Why America Hates Its Trains: Part 1


Travel Analysis

Hitting the buffers

Any American would tell you that the way to travel across these 50 states is by car - trains are scarcely mentioned and we set out to figure out why.

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The United States' obsession with cars is not going away anytime soon. As such, in the world's centre of automobiles, the topic of train travel usually flies under the radar. But why is the case?

Not only is owning a car innate to the American dream, learning to drive one is considered a rite of passage and a symbol of achieving personal freedom. After all, there is an undeniable sense of liberation that comes from being able to drive out onto the open road, or simply to the nearby fast-food joint. On the other hand, trains are limited to the tracks they run on, and to the limited schedules that they have adhere to.

Yet, this wasn't always the case. Amongst calls by groups to 'make trains great again', it is prudent to realise that rail travel in the US was once magnificent and indeed, one of the best in the world. However, with the mass production and adoption of the automobile, the railroad gradually lost its position as America's dominant form of getting around.

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America's Locomotive Heydays

Quiz any American today and few would be able to tell you when the US actually had a proper transcontinental railroad service that linked cities on the East to the metropolises lining the Pacific Coast. Indeed, the once existence of a proper transcontinental railroad is rarely celebrated or remembered.

However, without the country's early transcontinental services and its other branch cousins, it is doubtful that the country could have emerged as the world's preeminent industrial and military power.

Since the young nations' early heady days, the railroads were crucial in supporting industry and communication that spanned across the country's large swathes of land. After all, one should realise that the distance between New York and Los Angeles is immense - traversing the continent still takes 6 hours by air with today's technology.

Wherever the railroad served, industries and towns popped up to serve the needs of passengers or act as interlocutors of commerce. From coast to coast, the railroad allowed financial markets to prosper and even inspired the creation of standardized time zones across the country.

Similarly, the railroad also played an essential role in forging a sense of nationhood out of otherwise sovereign states that found themselves in a loose federation. Whereas in the past, the existence of a North-South divide (and we know the consequences of that) formed due to cultural differences, it wouldn't be too far-fetched to think that a social bifurcation between the old East and the burgeoning West could have arisen if not for the unifying role of the railroads.

Yet, while these railroads of yore were once the envy of the world, that moniker could hardly be descriptive of the state of passenger rail these days. 

The United States’ largest population centres and hubs of commerce, culture and pretty much everything else is on the whole, defined by its cities on the coast. That is, New York, Boston, Philadelphia and DC on the East and Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle on the West. Yet, there is currently no single cross-country commuter train line that links the coasts together. The closest approximation to such a service would probably be the Amtrak Empire Builder between Chicago and the Pacific Northwest, though you'll probably get weird looks if you announced your intention to stay the entire route. 

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Systemic inadequacies in America's train networks

Tickets are expensive and services offer little value

A roundtrip ticket between Chicago and Seattle on Amtrak's Empire Builder costs around $292, giving you the privilege of spending 46 hours on a train (in a seat and not a bed, mind you). In contrast, a 4.5-hour flight between the two cities costs slightly more at $326, but that's when tickets aren't on sale. Unless you're a real train otaku, it's not hard to decide between the two, no matter what you think about the theatrics of the TSA.

Similarly, short-haul journeys on trains are less palatable once compared to their alternatives. Amtrak will sell you tickets between New York and Philadelphia for $39 while the less time efficient state-run service (NJT/SEPTA) comes in at a fixed $26. By comparison, Greyhound buses routinely cost $10 for a seat on any of their hourly schedules. Like the previous example, it's not hard to justify an aversion to rail travel; unless you're adamant about avoiding the horrors of the PABT in New York City, though travelling through Penn Station is hardly a better alternative. 

Add to these comparisons the fact that Amtrak's services run below advertised speeds, often suffer from delays, cancellations and even line suspensions, and you can start to see why commuters are unhappy. Consequently, with the attractiveness of the bus' low fares, the speed of the jet and the convenience of the car, rail travel in America in almost all circumstances, pales in comparison to its competition.

