My wife and I like trains. Part of it is that my wife doesn’t like to fly. Part of it is that I’d rather gnaw my own leg off than spend eight hours driving on the freeway. But when we need to take a trip our first thought is, “can we take the train?”
The answer is not as easy as it should be, because often it is “no.” And therein lies a tale.
But first, let me tell you how it should be. Because it happened to us a few days ago.
We’re in Chicago on business for my wife: a gigantic interior-design convention. I’m along because I’m a design groupie, and having remodeled three houses, I have more than a passing interest in sinks and ovens and other home furnishings. Plus, it’s close to our anniversary, and this was a chance to spend three nights in a four-star hotel without any rugrats underfoot.
Step One was to dump the munchkins with my parents, who live near Madison, Wis. So bright and early on Wednesday morning, we bundled everyone into the car and made the five-hour pilgrimage to Grandma’s house.
The kids were well-behaved, traffic was light, the weather was good. So we arrived five hours later hungry, tired, and stiff, and the kids fairly exploded out of the car and began finding randomly destructive ways of working off their pent-up energy.
We spent the night, and the next morning said goodbye to parents and offspring. Then my wife and I drove about 30 miles to Columbus, Wis., to catch the train to Chicago.
We got there about noon. The train was running about half an hour late, and wouldn’t be there until 1 p.m. We sat on the platform and ate lunch. It wasn’t particularly busy, so about 10 minutes later the stationmaster joined us, and we spent the next half an hour watching freight trains barrel through (hauling coal and what looked like Ford Ranger pickups from the soon-to-be-closed St. Paul plant), amiably discussing trains, the weather, and local politics (Columbus’ City Council tried to fire the mayor, it turns out, and in response the citizens voted out half of the Council. The legal and political fallout is still expanding. All this in a town of 4,400).
When the train arrived, we got on board and found a pair of empty seats. And what seats! Comfortable, able to lean way, way back, and gobs of leg room. Truly unbelievable amounts of leg room, in fact. I’m tall and used to being folded up like a pretzel on airplane flights and even bus trips. Here there was so much space that I didn’t have to use the foot rests on the seat in front of me. My wife, who is shorter, couldn’t even reach her foot rest unless she slumped way down and stretched her legs all the way out. Did I mention the mind-blowing amounts of leg room?
We had barely gotten underway when the conductor came through with a plate of strawberry cheesecake. “This cake,” he said, “goes to the first person who can correctly answer a trivia question.” He told us the question, the answer to which was “Stephen Ambrose.” So within five minutes of boarding I was munching on a piece of very good cheesecake while watching the scenery go by.
And it was pretty decent scenery. Because trains don’t travel on six-lane highways, they travel on tracks that take you along highways and byways you’ll never see otherwise. The land comes right up to the tracks, and there are no gas stations or minimalls lining the roadway to get in your way. You don’t look out your window and see one endless commercial strip; you look out your window and see America, up close and personal.
I had some work to do, though. So after a while, I pulled out my laptop and got busy. I can’t do that in a car or bus, because trying to read in a vehicle makes me motion sick (I get seasick easily, too, which makes for some pretty great stories when we go scuba diving in 7-foot seas…). But a train’s motion is so gentle and rocking that it doesn’t bother me. It’s quiet, too.
Three hours later, we pulled into Union Station in Chicago. We debarked and headed up to street level, intending to catch a cab to our hotel. But along the way we noticed a big map showing bus routes, and saw that an express bus ran from the station to the hotel for $2 a person. We decided to make this an entirely mass-transit trip and hoofed it around the corner to the bus stop.
The bus was waiting, we got seated, and the driver took off. The other riders were regulars, so they kept up a running patter with the bus driver as we went. For his part, the driver was apparently a taxi owner in a past life, because we went fast and changed lanes on rather short notice. I quickly learned to tune out the sound of angry car horns that seemed to follow us wherever we went.
Ten minutes later the bus screeched to a halt in front of our hotel. We climbed to our feet, thanked the driver for getting us there alive, and descended to the pavement. Twenty minutes after that, we were unpacking our things in our hotel room, with a view of the Chicago River and the new Trump building going up on the far bank.
Total elapsed time from door to door: 5 hours, including the one-hour wait at the station in Columbus. Total one-way cost: $27 each. We arrived fresh, relaxed, and unfrazzled, with a couple of hours worth of work out of the way.
Had we driven or taken a bus, it would have taken about 4 hours. But we would also have had to deal with driving and parking in downtown Chicago, and the trip time would have been a total waste, a black hole in the history of my life marked “time spent getting there.” The bus would have cost about the same; the car would have been more expensive, the slightly lower per-mile cost offset by the high cost of parking downtown. And that ignores all the hidden costs of driving, such as oil dependency and the cost of building, maintaining, and policing highways.
