train is federal. Which means no matter how great the actual train is, the private company running the rails gets first say on what traffic gets priority. I know, nationalizing highways is sound policy, but nationalizing rails is communism. If we had nationally standardized, well kept rails, speeds would increase, thus schedules would be more reliable. If we had private trains, you could argue that competition would improve some things, like timeliness and comfort, and fares, perhaps (I'm trying to play fair and balanced I confess). I am really saying "capitalism" and "socialism" have been applied so poorly with trains in the US, it begs the Bush question: that incompetent or that intentional?
posted by sarcasman at 3:26 PM on May 15, 2009 [5 favorites]


Most other countries are the size of like half of Utah cause they were invented by people in the dark ages.

As was Utah.
posted by gimonca at 3:41 PM on May 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


Why do people in other countries use rail?

My guess is that it was a very good idea a generation ago, before cars became as efficient as trains per passenger mile. Also, parking issues and smaller national distances (using less rail) favors trains. Recall that we freely bought oil from our enemies to support an oil habit, while Europe never had much of an oil lobby Texas to force them into this addiction.
posted by Brian B. at 3:46 PM on May 15, 2009


*кашлей* *cough* I do concede your basic problem, though.

And I just discovered that China is a just over a Belgium smaller than the USA, or slightly less than one Moldova smaller. (America is 315.6 Belgiums)Table!
posted by Decimask at 3:51 PM on May 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


Awesome, the Russians have taken over Canada in my post and I am the one who betrayed her.
posted by Decimask at 3:53 PM on May 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


Airports cost a fortune, and so do jets, but the air between two airports doesn't cost anything.

Actually, no. The air between two airports is watched over by air-traffic controllers, which those of us old enough to remember the Reagan years know are Federal employees. There is a cost there, it's just not being borne by the airlines. Yet somehow people always complain that Amtrak loses money as if every other mode of transit (highways, air travel) doesn't also benefit from massive taxpayer subsidies. It is true that over longer distances planes are more time-competitive than trains, but there are lots more places than just the Northeast Corridor that make sense for rail. California voters approved Prop 1A last November, the first big step in building a high speed rail link between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
posted by ambrosia at 4:00 PM on May 15, 2009


"Well, you know who made the trains run on time."

Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf Von Moltke. Here's a De gare o'type of him.

Perhaps we don't let the trains run on time because it's associated with fascism.
posted by Smedleyman at 4:00 PM on May 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


Wait, Americans think American cars are efficient?
posted by Artw at 4:06 PM on May 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


America is the biggest country in the world and so we have to fly if we go someplace.

So, all travel in the US is soely between New York and Los Angeles?

Yes, you want planes. JFK-LAX is about the same as JFK-LHR. But there's a lot more than those two cities. For example, 300 miles or less from Chicago, we have Milwaukee, Des Moines, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Detroit, Toledo, Dayton and Cincinnati. Just outside that is Minneapolis, Nashville and Kansas City.

A 150mph limited stop train could easily service Chicago to most of these cities in three hours or less, and an TGV class train would be pushing two hours. A TGV puts Memphis and Pittsburgh under three hours, and New Orleans, Atlanta, Charlotte, and DC around four hours.

You don't think that's a workable time? Yes, a plane is faster in transit -- but when you count the time you waste at airports, on short hauls, it starts to even out. We know this distance works -- the Acela runs Boston to DC and is very popular, and it's not running nearly as fast as it could. Indeed, the real wins come with the shorter hops, where the airport time is more than the flight time.

Yes, there's the Great Divide -- The West Coast could work, but even TGV would have trouble connecting the Midwest to the West. Fine, we'll have planes for that. But there are *hundred* of sensible routes for a 150mph train in this country.
posted by eriko at 4:10 PM on May 15, 2009 [6 favorites]


pracowity: "Passenger trains are never coming back. Never. Where they are used now, people are dumping them and buying cars as soon as they can afford it. People (no, not everyone, not you, but lots of people, too many people) hate sitting with other people, they hate traveling on other people's schedules, and they hate having to get to and from the train on either end of the journey. Worse, they like owning cars, they like driving cars for every little trip, they like being in control and competing with the other drivers."

I actually agree with this in terms of local travel. Public transit doesn't have enough personal benefit to get people out of their cars. But for longer trips, it's just the opposite. Driving from SF to LA takes about 6 hours. An airplane takes about 1 hour, but when you add getting to the airport an hour ahead of time, and traveling to and from the airport, you're looking at 3-4 hours. Add in the hassle of security, cramped conditions, stress of flying, etc... driving starts to look like a better option.