Trains don't serve enough cities or do so frequently enough

Rail journeys in the US remain largely regional in nature, as trips most occurring within narrow corridors as seen in this map. Apart from this, it is worth observing that for close to 70% of the contiguous United States, rail traffic is sparse and in the case of some states, completely non-existent. How then do people get about? Well, for short distances, the primacy of the automobile remains unchallenged. To connect those far-flung and large metropolises, a more romantic (ignoring the quality of US carriers for now) travel solution has already been devised.

Why is air travel in the US consistently topping world rankings for metrics like passengers carried, passenger-kilometres flown and airline fleet size? This is not out of sheer chance. The overwhelming volume of flights over the US dwarfs any other country precisely because it took up the slack left behind by the decline of rail travel.

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The lack of supporting infrastructure

The fact that little US cities have developed adequate public transport systems to complement intercity rail services is yet another boon for the endeavour. Upon arrival, the lack of a proper public transport network means that passengers often have to rent cars to reach their final destination after disembarking from the main (and oftentimes only) train station of their destination. Not only does this add more costs to the journey, the hassle of coordinating the entire enterprise whilst being at the mercy of very frequent train delays means that many would abandon the idea at the earliest opportunity.

With the fact that for the most part, travel to and from 'rural' areas in America via rail is impossible, one can start to see how passenger rail services have rendered themselves irrelevant. 

Low speed trains

Every other developed country operates rail services at speeds that are close to twice that of America's fastest - the Acela Express that averages 132 km/h. This is fundamentally because the Acela operates on century-old infrastructure meaning that the country's most important rail service still subsists on 19th century technology. Additionally, due to the lack of dedicated infrastructure for the 'high speed' service, Acela trains often have to share its tracks with much slower commuter trains, thereby adding time to the whole journey.

While plans have been mooted to construct a dedicated high speed track to elevate the standards of the country's most critical rail service, the logistical and financial cost of acquiring land and developing it is immense. Therefore, the greatest challenge facing rail travel today lies with trying to convince budget hawks in Congress to support the proposal.

Abysmal on time performance

In the US, on time performance is essentially a tale of two scenarios.

When rail infrastructure (read: tracks and signals) is not owned by the passenger rail company, on time performance is abysmal at best. For example, Amtrak's California Zephyr, Empire Builder and Cascades services run on tracks owned by freight rail companies like Union Pacific who unsurprisingly prioritise their own freight trains over Amtrak's. This means that the Zephyr has an on-time performance of 49%, the Empire Builder about 59% and for the Cascades between Seattle and Portland, figures hover around 55%. Though technically these delays aren't the fault of Amtrak, the net effect for the passenger is the same.

By comparison, as Amtrak owns a majority of the rail infrastructure on routes like its flagship Northeast Regional (NEC) and Acela Express, on-time performance stands at 77% and 76% respectively. Similarly, services across NJ Transit's network stands proud at around 90% whilst SEPTA manages with a respectable 81%.

That being said, the fundamental need to conform to train schedules still makes rail travel less convenient in comparison to the freedom of driving yourself to your destination on your own time.

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The Origins of Decline

The sheer size of the United States

Tourists that haven't been to the United States often underestimate the sheer size of the country. However, this reality is not lost when locals attempt choose the best means of getting from point A to B.

The reason why Amtrak's NEC service, NJT, SEPTA and New York State's extensive network of trains are able to persist is precisely because of geography. Not only do the destinations these services operate between exist within close proximity with each other, they are sufficiently dense population centres that are able to support high frequency train services. By comparison, the sparsely populated expanse of 'rural America' give little incentive for companies to operate rail services especially since people there have come to be reliant on cars anyway. 

In essence, the large economies of scale big cities provide to rail operators means that an acceptable rail service can still be maintained. In this environment, though rail travel is often more expensive than some of the alternatives, there is still enough demand to satiate the bottom lines of rail operators. 

