9

From a European perspective, I have the impression that in most of the USA, intercity passenger rail travel is mestly a touristic endeavour, and not used for "ordinary" intercity travel as it is in Europe and Asia (including in those parts of Russia that are as sparsely populated as parts of the US, so it's not exclusively a matter of population density). But, Amtrak ridership is growing and there are a number of initiatives for an extension of passenger railroad. For example:

More can be found here. What is the status of those initiatives? Of course, it's easy for local legislators to come together for a "future of our region" conference and perhaps spend a few million on a feasability study concluding that a railroad (paid with somebody elses money) would benefit their region. And some proposals are outright ridiculous. The question is, therefore: are those all just feasability studies etc., or are things actually happening? How much money is being budgeted by decision-takers who would fund such an investment? Have any decisions been taken on significant expansions on passenger rail travel, or is it all just words?

7
  • 1
    I know that the Seattle area has some light rail and there is the metra in Chicago. I've also heard of plans to have high-speed rail between Chicago and St. Lewis by 2015 Jan 25, 2013 at 22:00
  • 3
    @DVK, what is it in geography that makes the US unsuited as opposed to Russia? I think it's rather a cultural thing. As for the money issue, all transportation relies on tax money for infrastructure and maintenance thereof, I'm sure the interstate highways also "lose" money...
    – gerrit
    Jan 25, 2013 at 22:13
  • 2
    @gerrit - Russia doesn't have either US's highway system, nor level of car ownership in rural areas; and most importantly, no navigable rivers for cargo transport.
    – user4012
    Jan 25, 2013 at 22:24
  • 1
    @DVK - OK, by geography I thought of city sizes and population density and such. For the rest it's semantics and self-reinforcing (car ownership is linked to US culture, there more need for car ownership because of limited public transportation, and there is limited public transportation because of the high car ownership, etc.)
    – gerrit
    Jan 25, 2013 at 22:27
  • 1
    @DVK, also, one might compare Sweden which perhaps has similar car ownership and road infrastructure to the US, but also commonly used rail — one does not rule out the other. So I think it's really a cultural thing, mostly (US individual vs. Sweden more collective).
    – gerrit
    Jan 25, 2013 at 23:00

2 Answers 2

5

As a fan of rail, although not a railfan, I am acutely aware of a variety of these projects, and the sad reality is that they are currently unlikely to move forward for a variety of reasons, but the most important are:

  1. Competition from freight
  2. Competition from airlines
  3. Distance between cities
  4. Low cost of fuel

Competition from Freight

Although U.S. passenger travel is relatively poor, the freight lines are excellent. U.S. rolling stock is on average much larger than rolling stock in Europe and in Asia because it is focused on freight. Per pound shipping by train for raw materials (e.g. coal, gravel) and larger products (e.g. cars) is much more efficient by rail, and is critical to this day for economic production in many cities not on a coast, like St. Louis, Dallas or Chicago.

When the U.S. created Amtrak to take over passenger rail, in most instances freight lines retained the rail. Not only that, but the lines often have the right of way as well, so even if other lines were to be built the freight lines would have priority. The trade-off for most freight is speed for cost, which is a trade off passengers are unwilling to make, but the freight lines have many legal rights, and are the source of a lot of know-how about running a line.

Competition with airlines

Airlines compete in two ways: blocking construction and undercutting prices. Texas is as close to an ideal location to build new high-speed rail as is possible: low land costs, few legal and political impediments, and even a private intiative to build a high speed rail and yet there isn't one yet. Part of the reason is opposition from Southwest, one of the major discount airlines which has a core business doing flights around the four big Texas cities. Of course, now that Southwest has a more global focus, its opposition is lower, but it was enough to stop progress for decades.

Even without direct political opposition, there are few situations where rail travel would be quickly competitive with air travel immediately. The bread and butter of all passenger service is business travel, and they are already used to air travel, so you would have to convince them quickly. Business people need point to point travel rapidly, since time is money. Attempting to bridge the gap with tourist travel will actually alienate business travelers, turning commercial ventures into what Amtrak is now--a slow moving land cruise--which tourists don't mind, but business-people would hate. If you could reduce security concerns, rail could make up the difference some with reduced time at the station, but most frequent travelers (i.e. the people who make up the lion's share of profit for airlines) are already minimizing that time with programs like Pre-Check, so there isn't as much gain to be made there.

The bottom line is that until rail is cheaper than flight, it will consistently lose out on business traffic, and tourism. It will never be faster, except in a few mid-level distances.

City Distance

When rail was first introduced it was a godsend for U.S. cities which are ages apart. As long as the competition was horseback or carriage, train won hands down. Once air travel became available, however, those distances worked against it. Flight is just so much faster than rail.