Flying would have been substantially more expensive and not all that much faster, the extremely short flight time being offset by long waits at either end.
I have a dream, a dream that such an experience might someday be the norm in this country, if we ever build (or rather, rebuild) a robust passenger rail system — at least regional networks. But alas, it is far from the norm now. And so we get to the meat of my tale.
Our passenger rail system is in tatters for reasons that have very little to do with how hard or how well Amtrak works or the public demand for rail travel.
It is not at all uncommon, for instance, for the Empire Builder (the train that runs from Chicago to the West Coast) to arrive two days late. This happens for two main reasons: limited routes (if an accident or landslide blocks the tracks, the trains stop), and the fact that Amtrak doesn’t own the track. Passenger trains are often forced to pull over and wait so that freight trains can go past, and that plays havoc with the schedule.
Even when it’s running on time, the trip is a long one. And if it’s a long trip, the train starts to lose its cost advantage over flying, as the need to feed and house passengers for days at a time starts to overwhelm the far cheaper per-mile cost of transportation. Unless you count the trip as part of your vacation, nobody will pay $1,000 and take three days to get to Seattle if you can pay the same amount to fly and arrive the same day you left.
Then there’s the service interval. Most lines see one train going each way per day, period. And if your geographic luck is poor, that train may come through at 2 a.m.
Then there are the routes. Amtrak uses a hub-and-spoke system, just like the major airlines. So the Empire Builder, for instance, runs to Chicago. If we want to go to someplace in Iowa, we have to first take the train to Chicago, then change trains for the line that runs through Iowa.
But because of that one-train-per-day service interval, connections stink. We once tried to get to Little Rock, Ark. by train. That meant going to Chicago, changing trains, and going on to Little Rock, then reversing the procedure to come home. In both directions, our train would have arrived an hour after the connecting train left, requiring a 23-hour layover in Chicago, both going and coming. Not wanting to spend four of our seven days traveling, we took the train to Memphis and then drove to Little Rock.
Finally, there are politics (check out this excellent CBO analysis of the issues). Ask yourself this question: Why is the train station in Columbus rather than in Madison, a city of 200,000? Because that’s where the track goes. But, you might think, it surely makes economic sense to run a spur to a city the size of Madison. Well, yes it would. Except Amtrak doesn’t own track (except in very small areas of the Northeast). And laying track is expensive. And Congress, many members of whom are actively trying to kill Amtrak, won’t pay to lay new track for Amtrak, even if (or perhaps, especially if) that investment would pay off in the long run.
What about bullet trains? Those might make long-haul trips more competitive, right? Well, yes they would (though they’re expensive to operate). But Amtrak doesn’t own track, so it can’t do the track upgrades that high-speed trains require.
Why not kill Amtrak and let a private company run passenger rail service, if the market exists? Because starting up a private service would be almost prohibitively expensive, assuming a new railroad even could acquire the necessary rights-of-way for its track. I think we could privatize the industry eventually, but first we have to remove the senseless barriers we’ve erected over the past 50 years.
Long-haul train service will always have a difficult time competing with air travel. And for trips of less than an hour, it has difficulty competing with the convenience of driving. And there will always be routes that aren’t particularly economical because of low ridership.
But for intermediate trips — say, 1 to 6 hours in length — rail is cheaper, more convenient, and far more pleasant than the alternatives. If Amtrak were allowed to improve reliability and frequency in a variety of medium-haul markets, the benefits might be huge, reducing car use and the need for ever more highways.
Because one great thing about rail lines is that they’re scalable. A rail line can be expensive to put in, but, after that, adding capacity is very, very cheap since trains can run minutes apart without slowing the system down. So instead of constantly adding new highways to handle more and more cars, you just add more cars to an existing train or add more frequent train service on the existing track. And with more frequent service, you provide even more incentive for travelers to leave the car at home.
If we want to start weaning ourselves off of oil, we need to find alternative ways for average citizens to get to where they need to go. Air travel is simply too expensive (and oil-hungry) to fill the gap. But picture this: establish regional networks of rail lines connecting population centers within a region so that people have rail as a viable choice. A three-way connection between Madison, Milwaukee, and Chicago, for instance. Or in Minnesota, regular service connecting Duluth, Rochester, and the Twin Cities. All with intermediate stops to provide at least some service to the communities in between.
Tie that into a viable light-rail system in the Twin Cities, and suddenly someone from Duluth could take the train down to the Cities for the weekend instead of driving. Or Twin Citians could take the train to the North Shore. Or college students could travel by train. Or patients at the Mayo Clinic. And so on.
I don’t blame people who refuse to ride Amtrak in its present state. But maybe we should demand that passenger rail be given a chance to show what it can do before we pull the plug, free of the conflicting demands that have hampered it ever since Amtrak was created in the 1960s.
And maybe millions of new riders would rediscover just how pleasant mass transit can be.