If I could take a 3-4 hour train ride from SF to LA, I would do it in a heartbeat, even if it cost as much as the airlines. Same goes for going up to Portland, or Seattle, or out to Vegas. It's not so much about totally removing cars from the equation; it's about filling the niche where you're choosing between cars and planes. Sure, people hate taking trains, but planes have all the problems you listed and more. Planes might still be the only reasonable option for cross-country travel, but there's a hell of a lot of flights that aren't cross-country. And plenty of people would rather take a train if it only meant a few hours difference, instead of the days we see now. Express trains from big city to big city would be a goldmine. If you could run high-speed rail between each of the current airline hubs, people would have a lot fewer reasons to fly.
posted by team lowkey at 4:13 PM on May 15, 2009


We need to get Don Cornelius working on this train problem. He'll know what to do.
posted by orme at 4:13 PM on May 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


high-five, eriko
posted by team lowkey at 4:14 PM on May 15, 2009


Well, you know who made the trains run on time.

Mussolini?
posted by A dead Quaker at 4:26 PM on May 15, 2009


If I could take a 3-4 hour train ride from SF to LA, I would do it in a heartbeat, even if it cost as much as the airlines

Agreed, which is why the CA high speed rail should be good assuming it gets built. But once I leave the West Coast, you really need a plane. Generally if I fly East, I'm flying to the coast, and the train vs plane time there doesn't work at all unless you're willing to eat up a significant amount of our rather small American vacation time in travel.

Although I think all the "airport time" people talk about would eventually get moved into train stations as well, due to a combination of increased traffic and TSA. I'm pretty sure we'll have to go through security screening to board the CA high speed rail (you can't turn a train into a missile, but you can still hurt a lot of people, and besides TSA is all about the appearance of security anyway -- so while I'd be fine w/o such screening, it's going to happen if this ever becomes a popular form of travel).

However, given the choice to take a personal vehicle vs a public vehicle (for commute, day trips, etc) I'll always take the car. The ability to carry stuff or leave it in the car, set my own schedule, and not have to deal with people makes it worth it. I'm happy to switch to an electric car (hope my next one will be), but not to public transit.
posted by wildcrdj at 4:32 PM on May 15, 2009


I really don't think train security could ever get to the nightmare levels of airline security. Everyone already knows it's a enormous waste of money and time and ineffective to boot. But you can't do anything about it, because, hey, 9/11. Maybe if someone manages to take down a building with a train, the TSA could get their mitts all up ons, but it's not likely.
posted by team lowkey at 4:37 PM on May 15, 2009


I'm pretty sure we'll have to go through security screening to board the CA high speed rail

Actually, the California High Speed Rail Authority understands pretty clearly that the lack of security theater will be a major time-saver and selling point vis-a-vis air travel. The Chairman of the Authority has made numerous statements to that effect, here's one example. The planned route of the High Speed Rail link has HSR sharing railroad rights-of-way with a commuter rail line for the length between San Francisco and San Jose; there is little point in subjecting HSR patrons to security theater without doing the same on the adjacent commuter rail line, and I just don't see that happening.
posted by ambrosia at 4:50 PM on May 15, 2009


The hi-speed train in Spain has baggage screening, presumably due to the Madrid bombings. It's a bit of a pain. Took about the same time as at the airport, maybe longer, since it was a whole train's worth of people.
posted by smackfu at 4:54 PM on May 15, 2009


The air between two airports is watched over by air-traffic controllers, which those of us old enough to remember the Reagan years know are Federal employees. There is a cost there, it's just not being borne by the airlines.

I guess I should have been more clear that I was talking about capital cost. Air traffic control (which is financed by a tax on landing rights, it turns out, your link notwithstanding) is an operating cost, and lumps in with things like crew salaries and fuel.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 4:55 PM on May 15, 2009


derogotypes.
posted by mwhybark at 5:18 PM on May 15, 2009


@Chocolate Pickle, crashlanding and sarcasman:However, once Amtrak was formed, Congress wouldn't permit it to only operate in places where population density was high enough to make it economically viable. Amtrak had to cover the whole country, and nearly every state, and that meant that Amtrak could not be self-sustaining.