High-speed rail mitigates that at distances of about 200-300 miles. Those distances are fairly common in Europe, but rare in the U.S. Los Angeles and San Diego, which are often thought of as being in the same Megalopolis are actually over 100 miles apart, which is another country for many places in Europe. They may be the closest two cities, other than the Eastern seaboard, or twin cities like Minneapolis-St. Paul, or Dallas Ft. Worth, which themselves are nearly 100 miles apart.

Even in close cities, the geography of the city works against rail. It is frequently only economical for those relatively near a train station to travel by rail. This is not a problem in really old cities, where populations are concentrated near a center. In the U.S., even cities like Chicago and St. Louis are very spread out, leaving the option of having a single station at either end of the route, where the customer base will only be the relatively low population center, or multiple stops to make it attractive to more locations, but increasing the time making it less attractive to certain kinds of passengers.

This is the problem with the currently proposed rail between Chicago and St. Louis, until there are hourly or more frequent trips it will be inconvenient for anyone outside the Chicago or St. Louis city area to take the train (i.e. most of the people who might want to use it). Even someone who lives in Aurora could drive the majority of the way between Aurora and St. Louis in about the same time it would take to drive to Chicago, board the train, take the faster-than-driving-train to St. Louis, and that isn't accounting for waiting for a train! If you start adding stops at places like Aurora, Springfield, etc. then the trip becomes shorter for them but longer for the people who are near Union Station, making that a less attractive option there.

Fuel Cost

In the end, all of this goes away if fuel becomes too expensive. Whether car or air travel, the reason that it is affordable to travel those ways rather than train is that the fuel is not too expensive. Unfortunately, fuel would have to be somewhere near $10 a gallon or more before rail becomes an attractive for most people. It is conceivable that the government could tax fuel that much, and the $10 a gallon figure is thrown around in political circles on the left precisely for this reason. However, if that were true then all of the supply chains that currently rely upon trucks would have to be reconfigured--and every supply chain would still have trucks.

Transition costs would eat up any advantage for several years and inflict egregious damage on the economy. In the long run it might work out, but it might not. There distances between cities would still exist for example, and you could end up with no good airlines and no reliable train travel.

15
  • Great essay. I think one reason the 10$/gallon figure is thrown around in the left is that it's the price of petrol/gasoline in many European countries. Of course, a lot of the points you describe apply elsewhere as well, such as the tradeoff in travelling to a HSR hub or driving all the way, for which you can find various solutions studying different (European) timetables. Realistically, if anywhere, I would expect HSR to make most sense in US megaregions. And I think you miss an important reason: US car culture.
    – gerrit
    Jan 28, 2016 at 23:47
  • This is good. It should be added, though, that the competition with both freight and airlines is a bit of a false competition in that both industries are heavily subsidized by the government. It's not that airlines are competitions as much as it is the airlines can compete easier because they receive more government subsidies. It should be noted that Amtrak survives mainly in spite of the government, rather than due to it: nationaljournal.com/magazine/2015/04/17/…
    – user1530
    Jan 29, 2016 at 6:01
  • @gerrit You are absolutely correct about the price influence from Europe driving the fixation on $10 per gallon, but even prices in Europe seldom reach that high of a price. According to official stats, the most expensive petrol in the world is in Hong Kong (globalpetrolprices.com/gasoline_prices) and that still doesn't crack $10.... Jan 29, 2016 at 16:09
  • @gerrit I hear the 'car culture' argument a lot, but I don't buy it. If it were true, you would see cost insensitivity to price costs and time costs, but you don't see that. When the price of fuel rises, American's but more efficient cars. In area's where cheaper options are available--such as where parking & fuel are expensive in large cities--people seek out those cheaper forms of transit. While some people do drive greater distances than might be otherwise be expected for the most part people take car trips over plane trips when either:... Jan 29, 2016 at 16:17
  • @gerrit 1) it is faster than flying, or 2) they have more time than money, which is why the "road trip" is a facet of high school, college, and working class families and not professional life. That said, this is an area where actual analysis is possible. I think you are also right, if we see HSR it will be in those mid-distance areas where common travel is like, such as is found in the megaregions. Jan 29, 2016 at 16:19
0

The mayors of Kansas City, MO, Wichita, KS, and Oklahoma City, OK signed an agreement a few years ago to connect the Southwest Chief (Chicago to Los Angeles) to the Heartland Flyer (Oklahoma City to Dallas). The initiative was studied by the KS Department of Transportation but nothing has come of it. (http://www.ksdot.org/PDF_Files/FINAL-Amtrak-Study.pdf)

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .