The American passenger rail—once a model around the globe—is now something of an oddball novelty, a political boondoggle to some, a colossal transit failure to others. The author James Howard Kunstler likes to say that American trains “would be the laughing stock of Bulgaria.”
The reasons for Amtrak’s bad reputation are totally damning—its service is neither practical nor reliable. Impractical because most of the time, it’s cheaper and faster to drive or fly. Unreliable because more often than not, the trains are really, really late. There are stories of 12-hour delays on routes that would take six hours to drive; of breakdowns in the desert; of five-hour unexplained standstills in upstate New York. Then there’s the mother of all Amtrak horror stories: a California Zephyr that stopped dead on its tracks for two full days, victim of both an “act of God” (as corporate legalese wisely defines a landslide on the tracks) and gross staffing negligence.A lot of Amtrak's reliability problems are structural, stemming from the fact that the passenger rail company (a state-owned, loss-making private company) doesn't actually own the tracks it operates on. Nor are the tracks owned by a separate entity (as is the case with Britain's privatised railways; not usually a model to emulate, though looking surprisingly good compared to Amtrak); they're owned by the freight companies, who are legally obliged to allow Amtrak to operate on them. Since it's more profitable for them to move freight around, passenger traffic gets the rough end of the pineapple, and often has to wait.
The correspondent's train eventually made it to Oakland at 2:30am, a little over eight hours late.
Though while America's legacy rail network languishes in decline, California is planning its own high-speed rail system, initially going from Sacramento (north-east of the San Francisco Bay) to San Diego (right near the Mexican border), via Fresno and LA. (A branch to San Francisco, following the Caltrain route and terminating at the Transbay Terminal, is planned.) The site comes with glossy computer renderings of state-of-the-art high-speed trains speeding through unmistakeably Californian landscapes, sometimes with high-rise buildings rising like VU meter bars behind them.
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