Sounds like Amtrak needs to be reorganized into regional units -- a NE Corridor, a Southern Corridor, a Midwest Corridor and Western Corridor like the Baby Bells were. If they succeed, let that carrier flourish; if a carrier fails, well, it's probably no great loss, considering what was already in place. But here on the East Coast, it would give a bump to communities from southern Maine to Northern Virginia as Baltimore and Philadelphia would become more important bedroom communities for D.C. and New York. Imagine the Maine-to-D.C. run becoming something like SE England, from London to Kent.

And if you factor in the green quotient, the removal of those cars and the elimination of the fuel they'd burn would be a net positive for the redevelopment of numerous urban centers.

The other thing a polulist railroad would do -- and by populist, I mean affordable, not that classist Acela bullshit -- is eliminate many of the unsafe, cut-rate, semi-illegal bus lines from the roads. Those unsafe Chinese buses use gasoline, too! Make all of those alternate carriers less viable and create a net gain for the railroads, private vehicles and the insurance companies.

And @sarcasman, Obama could technically invoke eminent domain and take those rail-beds back from CSX and the rest. (Of course, Obama would prolly give CSX et al. fair compensation or tax-breaks for their contribution to the nation's infrastucture at some point down the line...)
posted by vhsiv at 5:48 PM on May 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


Well, you know who made the trains run on time.

Yes! Mr. Rogers.
posted by tyrantkitty at 6:37 PM on May 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


In order to have intercity rail the cities themselves need public transit so that people can get to where they are going once they arrive.
posted by niccolo at 7:08 PM on May 15, 2009


Mussolini may not have made the trains run on time, but he did revolutionize their fuel source.
posted by Captain Cardanthian! at 7:41 PM on May 15, 2009


I am really saying "capitalism" and "socialism" have been applied so poorly with trains in the US, it begs the Bush question: that incompetent or that intentional?

The current lightly-regulated version of capitalism that governs freight rail in the US works extremely well.
posted by Kwantsar at 7:56 PM on May 15, 2009


smackfu: Australia isn't big on trains either. Are they sad too?

Well as you say, Australians are aren't big on trains either, and have a vaguely similar population distribution (at least in comparison to Europe), but I never realised how bad the American experience with long distance trains was until just now when I compared a couple of trips.

Brisbane - Bundaberg (the next major city along the coast outside of the local train network) : Tilt train, runs twice daily, $66 bucks for not-too-bad economy, ~400kms, ~4.5 hrs. Roughly comparable in driving time (3.5~4 hrs) & cost to doing the same trip in a typical family car. By comparison, flying costs ~$100~$400 + taxes & charges depending on departure time, takes ~1hrs, & runs every 2~3hrs.

Brisbane - Sydney (the next state capital along the coast) : XPT, runs daily, ~$99 for economy, ~1000kms, ~14 hrs. Roughly comparable in cost & driving time (11~16hrs) to doing the same trip in a small~mid 4cyl car. By comparison, flying costs $70~$90 + extra for luggage & taxes/charges, takes ~1.5 hrs, & runs ~hourly.

From what I see of the US distance passenger rail network, the Australian experience is heaven by comparison when it comes to mid-distance trips.
posted by Pinback at 8:43 PM on May 15, 2009


I agree with eriko and I think I've said much the same as vhsiv before. Living in Japan, I can't imagine taking the plane domestically unless the train trip would be longer than 10 hours, and even so, a nice ten hour (overnight) train trip would still be preferable to a three hour flight with 3 hours (getting to the airport, checking in, going through security) of prep, followed by about 2 hours (getting out of the airport, getting from the airport to where I actually wanted to go) of post-flight nonsense.

Buy a ticket. Go to the train station. Use the ticket. Board the train. Sit back, relax. The only ear popping discomfort is going through a tunnel at high speed. You can bring your own food, your own drinks, hell, you can even pack shampoo! New York to LA? No. Chicago to Detroit? Yes, and even on the decrepit trains I used to take, it was five hours, and it was relaxing. They just need to work on the concept of "time" and the theory of "reliability" and American trains would actually, y'know, be viable.
posted by Ghidorah at 9:35 PM on May 15, 2009


Then again, I wonder, with all of the crap going on with the US automaking industry, would now be a good time or a bad time to really get congress to push through bills on creating better trains (intercity and commuter) throughout the country. Has the auto lobby been weakened enough (walking around hat-in-hand puts a terrible strain on the wrist) to actually allow the country to engage in rational, meaningful discussion on finding alternative means of travel?
posted by Ghidorah at 9:39 PM on May 15, 2009


derrogotypes?

Deguerrotypes?

Daguerreotypes.