Unclear direction and inconsistent support from the Federal Government

Though Amtrak has been boasting a high fare-box recovery ratios in recent years (peaking at 94% in 2016), the inadequate amount of funding it receives from the federal government means that it is wholly unable to improve or even replace aging infrastructure be it rails, signals or train sets. In that vein, as Amtrak has to subsist on federal funding (a quasi-private company) approved only on an annual basis, it is basically impossible for it to carry out long term development projects. It is also unable to institute proper fiscal projections, resulting in an extremely shortsighted approach to rail operation and development. 

Unlike in other countries where a monopoly tends to signal an erroneous situation where a company is unfairly able to dominate a market and rake in huge profits, this is not the case for Amtrak. It is a well known fact that the operator is unable to earn enough money to maintain service quality or let alone improve it. The result of this is a continuation of the long term terminal decline of rail travel in the US.

If you take a look at the list of services that Amtrak operates, you’ll realise that the majority of them are operated in conjunction with states instead of being purely commercial pursuits. This seems to indicate that the profitability of operating rail services as a private endeavour is pretty low. The Trump administration also recently dealt another blow to the beleaguered Amtrak after announcing further funding cuts for Amtrak's long distance routes instead calling it to focus on its most popular and state-supported routes.

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The automobile revolution

As the US went into car mania in 50s, the national love for rail travel started to wane as attention was transferred to the sense of convenience and liberation that personal vehicles came to represent. Consequently, car culture started to grip America as cities like Detroit and Los Angeles became wholly reliant on cars as their primary and currently only acceptable form of transport.

In conjunction with the growing suburbanisation of American households, the appetite for funding rail projects began to fall in favour of developing an extensive network of highways and roads. The federal effort to link its cities (President Einsenhower's Interstate Highway System) hence diverted precious funding that could have gone to expanding or improving rail services. To illustrate this point, while the highway budget for 1960s  amounted to $25 billion, the Urban Mass Transportation Act only provided a smidgin of funding - $375 million. 

America's leading role in global automobile production also didn't help to curb the massive loss of interest in rail travel as it soon came to pass that owning a vehicle became an essential part of being 'American'. Automobile manufacturers also got massive subsidies from Congress.

Hence, as passenger numbers started to fall across the board, rail companies were suddenly faced with revenue streams that were drying up. Beginning in the 60s, this gradual running down of profitability proliferated across the country until only a few isolated high-traffic corridors remained, which till this day, are the only profitable intercity routes that are in operation.

The dream of flight

Though the rise of the automobile does account for a huge part of why the popularity of train travel waned, it is not able to explain the plight of the railroads in aggregate. For one, it is actually incorrect to say that people started to drive between New York and California en masse as no one of the right frame of mind would want take a 42 hour car trip spanning 10 states.

Starting in the 1970s with the opening up of air travel to the public (through technological innovation and market deregulation), a mass exodus away from long distance train travel occured as consumers looked towards the sky. By the 80s, the rail industry had already become a shell of its former self, confirming predictions by analysts that the jet age would sound the death knell of long distance passenger rail travel.

Hence, the two punch effect of an automobile and aviation revolution (which occured in close temporal proximity with each other) completely derailed the rail industry.

Is the Oculus an icon of rail revival in the United States? Stay tuned for more.

Is the Oculus an icon of rail revival in the United States? Stay tuned for more.

A Tale of Transport Brinksmanship

After trekking through America's love-hate relationship with rail travel, one can't be helped but to feel nostalgic about the golden days when trains once crisscrossed the nation. This is especially the case when those feelings are juxtaposed to the current state of disrepair afflicting America's rail network.  

In any case, don't worry - our obsession with trains doesn't end here. Stay tuned to the second part of this series as we explore how America (unsurprisingly) also decided to do away with having a proper public transport system in many of its largest cities. 

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