Letter from America, 2

Now in Seattle, and its raining which apparently it does all the time. American railroads are indeed fascinating.

 Freight first. I spent a day being shown round some of the yards in Chicago which is the railway capital of the US. Much freight – and indeed all passengers – still transfer from one train to another in Chicago where the main station, Union, still has east and west platforms which are only 100 yds apart or so, and face in the same direction but do not connect.

The amount of freight carried on the railways is amazing. I passed a 130 wagon coal train which apparently is commonplace, carrying coal from the Powder Valley Basin mines in Wyoming. Then there are the double stacked container trains.

I visited a humping yard – no not that – where they break up and reform freight trains in the traditional way, except that this is a bidirectional facility, working both lines at the same time. It is, of course, all computer controlled. Then we went down to Joliet, 30 miles south west of Chicago where huge freight yards have been built by two railroad companies, United Pacific and BNSF, in order to allow them to bypass Chicago. The BNSF yard adjoins a huge Wallmart warehouse, sending trucks to the whole mid west and there are three half mile long buildings. There was a queue of 50 trucks to get into the yard, and traffic cops had to control the traffic.

I travelled from Penn Central to Pittsburgh, a journey of nine hours perhaps three slower than the road. Both Penn Central and Pittsburg are sad remains of stations, hidden from public view although Philadelphia, between the two retained its magnificent turn of the century building, 30th Street station. The train ride was pleasant without being spectacular, although some of the Pennsylvania countryside, as one climbed through the Appallachians, enlivened by the autumn colours, made the ride worthwhile. Then it was an overnight in the train from Washington to Chicago.

Sleeper compartments on Amtrak trains are minute, offering just enough space for the bed and perhaps six inches for a side shelf. It is cosy, though and the service from the attendant was very helpful.

Chicago was actually quite wonderful, a grand city with the wonderful El that has survived, even though it is unsightly and must be awful for people working on the first or second floors of the offices alongside which it runs.

Then it was a two day trip on the Empire Builder to Seattle, about which more next time, except to say that Amtrak has got the timing all wrong. It leaves Chicago at 2 15pm, which means  it was  dark by the time we reached the Mississippi, light for the endless dull plains and prairies of Montana and then only offered a glimpse of the sun setting through the Rockies – what an unimaginative name for a mountain range rather like calling a lake wet or a forest treelined – before it got dark again. So it was not a very scenic ride, as had been promised.

  • Allan Richardson

    Hi Christian
    Fascinating to read your journey report. Amtrak is indeed a rare and interesting system. I have enjoyed many happy journeys with them. However timekeeping is a big problem particularly on the long distance services and it can be difficult to plan an itinery without allowing for delays that would be considered unthinkable in this country. Just one minor point. The Station in New York is called Pennsylvania Station (shortened to Penn Station). Penn Central was the name of the Railroad Company in the North East that went bankrupt in the 1970’s/80’s.

  • Michael Willis

    The year 1856 AD

    What does this year have in common with AMTRAK 2010 AD?

    The US railway system of 1856 had approximately 22,000 miles of track.

    The US AMTRAK system of 2010 operates passenger services on approximately 22,000 miles of track.

    The Great Leap Backwards for US railways.

    Now that the ‘TEA PARTY’ has taken control of the American House of Representaives—Amtrak will have to fight for its very survival all over again.

  • Dan

    The Empire Builder timings are indeed daft – I seem to remember thinking they were better west to east. They are so daft from a scenery point of view that I wonder if the frieght roads have simply given this path as what is available? I’m not sure if VIA on The Canadian have got better timings for their equivalent train.

    As to freight of course these kind of volumes could presumably work pan europe where distance is the key, but it is the mismatch between speeds that causes the problems presumably (when you try to run passenger services at speed it costs more in terms of track quality – with frieght you can compromise on modest speed and save costs on track.

    As to Amtrak sleeper compartments, there are of course bigger ones if you want to pay more! But 2 of us in the smaller Superliner Compartment we found fine both for day and night (although spent much of the day in the ‘vista dome’ car). I prefer the way you sleep along the length of the carriage, rather than width ways as is the case in UK and most of Europe I think.

  • RapidAssistant

    Michael – obviously it’s disappointing from my POV that the US public have seemingly rejected Obama’s reforms…..makes me sad that they want to spend, eat and drive themselves into economic, and physiological oblivion. The credit crunch and the resulting recession in its aftermath (which every one of us is paying for, now) was caused primarily by American greed after all.

    That wouldn’t be so bad – easy for us in the “old world” to take a “devil may care” attitude and simply let them get on with it, but they will drag the rest of the developed world down with them if they are not careful.

  • Rapid Assistant:
    Thanks for the reply-
    Here is a bit of ‘Election Night’ observations – I waited for the ticker tape vote count –
    A local vote for the continued support of the Troy Public Library was defeated by a lot, the voting centre volunteers were calling President Obama all kinds of degrading things.
    The Re-Gressive-Conservative Tea-Party had more than enough votes to overwhelm the place – it was thumbs-up across the board…

  • AL

    The rail freight systems in North America handle 45% of the ton miles – in Europe (including the UK) the RAIL FREIGHT SYSTEM HANDLES ABOUT 11%.

  • Go stats AL:
    So, Europe needs to increase its Rail Freight usage to at least 45% of ton miles and North America needs to increase its Passenger Railways system usage from a measly 2% to 11%.
    How about a RAIL-20 Summit ?…
    The G-20 countries are the shining examples of extreme petroleum consumption and balloning obesity.