Derogotypes.
posted by ooga_booga at 9:58 PM on May 15, 2009


Australia isn't big on trains either. Are they sad too?

Australia is expanding its network, both across the continent, and within the big cities, all the time. Facts, are you familiar with them?
posted by rodgerd at 1:56 AM on May 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


I really don't think train security could ever get to the nightmare levels of airline security.

I do the Amsterdam->London trip by train regularly, and the only security procedure is getting onto the Eurostar (Channel Tunnel) train at Brussels. Takes about five minutes at its very worst.

Flying is still faster, marginally, and can be done cheaper. But I have three hours in the train from Amsterdam to Brussels, and another two in the train to London. That's five hours of sitting in a (relatively) comfortable seat, and getting real work done. Flying is 50 minutes in the air, and four hours of associated misery, and none of it useful, or pleasant.
posted by daveje at 1:57 AM on May 16, 2009


I like trains. And I like riding with other people.
posted by sneebler at 5:38 AM on May 16, 2009


But here on the East Coast, it would give a bump to communities from southern Maine to Northern Virginia as Baltimore and Philadelphia would become more important bedroom communities for D.C. and New York.

Great, just what Philadelphia needs. More New Yorkers. We're not the sixth borough. (That story was published a few days before I moved back to Philly after college, so it's a bit of a sore spot for me.)
posted by madcaptenor at 9:00 AM on May 16, 2009


But here on the East Coast, it would give a bump to communities from southern Maine to Northern Virginia as Baltimore and Philadelphia would become more important bedroom communities for D.C. and New York.

I think this confuses the issue. The Northeast Corridor is already a successful rail route. That's why it has the Acela. The reasons we don't have a super-fast Acela are more complicated than the problems with rail in the rest of the country. Partly that the tracks are shared with very popular commuter lines, and that the tracks run through some of the most densely populated and expensive land in the country.

Also, a basic tenet of high-speed trains is that there are minimal stops. (Acela already has too many stops, in my opinion.) So if someone wanted to commute from a Philly suburb to New York, they would need to take commuter rail to Philly downtown, then take the train to New York. Does that sound practical?
posted by smackfu at 9:28 AM on May 16, 2009


Er, yes?
posted by Artw at 10:01 AM on May 16, 2009


The fundamental issue that separates rail in US and Europe/Japan is wether freight has right of way. A freight train operator is interested in moving as large a load as economically as possible, meaning very long trains, very slowly. Acceleration speed is of no great concern.
It fundamentally limits the ability of passenger rail on the same track.
In Europe passenger trains have right of way, and the entire system is built around this. This means that freight traffic is forced to move at a higher speed than is most economical, and that the train length is limited due to sidings and safety systems being optimized for shorter trains, shorter than is most economical.
Consequently the greatest advantage of freight trains over trucks, namely cost is almost eliminated.

This fundamental attitude difference is reflected in the shares of total freight transported on rail versus on the road, which is much higher in the US than in Europe. The percentage of total freight moved by truck is in some countries in Europe up about 95 percent.
posted by Catfry at 12:11 PM on May 16, 2009


Now a very expensive solution is to have two separate systems of rail, one for freight and one for passengers. In The Netherlands, transit traffic from the major harbour of Rotterdam and on to Germany has in later decades grown to such proportions that the government decided to try to get some of all this freight traffic of the road an onto trains, and the only way to make it economically attractive was to build a dedicated freight line where trains could ply all day at a slow economical pace without being forced onto sidings by faster passenger trains.
The fundamental issue is that freight and passenger rail on the same track just doesn't get along very well.
posted by Catfry at 12:20 PM on May 16, 2009


Ah yes, the Betuweroute. 6 billion euros for 160 km (99 miles).
posted by smackfu at 3:54 PM on May 16, 2009


However, once Amtrak was formed, Congress wouldn't permit it to only operate in places where population density was high enough to make it economically viable. Amtrak had to cover the whole country, and nearly every state, and that meant that Amtrak could not be self-sustaining.

Are there any comprehensive passenger rail systems (which means not ones consisting of peak-hour shuttle services between dormitory suburbs and commercial centres, or dedicated city-airport trains, but ones acting providing a wide network of destinations) self-sustaining? I thought they all required government subsidies to keep them viable, because the optimum point for ticket prices (above which patronage loss cancels out revenue gains) is considerably below the point at which tickets pay for a railway network.
posted by acb at 4:53 PM on May 16, 2009


@edd: "I can have a beer" seems to be only an advantage in the UK and Europe. I caught a train from Sydney to Brisbane, in Australia, last year, and was chagrined to be told that I would face a $300 fine and immediate expulsion from the train if I opened the bottle of Little Creatures I brought along with me. If I wanted a drink, I could order one of the cans of 2% light beer which tastes like heavily carbonated urine that they sold, at a steep markup, in the buffet car. I'm told that the USA takes a similarly dim view of drinking on trains.

