Growing up in the United Kingdom, a country with passenger trains radiating from or converging on the capital every 30 minutes or better in all directions until late in the evening, I’ve never quite been able to wrap my head around the American conversation about intercity rail. There seem to be essentially two camps, the conservative “Amtrak is a money-losing boondoggle, sell it off stat”, and the “Every train is sacred” liberal camp fighting to preserve what we have today; Eric Jaffe’s post today over at Atlantic Cities was an effort in the latter camp. Alas, I can find no organized group of people saying, “Let’s figure out what works and what doesn’t, double down on what does and abandon what doesn’t”.
Some basic geometric facts: Intercity rail in the UK works because of the 63 million people in the country, 53 million of them live in England, an area about 16% smaller than the US state of Georgia, or 30% smaller than Washington, which has less than 7 million; most of the rest live in a small belt of Scotland or a pocket of Wales. There are therefore nearly an order of magnitude more people within a distance of each other that can be traveled by rail in a time competitive with flying.
Only two places in the US offer this kind of aggregate mega-regional density, which is essential to sustain a network of intercity trains at a reasonable level of public subsidy: the North East Corridor, possibly extended west out to Chicago; and the coast of California from San Francisco to San Diego. In other places, individual city pairs could make sense (e.g. Portland – Seattle), but those will always be A-B(-C) lines, not part of the network where you can travel widely.
For a direct critique of Jaffe’s piece, I can do no better than Jarrett Walker, from the comments of that post:
My understanding is that the real reason to run the long-haul trains at taxpayer expense is to touch enough states that most of Congress can feel good about Amtrak in general. The other arguments presented here sound largely rhetorical. Ridership may be rising but it’s a long way from profitable or even a reasonably level of subsidy per passenger. “National rail network” sounds like rhetoric without content. Rail is optimal for particular distances. Europe has lots of great rail services, but still, if you’re going 2000 miles within Europe, and you’re not a tourist or time-rich wanderer, you’re definitely going to fly.
Australia has a “national rail network” made of long-haul trains traversing comparably vast distances. But they’re run by the private sector with fares set to ensure profit based on an explicitly tourist intent. Australians think of them (accurately) as beloved tourist trains that everyone must ride once in their lives, not as a “national rail network”. Australia is too big for rail networks to be national, and so are the US and Canada.
It may be that by touching so much of the country, the long-hauls are playing a crucial role in maintaining national support for Amtrak, both in Congress and among the population. But if we over-hype them we just sow confusion about what really successful rail lines look like. If some segments of long-hauls show so much ridership that they need more local frequency (e.g. Minneapolis-Milwaukee-Chicago), then target those corridors for more frequent shorter-haul trains. But I’m puzzled by what national interest is being served in one train a day for Fargo, ND, passing through between 2:00 and 4:00 AM. States and compacts of neighboring states must be the leaders on intercity rail, because they exist at the scale where rail can actually succeed.
Ultimately, you’re either into transit advocacy as a workable alternative to car ownership for working adults who can’t spend three days to get from Seattle to Phoenix, or you’re into it because “Yay, trains!” I’m in the former camp.