Why are American trains failing?

Discussion in 'Politics, Religion, Social Issues' started by nbs2, Nov 12, 2007.

  1. nbs2 macrumors 68030

    nbs2

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    #1
    Living in the suburbs along the NE corridor and working in the city, I find that my life is rather affected by the goings-on of the American train industry. When work send me into downtown DC or Baltimore, I take the local commuter rail. If work sends me further out along the corridor, I take Amtrak (last minute along the NE, it is the best option).

    I believe that a successful train industry is needed to bring the whip down on the airlines to improve service. Automotive travel is just too different from the airlines to call them competitors.

    Granted, Amtrak has long gotten the short end of the federal funding stick. Federal funding is key to making broad improvements that would encourage riders to move from aircraft to trains. But, is that the only reason that the NE corridor is the only segment where Amtrak is even marginally profitable? I would have expected that Amtrak, with its control of the passenger rail lines, might have even some of the success that the freight industry enjoys. But, instead, they continually founder, only encouraging cuts as you have to question if the only reason to fund the trains is pork barrel spending.

    Losses are greater than ever, as prices continue to rise. Is it time for Amtrak to be privatized? Do we give Amtrak a massive dose of federal funding in a one time shot to try and get something going? Or is there something that Amtrak can do from the inside to improve itself? I know that the solution cannot be singular, but there has to be a greater weakness.

    I only ask all this because we are planning on celebrating Christmas at my sister-in-law's place in Utah (there is a long story about why we are looking for tickets now - I typed it up before I realized it's irrelevancy to the proceedings). Looking at leaving on Friday 12/21, getting home on 1/2, I noticed a drastic difference between trains and planes. Trains will give us 7 days there, planes 11. Travel cost per day of visit? $281 and $133. I did look at getting the Roomette on the train because of the long travel time, and First class on the plane because it was $20 more than coach.

    In the end, who would choose the train?
     

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  2. Applespider macrumors G4

    Applespider

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    looking through rose-tinted spectacles...
    #2
    Aside from the underinvestment, the fact that passengers are less important than freight and can (and do) get stuck outside stations while freight goes through and that there's not enough trains to make it convenient compared to planes. In the US, you have the additional problem of distance and the time taken - although that's not helped by the slowness of the trains and the other problems above.

    There's also a general perception problem that trains are for those who can't afford to fly (despite trains often being more expensive) and people can be put off by the thought of spending hours in odd company (at least flights are quicker!)

    In the UK, there's a similar problem. My mother lives 400 miles or so from me. It is generally cheaper for me to fly to visit her than catch the train because there are far more subsidies on airline fuel than the trains get - and it's an hour or so faster - which seems important on a weekend trip.

    The answer? Make the trains more pleasant and sell the experience for the leisure traveller for long trips. In Australia, there are long-distance trains that actually stop for a few hours in places so that travellers can get off and stretch their legs and try an 'experience' in the town. In the US, I seem to recall getting stuck in sidings doing nothing for hours except on the Caltrain which although slow, seems reasonably efficient and good value.

    I have booked a train to visit Mum this Christmas. The excess baggage charges, the hassle of security at the airport with gifts, the fact that I got a cheap first class deal with free wifi and powerpoints for the laptop and because I'm going up for over a week made it worthwhile. Otherwise, it would be like this weekend - and I'd be on a plane again.
     
  3. Ugg macrumors 68000

    Ugg

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    Penryn
    #3
    Politics pure and simple. Freight trains always have the right of way in the US. Passenger trains get left behind. There's also been a lack of investment in rolling stock and most importantly, a lack of investment in the rails themselves. Here in the west, many routes have only one set of rails.

    There has been talk of a high speed rail link between San Francisco and Los Angeles but nothing's come of it. Probably the most successful routes in the west are Seattle, Sacramento/San Francisco and Los Angeles' commuter rail. In Washington and Oregon there is a fairly popular state funded rail link but it's hampered by a lack of high speed track.

    West of the Mississippi, there simply isn't the population to justify the billions of dollars that it would take to make train travel feasible. Sure, the west coast would benefit but who needs high speed rail between Omaha and Denver?

    The Railroad Act of 1862 transformed the US but it only happened because the government was behind it.

    Privatization isn't the answer. Costs would skyrocket and routes would disappear and only the wealthy would be able to afford it.
     
  4. leekohler macrumors G5

    leekohler

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    Chicago, Illinois
    #4
    I love the train. I use Amtrak whenever I can rather than dealing with airports. It's a lot more social too. I've met some great people riding Amtrak. And don't forget the bar car! :)
     
  5. IJ Reilly macrumors P6

    IJ Reilly

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    #5
    This project actually had some momentum until the governor worked to stop it a few months back. I believe they were on the verge of starting the right-of-way acquisition.

    As you pointed out, the biggest problem with Amtrak travel is keeping to any semblance of a schedule, because freight always has first priority. Without rails dedicated to passenger service, Amtrak will always be a mess.
     
