Why America missed the train

Travelling around America by rail for the past two weeks to research my new book on US railways has given me a lot of time to reflect on the transport failings of this great nation. It is a paradox that the country which most depended on the railways for its very existence as a nation has now largely turned its back on them, at least as far as passengers are concerned.

 Amtrak, which runs the passenger network, came into existence in the 1970s because the railroad companies, who were struggling as the nationwide Interstate highway system was being completed, were only interested in their freight operations. Passengers had been fleeing the rail system both into their cars and onto the growing air market for years and the companies were threatening to close down all the services since they were lossmaking and a burden.

 Initially, the government was happy to let them do this but there was a public outcry and Amtrak was created to take them on. There is, therefore, a network of Amtrak services, mostly daily, covering all but two of the 48 mainland states but it is in no way a public transport system, rather a kind of railtour company for those with time on their hands or a dread of flying. There are around 25 million passengers per year, not even a fortnight’s worth in the UK, and while there has been some growth, not least among the young who like travelling on trains so that they can fiddle with their electronic devices while they travel, Amtrak nowhere near covers its costs and is forever struggling for federal funds.

 The service on the trains is overtly friendly and efficient, but rigid in a way that was possibly more Soviet even than BR. Don’t ask for anything that is slightly unusual. Even going to the ‘rest room’ at the wrong time. At one point approaching Atlanta, I sought to go through the lounge car to go to the toilet, not wanting to use the minute one in my sleeping car, but the conductor said I could not as they were counting the money and ‘it was against the rules’. When I insisted, and went along, she locked the door between the cars so I could not return to my coach until we stopped at Atlanta.

 The other remarkable aspect of train travel in the US is its rigidity. You are supposed to arrive half an hour in advance for the trains but then they keep you cooped up in the station until ten minutes before departure. The platforms are the most soulless and depressing places in the world. Often tucked away under the station or a skyscraper, they are thin pieces of concrete between the tracks with no kiosks, advertising or even, apart from the odd one, names. You even have to sign your ticket if it has been purchased by credit card. Why?

 All this is made more bizarre by the fact that Amtrak has retained, and indeed exploited, the grand names used for the major train services, such as the Coast Starlight and the Empire Builder, which are now reduced to the minimalist offerings of a rather desultory state-owned company.

 President Obama wants to revitalise rail in the US and early this year announced an $8bn stimulus package which was a mix of studies on high speed rail and improving existing services. In reality, that is a drop in the ocean and to create anything like say, an InterCity service for states where there are major conurbations a few hundred miles apart would probably cost ten or twenty times that amount.

 When I reflected on whether it could have been different and a coherent rail network for passengers been retained in the days of rampant car and road expansion, I decided that probably given the politics and zeitgeist of America, the answer is probably not. You only have to look at the fierce opposition to some rail projects – and not just from Republicans – to see that the political climate in the US is unlike anything we experience in Europe. America has missed a trick by failing to nurture its passenger railways through the bad times of the postwar period and is now paying the price with its overcrowded highways and the lack of choice for its citizens.

  • Simon

    What the US is crying out for is a high-speed rail network, given the distances between cities.

  • Mad Park

    What the US is crying out for is an education system that teaches critical thinking rather than blind obedience to teevee advertising for autos and suburban homes and petrol.
    Once we throw off the yoke of the highway/petrol/single family home lobbies we’ll be ready to construct an HSR system and appropriate feeder lines in the US – say about 2040-2050?


    This is the latest ‘Christmas’ themed line from a GENERAL MOTORS CADILLAC – ‘MOTORCAR’ TV AD —

    Ebenezer Scrooge now has a choice of 2 Christmas Gifts for the year 2010—A lump of COAL or a generous slab of ASPHALT…

  • Michael Willis

    As I am presently reading your enlightening and outstanding book “Engines of War”…I have made an analogy between two seemingly unrelated ‘sprawling disasters’ loosely based on your account of the WWII defeat of German forces in the sprawling vastness of Russia and the present predicament of unsustainable suburban sprawl/lack of public transport that is quickly spiraling into unstoppable economic demise for the USA.
    Sprawl will gobble you up and deplete your resources.
    Your book should be required reading at the West Point Military Academy and all branches of the US Military.

  • Michael Willis

    As I recall while viewing “The Prisoner” When #6 arrived at the village, he was very disoriented. As #6 explored his new surroundings, he visited the village store to look for a map of the village. The map provided was only a simple layout of the village and the surrounding hills–anyone glancing at the map would also be lost.

    I recall a group of European students arriving the the Detroit Metropolitan Airport, looking a little lost and disoriented, one of the kids told me that they kept boarding a bus that would take them right back to the airport—it was the ‘rental car bus’—they just wanted to get to the Detroit City Centre—only possible by expensive taxi, limousine or private car—no public transport serving the airport—here you will experience ‘severe spatial disorientation’—just the same as if you were at the ‘VILLAGE’ or walking across the Empty Quarter of the Saudi Arabian Desert, or the expanses of Antarctica, or the Moon…

  • Ian Parker

    Although the platforms to the trains may be depressing,some of the North American railway stations are temples to the golden era of rail travel. Buildings such as Grand Central Terminal in New York City and Union Station in Toronto are breathtaking in their construction.

    Also please remember Amtrak is not the only passenger operator,many commuter lines like NJ Transit operate rail passenger services with more planned

  • One does not have to arrive 30 minutes beforehand. Thats just a suggestion. You are free to arrive 30 seconds before departure, and engage in the familiar running/waving seen throughout the world, hoping the doors dont close as you are about to step on-board.

    You must also not forget that just because the entire system is branded as Amtrak, doesn’t mean it operates the same. California for example, has “Amtrak California” which is operated by the state, and has their own set of cars, their own sets of fares and their own set of rules and perks. There are no sleepers, for example, and some trains allow you to climb on and buy your ticket, with cash, on the train, no reservation required.

    Likewise, what you find between DC and Boston is very different from what youll find in Kansas.

  • There are really three flavors of Amtrak. First, there are the long-distance routes that are described accurately in this article.

    Second is the Northeast Corridor, most notably the Northeast Regional and Acela Express trains. Regional is for the plebs like me and the Acela is for the business travelers on expense accounts. Jokes on them because the Acela is only slightly faster. However, it is truly useful and complements a wide variety of commuter services in this region. 

    Third are the state supported routes. Amtrak California is probably the best of the state supported routes. Within Amtrak California there are three routes with many daily runs. The Pacific Surfliner is amazing for what it is, and could be so much more with greater investment. The Surfliner also complements Metrolink in the Southern California region. 

    When talking about Amtrak you really have to specify which flavor you are talking about. 

  • Well, on the Regional, you can go to the bathroom anytime. Just make sure the door locks properly – the ride I just took getting back home involved the door opening spontaneously, either just before or just after I pulled my pants up. Said train was also over an hour late leaving Penn Station and, instead of making back time using the ample schedule buffer provided, was a further 15 minutes late by the time it got to Providence.

  • Richard Davies

    We took an Acela from Wilmington to New York on Thanksgiving evening. The website states a maximum size for bags, about the size of an airline carry-on.  So we followed the rules but saw several larger bags in our car.  Perhaps it would be more of a problem on a workday with commuters.  The ticket collectors were charming, though.  But you are right that they run the service like a transcontinental train.  How to get some US legislators to take a few European trains to see how to run a railroad?

    Richard Davies

  • Alanmichaeldenton

    For a country that stands up for the individual there is a lot of the rigidity in the system which we experience in England.