What is wrong with long distance train travel in the US?

I am excited by train travel, always have been. I like riding on trains (Ashby to Embarcadero or Beijing to St Petersburg), watching trains on film (my favorite Bond film is ‘From Russia with Love’) and playing with toy trains (gosh the memories). However, when a group of friends and I recently had the opportunity to ride the Amtrak from San Francisco to Salt Lake City, we decided on renting a car instead. Why is that?

The Amtrak network is quite expansive. There is a direct line between SF and SLC. Tick that box. However, we wanted to ski for a few days in Tahoe beginning the day after our friends arrived from Australia. Unfortunately the Amtrak is an extremely slow way to get from SF to Tahoe (Truckee). Whereas Googlemaps quotes a 3hrs 6min drive time, the Amtrak takes five and a half hours! Taking the Amtrak means one day less on the slopes.

Furthermore, upon arrival in Truckee, the public transport options are slim and equally time-consuming. Alas, we decided to rent a car for the first leg of the journey. Maybe we could drop off the car in Truckee and train the rest of the way to Utah and back, after all who wants to drive 10 hours across Nevada twice? The train takes a little longer (11hrs 27min), not bad, maybe we can catch it over night?

Thwarted again, there is only one train per day to Salt Lake City from California and it arrives at 3:45am! I have terrible (and blurry) memories of arriving in a train station in Salzburg at 3 or 4 am (we tried to sleep rough on the shore of the Danube and were constantly hassled by people heading home from a nearby disco).

Alas we decided to drive the rental car all the way to Salt Lake City. Maybe we could drop the rental car off in SLC and train all the way home? This option was seriously considered, but in the end, the one-way car rental charges (to drop the car off in Salt Lake City) were too much.

We decided to keep the rental car for both legs of the journey and probably drove about 2500 kilometers in the process. A shame both for Amtrak and for us.

The Obama administration included some money in the stimulus package for building high speed rail lines in the USA. This sounds great (and don’t governments love these sorts or flagship projects,) but in our case some simpler and cheaper investments would have changed our choice of mode.

(1) The bottleneck at Donner pass (near Truckee) is largely responsible for the delays between San Francisco and Truckee (resulting in the 5hr 28min trip time). I am sure Amtrak could identify many other similar bottlenecks around the country. Minimising instances when the trains are stationary should be a more important objective that maximising top speed.

(2) It is inevitable that a train which crosses the entire country is going to make inconveniently timed arrivals at some stations. This is only a problem when there is just one train service per day. Even if the number of passengers does not justify a second daily service, Amtrak might consider changing the timetable to alternate the stations with arrivals between 12:00am and 6:00am during the week.

TTTE thinks that talk of high speed rail in the USA is laudable. But to jump in the deep end with inevitably expensive and controversial high speed rail projects, is an overt attempt at catchup. Europe and Japan have augmented well-established and well-used train networks with high speed rail. The USA should aim to fulfill the potential of the existing Amtrak network, by increasing services and removing bottlenecks, before dropping serious coin on bullet trains.

3 thoughts on “What is wrong with long distance train travel in the US?”

  1. Notwithstanding your Austrian example, the biggest problem from your discription is not the long distance trains at all – but what happens at the city end. Urban transport.

    For example, your typical downtown station in a large city does not have a rental car desk as airports do, nor an urban transit system as the alternative that is anywhere near as convenient as motor vehicle.

    At the end of the day, those routes would only be fixed up if freight required it; or if the urban sprawl caused them to become commuter rail routes and made that a political issue.

    Unlike a lot of people I do see the US as potentially a passenger rail market beyond the major cities – it would need to be reconceived though. The vast connurbations of the NE seaboard, the Lakes, Texas/Louisiana, Florida and California should be able to sustain European style mass transit, high speed rail and middle distance fast rail. The spaces in between, if well supported at the terminals, could also make these liner-style services work.

    People might retort that the density isn’t there. But you can point to Scandinavia that also lacks density, but manages to provide what services they do have at high quality levels; equally regard the many exurban sprawl suburbs in the US as simply the equivalent of European villages. I still see much of the failing as urban transport, and the transport/planning interface, rather than a long distance transport issue.

    Europe also has a network of freeways and the freeway networks in both US and Europe are full and not worth expanding.


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