  6. Thanatoast macrumors 6502a

    Thanatoast

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    Denver
    #6
    It's too slow, too expensive and doesn't go anywhere. From Denver, at least. I'd much prefer to take the train, but since I don't have a reason to travel to Sacramento or Chicago, my options are limited. I could go to New Orleans (family) but it's a two-day trip at twice the price.

    If the experience were significantly better than being eye-balled by security and stuffed in an airplane I might consider it. In fact, I might try it next year just to see, but two days is a long time, even in wider seats. :eek:

    There's a proposal for high speed rail (>90 mph) along the front range that I'm rooting for, to be completed at the same time as our light rail project if we approve funding next year. What we need even more is a rail line up I-70 stopping at all the ski resorts. With sufficient luxury, (not a ton, but better than "ok") and reasonable prices I think it could work. Why drive 5 hours through a blizzard to Vail when you can ride? Of couse, C-DOT is all about widening I-70 (an almost impossible task), and they say we could definitely handle today's volume of traffic when they finish in 2025.
     
  7. kainjow Moderator emeritus

    kainjow

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  8. Ugg macrumors 68000

    Ugg

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    #8
    Going through Chico there is a single set of rails. In order to put in another set, they'd have to buy up millions of dollars worth of property in order to create the width they'd need. Then millions would have to be spent on crossing upgrades and that's just one town on the major California north/south train corridor.
     
  9. it5five macrumors 65816

    it5five

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    #9
    I would.

    I vowed never again to get on an airplane unless I am absolutely forced to. I don't want to go through draconian security procedures, I don't want to be treated like cattle, I don't want to be stuck in the airplane on the runway for hours on end.

    I'd even rent a hybrid if I had to drive a long distance, if the train weren't an option, before I would even step foot in an airport.
     
  10. leekohler macrumors G5

    leekohler

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    #10
    Yep, here's the sad part- I figured out that a 7 hour train ride back home to Ohio actually takes less time than going to the airport, getting through security and then having my parents drive an hour and a half to Cleveland to get me. That's how bad flying has become. I'd much rather walk onto a train after work and sit and get trashed with people I just met than get stuck on the tarmac for hours, not able to even get out of my seat.
     
  11. mactastic macrumors 68040

    mactastic

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    #11
    It's a population density issue. Only in places with extremely dense populations does mass transit work (of any kind, not just trains).
     
  12. EricNau Moderator emeritus

    EricNau

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    San Francisco, CA
    #12
    Very true. The few people I know who have taken Amtrak from Northern to Southern CA have been upwards of 24 hours late! ...That's why no one takes the train.

    But I've never been able to figure out why Amtrak can't seem to work their timetables around the Freight schedules. ...It's as if Amtrak just writes their schedules without any other considerations, and just prays the lines will be clear (which they never are).
     
  13. Thanatoast macrumors 6502a

    Thanatoast

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    #13
    Here in Denver high density projects are springing up around the light rail stations. It's a chicken and egg problem. (egg, BTW :D )

    And if you live in Dever's southern suburbs it actually takes less time and is cheaper to park at the farthest light rail station and ride in to downtown than it is to drive and find and pay for parking downtown.
     
  14. IJ Reilly macrumors P6

    IJ Reilly

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    #14
    I think the freight schedules must be the major variable. Amtrak has no control over those. We rode the Coast Starlight from Southern California to Portland a number of years ago. We took a sleeper, which is fun, but the train arrived in Portland about six hours late, IIRC. Not a way to go if you're in a hurry or on a scheudule. Your train spends a lot of time on sidings waiting for freights to pass.
     
  15. mactastic macrumors 68040

    mactastic

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    #15
    Well, right. And the problem is, how do you convince someone to invest in a light rail system where there are as-of-yet no houses, or conversely how do you convince someone willing to commute via mass transit to live somewhere and wait for a promised transit line to materialize?

    You have to provide both at once, which means someone has to provide an economic incentive for it to happen. And right now it appears we'd rather put our economic incentives into welfare for oil and gas companies.
     
  16. latergator116 macrumors 68000

    latergator116

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    #16
    I took the Lake Shore Limited and Empire Builder (which were both completely full) from Boston to Seattle this past summer and loved every bit of it... I think after the 3.5 day journey it was only 1 hour late. I know that the Coast Starlight runs mostly over Union Pacific track which is notorious for holding up Amtrak trains.

    There is no way Amtrak will be privatized.... Amtrak was formed because the freight railroads were losing money with their passenger service, so privatization obviously doesn't work. When Amtrak was formed in the 70's part of the agreement was that the freight railroads would give Amtrak priority over freights. Of course, that hasn't happened and the freight RR's continue to delay Amtrak because they know nothing will happen to them.

    EricNau, you can't write the Amtrak schedule around the freight schedule. Some of the busier lines had upwards of 100 train passing through a day, so it is inevitable you are going to run into something.
     
  17. EricNau Moderator emeritus

    EricNau

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    #17
    Oh, I know. I just see no reason why the delays cannot be included in Amtrak's scheduled departure and arrival times.
     
  18. IJ Reilly macrumors P6

    IJ Reilly

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    #18
    I think they are, up to a point, but the delays caused by freight train priorities are difficult to predict.
     