On the other hand, when I first went to the UK, I was surprised to find people drinking beer on trains and not being arrested. I must have gotten more used to it over the four-and-a-half years I have been living here.
posted by acb at 4:58 PM on May 16, 2009


acb: I'm (a) British and (b) just caught an Amtrak train -- the #513 from Seattle to Portland, business class -- yesterday.

You can get beer on that train. In fact, there's a choice of microbrews (as well as the usual horse piss) in the galley.

However ...

I was gobsmacked by how slow and inefficient the process of catching the train in America looks compared to even the ghastly suboptimization of Virgin or National Express in the UK, never mind Japan Rail. First you book the ticket and a seat. You have to present photo ID to claim a boarding card -- like airline travel in the 1950s -- an intrusive and annoying but not actually effective security measure. Then you check your bags -- all but the two carry-ons you're allowed -- not less than an hour before departure. For boarding, there's a long queue while all those folks who didn't think to book a seat present their tickets at the gate and are issued with seat allocations. Only then do folks get to go on board the train.

(Comparison with JR, on a Shinkansen 700 Nozomi express: you roll up 15 minutes ahead of departure, buy your ticket and reserve a seat at the booking office, and you'd better be waiting on the platform when the bullet train slides in because it's only going to stop for 90 seconds. But that's okay, they've got marks on the platform to show you where the doors will open and where to queue ...)

Back to the journey experience: the seats were fine -- wide and comfortable in business class, with seatback power. The tickets were cheap by railway standards (even with a business class upgrade: $56 per person, one way), the galley was as good as can be expected on a rail service, certainly on a par with non-US equivalents, and the staff were friendly and helpful. However, the ride was so bumpy we were wondering if they'd outsourced track maintenance to RailTrack (in the bad, pre-Hatfield days). And the train was so slow it was unbelievable! It took three and a half hours to cover just 144 miles. A good thing the scenery was picturesque ... I had a lot of time to stare at it.

Finally, at the end of our journey we had to wait another 20 minutes for our baggage to arrive at the baggage office so we could claim it. So the total travel time was roughly 5 hours -- because of the need to check and reclaim bags -- on a 144 mile route.

In the UK, with a rail network even older than the US one, three and a half hours will take you from London to Newcastle -- 302 miles -- and a full five hours will get you to Edinburgh if not Aberdeen. I have no idea how far that'd take you in Japan, except that a 350 mile journey on the aformentioned Nozomi express took just two hours and four minutes!
posted by cstross at 6:13 PM on May 16, 2009 [4 favorites]


The rail lines in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney are putting on more commuter carraiges on their rail lines. There's been a lot of kvetching about it, actually, in Melbourne, where they privatised the system a few years back and the whole thing kinda collapsed. Connex, the company involved, has taken a lot of heat over letting a once terribly efficient service crumble away.

Here in Queensland, where the state owned Queensland Rail controls things, we have the high density commuter end of things, which covers about a 110km radius around Brisbane, and the coastal areas of the Sunshine and Gold Coasts.

Park-and-Ride, where commuters are encouraged to leave their cars at secure carparks and take the train has been so succesful that locals near stations often find themselves parked in by commuters coming in from further afield to take the train.

We also have the state wide services, like the Sundlander, that really do try to capture the whole elegance-of-bygone-eras schtik. Lots of random stops at picturesque little outback towns, sleeper cars, lounges, the lot. {lenty of people take rail holidays - older folk who want to see the country without the hassles of driving, young people who can't afford a vehicle reliable enough to get therough the Outback, backpackers, that sort of thing. I get the relatively less opulent Brisbane to Bundaberg trip (I pay the extra bit for Business Class, as the extra space is good when you have long legs. It's 66 clams for Economy, which really isn't actually that bad.) It has the benefit that I am dropped off right in the middle of town, as opposed to some middle-on-nowhere regional airport with a relaxed approach to intergrated transport.

Rail can be wonderful. Terribly fuel efficient, cheap as if not cheaper than driving, easier on the users and better for the people not on the roads. A full communter train takes hundreds of cars off the road, making their lives easier too. It astonishes me that the States doesn't have a good rail service. The excuse that a big country can't have good rail is rubbish. Australia is almost as big, and a hell of a lot less dense, and we are doing quite well by it, more or less.

