The Null Device

America's passenger rail FAIL

A writer from GOOD Magazine ("for people who give a damn") examines why America's passenger rail system has fallen so far behind Europe and Asia, by taking a train journey from New York to Oakland:
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.

There are 3 comments on "America's passenger rail FAIL":

Posted by: ctime Fri Jul 11 20:25:23 2008

I live in Phoenix and we don't even HAVE Amtrak service here, the map to the right on that page is false. The last service here was sometime in the early 90's, if you want to take a train anywhere you're either driving to nowheresville Maricopa or driving upto flagstaff (or taking a bus). It's a complete joke that the 5/6 largest city in the US doesn't have any train service, but is entirely a reflection on the pervasive car culture here that doesn't value or recognize the benefits of trains. I will say that the Amtrak service between Portland, OR and Vancouver, BC is awesome though and "high speed". The service in the NE is also very reasonable due to the historical importance of train service there in the past.

I'd love to see high speed service connecting LA to Las Vegas and PHX as well as Mexicali..

Posted by: Greg Sat Jul 12 02:29:26 2008

I've been in Palo Alto a few days, and it's a weird combination of "highly car oriented" with a small amount of very good PT. The overall layout of Silicon Valley reminds me of Brisbane - everything is just far enough away from each other that you have to drive. But (1) a lot of people who work here commute each day on a great Caltrain service that runs frequently and reliably from San Francisco. (2) You can take your bike on trains and even buses, which have a rack on the front. (3) The BART is fabulous, though it only covers a specific area. A lot of the coders/hipsters like PT.

Posted by: acb Sat Jul 12 10:12:30 2008

Yes; you see so many people using laptops (usually Apple ones) on Caltrain at 10pm. Which also suggests not much fear of crime. I can't imagine people using laptops on the London Overground at night.

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