  19. geese macrumors 6502a

    geese

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    #19
    From a UK perspective, privatisation certainly isnt the answer, what with its terribly high ticket prices, its woeful project-management, and its fragmented organisation. It cost more to upgrade 500 miles of line on the west-coast of the UK then it did to put a man on the moon, apparently.

    With some funding, the US could have some nice, high-speed rail lines much like the ones in continental Europe. The US isnt short of land, couldn't it double up rail lines (turning 2 tracks into four), thus increasing the capacity for both freight and passenger traffic?

    I think train travel is under-rated as a method of long-distance travel. The journey from London to Edinburgh on the GNER train is lovely (if a little long and sometimes outrageously expensive). The intercity journeys i took in Italy were some of the finest I've ever been on (and wonderfully cheap too). Anyone who'd prefer to cram themselves on a cheap London-Paris flight then go on scenic, 2 and a half hour Eurostar train journey needs their head examined.
     
  20. Rodimus Prime macrumors G4

    Rodimus Prime

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    Oct 9, 2006
    #20
    I do not think train could compete with the airlines in cost. Also trains are slow compared to the airline. Just look at your travel time and compared it if you flew.
    Plus it all a matter of space because of how long it takes you need more space per person which also drives up the cost.

    Lastly in America using the train has one other problem to over come and that is America is BIG.

    Time wise depending on how far I fly I never had a problem with airport security. If I deal with a bad one I just do not react to them and laugh it off. It completely removes all their power.
     
  21. leekohler macrumors G5

    leekohler

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    #21
    Oh yes, they can compete cost-wise. I had to take Amtrak to Colorado once for a funeral, and it cost me $200 vs. over $1000 because I had to go last-minute. Also, it's cheaper for me to take it back to Ohio by about $50.
     
  22. nbs2 thread starter macrumors 68030

    nbs2

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    #22
    With my only American train experience being in the NE, I guess I never appreciated rail line ownership problems. Amtrak owns some NE corridor lines, and I figured they owned more than that.

    Sure, the commuter that I take is on CSX lines, but going to Washington I've never been delayed (well, maybe once or twice that I can't remember). Going to Baltimore, I've been way late...I guess longer distances just compound themselves and I just hadn't considered that.
     
  23. killerrobot macrumors 68020

    killerrobot

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    #23
    I take the train here all that I can - it beats the hassle of getting to the airport (about 35 min Metro ride from mid town madrid), waiting in line (30 min - 2 hours depending on the time and flight), getting through security (another 1-2 hours), waiting for the flight (not counting any time here because all the other lines take care of it for now), etc... all in all the train can take about the same amount of time, but as stated before, I find the whole experience a lot less stressful.

    In the US I would take the train non-stop, except for the prices. They are ridiculously high. I however don't care about the "extra" time it takes because you can actually do more work, reading, landscape viewing, relaxing, and so on, during the train ride I feel.

    I think everyone's "rush, rush ... i've gotta be there now" attitude is why passenger trains in the US fail to some extent - that and the pricing. It would be really interesting to see what would happen to train travel if the government did subsidize it to the point that it was cheaper than or the same as airfare (especially with the invention and rising costs of f!"·%"·$& fuel surcharges). I think it would become a success.
     
  24. mariahlullaby macrumors 6502a

    mariahlullaby

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    NYC
    #24
    I much prefer the train. I love that I can arrive 10 minutes before the train leaves, hop on, and get into a normal-sized, comfortable seat, have a lovely view, plug my computer in, and enjoy. And, my ears don't pop :) Plus, I hate having to pay an arm and a leg to make it to the airport 2472927849 hours before my flight, remove everything I need from my carry on because they're terror threats, and wait around for another hour to find out I'm delayed.

    Unfortunately, I rarely get to take the train. I take it to visit friends in Baltimore, and fly to visit home in Atlanta. For shorter trips, to Philadelphia or whatnot, I take the bus because I'm in college and broke :)
     
  25. yg17 macrumors G5

    yg17

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    St. Louis, MO
    #25
    A couple coworkers and I were actually discussing this today...


    An example I brought up, is that over the summer when my family went from STL to Washington DC, I looked at Amtrak for the hell of it. It was significantly more expensive than flying. It was a 23 hour trip, not including a layover in Chicago (which was a few hours). So for cheaper, we had a nonstop flight and arrived at our destination in about 2 hours. Why on earth would we, on time constraints (we all have jobs and limited time off) want to spend a total of 48 hours on the train? Seems like a waste of time. If we really wanted to see the country and didn't want to bother with the hassles of flying, we would've driven (which probably would've been the cheapest too), and it's about 13 hours each way instead of 23. So, why on earth would we want to take Amtrak?

    The only thing it *might* be good for is shorter routes. But I just checked Amtrak for St. Louis to Chicago, and while that's only about 5 and a half hours (same as driving) that's still 50 bucks each way. My car can do the 300 miles to Chicago on one tank of gas (which is, even with these outrageous prices, is still under 50 bucks). So again, why would I choose Amtrak? If I didn't have a car that's one thing, but most people do have a car, and see no need to take a train when their car is cheaper, faster, and not based on the schedule of freight trains
     

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