Of course, the best rail maintained lines are state owned. I think that's the kicker here - any poor fool who suggests turning over the control of Amtrack and the various rails over to a national body is going to get some serious political slapping.
posted by Jilder at 11:51 PM on May 16, 2009


Are there any comprehensive passenger rail systems (which means not ones consisting of peak-hour shuttle services between dormitory suburbs and commercial centres, or dedicated city-airport trains, but ones acting providing a wide network of destinations) self-sustaining? I thought they all required government subsidies to keep them viable

All transportation systems require government subsidies to keep them viable. Governments pay for the roads that make car traffic viable. If you had to pay for the cost of building and maintaining the road network with tolls instead of taxes, the train would look attractive. Same thing for the airports and the infrastructure you use to get to and from the airport.
posted by fuzz at 1:43 AM on May 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


Are there any comprehensive passenger rail systems (which means not ones consisting of peak-hour shuttle services between dormitory suburbs and commercial centres, or dedicated city-airport trains, but ones acting providing a wide network of destinations) self-sustaining? I thought they all required government subsidies to keep them viable

If you include capital expenditures (to lay track, build stations, etc.), then no, I'm not aware of any self-sustaining railway companies. If you only look at operating expenses, then you can look at one of several private railways in Japan. Even then, most of them obtain the majority of their revenues from non-rail businesses, such as real estate, and for the large regional intercity railways (JR), commuter networks in major cities and high speed trains subsidize unprofitable countryside lines.
posted by armage at 2:11 AM on May 17, 2009


All transportation systems require government subsidies to keep them viable. Governments pay for the roads that make car traffic viable.

Does government expenditure on roads exceed revenue from petrol taxes and vehicle registrations?
posted by acb at 4:49 AM on May 17, 2009


Gasoline/petrol taxes are much lower in the US than in Europe, and they do not cover highway costs. So yes, in the US, highways are taxpayer subsidized.
posted by ambrosia at 10:33 AM on May 17, 2009


In Europe, are the punitive petrol taxes actually used to fund highway costs, or are they used to fund alternatives like trains and buses?
posted by smackfu at 10:40 AM on May 17, 2009


smackfu: you'll need to be a little bit more specific in how you phrase that question -- "Europe" is thirty different countries with thirty different tax regimes and transport policies.
posted by cstross at 10:50 AM on May 17, 2009


The UK seems to have the highest petrol taxes, so how about them?
posted by smackfu at 10:59 AM on May 17, 2009


smackfu: The UK petrol taxes go into the general pot of taxation. The money isn't (AFAIK) set aside for roads or anything like that. Indeed, we also have a vehicle tax which is based on the carbon emissions of the car, prices start at £100 for a low-emission car like the Mini.

Doesn't stop around 75% of households in the UK having a car. Rail travel is, alas, mostly restricted to commuters in the major cities.

Then again, for all that money, we at least get public transport (of a sort), health care, education to 16, university education for £3000 per year... (gets off soapbox)
posted by almostwitty at 6:41 PM on May 17, 2009


Do US Americans always just assume that the whole world lives and thinks like them? to paraphrase: "People will never give up their crars", "People don't use public transport", umm have you ever been to London, Tokyo, Most major European Cities or even your own New York City?!

I think you will find that there are millions of people living in this world who don't own a car and seldom have need to drive a car. That thes people are perfectly happy gettign trains, buses, trams, bicyucles where ever they want to go.
posted by mary8nne at 5:10 AM on May 18, 2009


However, the ride was so bumpy we were wondering if they'd outsourced track maintenance to RailTrack

You only wish. The track is primarily BNSF track, a freight operators. They don't care if it's bumpy or slow. That's the primary reason your train was slow -- it was almost certainly waiting on or following a freight. Scroll up for my rant on the subject. Freight trackage isn't welded rail, and while they're picky about gauge, level isnt' as important. Freight doesn't care about bouncing.

Were you on the Cascades or the Coast Starlight route? The Cascades trainsets are supposed to be rather nice. (tipoff -- if the train went south of Portland, it was a Starlight train.)

There's a stated goal to get enough isolation and grade work to drop Seattle-Portland to 2:30, Seattle to Vancover, BC to 2:45, and after that, they'll run through trains, Portland to Vancover, 5:24
posted by eriko at 5:34 AM on May 18, 2009


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