Sounder on the Milwaukee Road – Photo by the Author

“Nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return,” Milan Kundera, Ignorance

Pick up an American op-ed hostile to rail and somewhere along the way you are likely to read that rail boosters are either technological reactionaries (they want a return to 19th-century technology!), or that they are clouded by nostalgia for a supposed golden age of travel.  These criticisms are deceptively powerful, and frequently true.  This mentality surely motivates much rail support, especially among the baby-boomer set.

Photo by the Author

I too have a great personal love for trains.  My handy copy of the 1,200-page Complete Guide to the Railways (1954) fills me with something approaching awe.  (You mean there used to be service from St. Louis to Mexico City, with connections to Oaxaca?!? Or for that matter, an electrified ride through the Cascades?)  The scale of service we have lost in the past 60 years is truly incredible.  But it is critically important that as rail advocates we carefully differentiate the sentimental from the sensible.

More after the jump…

We should be careful not to essentialize trains.  As an historical aside, perhaps no other industry so devastated local environments as the railroads.  Gifted acres of land by the millions, choosing the choicest routes along the best rivers, and operating without a trace of labor or environmental laws, the railroads clearcut, blasted, and mined their destructive way to the coasts.

Thus trains – like any tool – are not an inherent public good, and they only become a public good relative to prevailing alternatives; their status as a desirable means is contingent upon some agreed comparison of ends.  In places where we need high capacity, high frequency, dedicated rights-of-way, and high speeds, rail can be an unparalleled performer.  But we do a disservice to our credibility when we play amateur route-makers and pine for rail wherever there is an historic right-of-way.  (Rail in Maple Valley or Covington will never make sense!)  Likewise, we do ourselves a favor when we oppose bad rail ideas.  (IMHO, Ohio 3C and Florida HSR were both bad projects that burned valuable political capital.)

Rail scales up well and scales down terribly.  Thus it seems self-evident to me that a skeletal, widely-dispersed national system exempt from competitive pressures represents the worst way to do rail; our 40-year experience with Amtrak should prove as much.  Such a system absorbs all the sunk costs of rail operation without reaping the profits that its true capacity offers.  (And despite the recent focus on speed – I still maintain that not going slow is much more important than going very fast.)

None of this is to deny the condescension, arrogance, and disrespect of process by which the governors of Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin canceled their recent projects.  Their criticisms were mostly boilerplate designed to maintain a facade of rationality behind the bitter partisanship.  But as rail advocates we need to keep our own house in order;  we need to be selective but passionate with our support, and do our best to focus upon the mobility and development outcomes of any project rather than getting sidetracked by the sexiness of steel.

But at the same time let’s put our critics’ straw man to rest.  We don’t want a return to the 19th century;  we are done with stumptowns, regrades, Great Fires, and a world without labor and environmental laws. What we want is entirely new and entirely progressive: yesterday’s density with today’s affluence.  We don’t want yesterday’s density-by-necessity, we want today’s density-by-choice.  And we won’t get there with sentimentality, with nostalgia, or by blowing our political capital spreading projects too thin.  In the Northeast, California, and Chicago, we need to go big.  In the Pacific Northwest, our quiet incrementalism will pay off.

119 Replies to “On Rail Nostalgia”

  1. Can’t wait till I can leave Chicago on a reliable+reasonably fast train and go see other cities!

    1. Get out of Chicago on rail. You can go to the western suburbs all the way to Elburn, Harvard, Big Timber, or Aurora or go all the way to Glacier National Park and then on to Seattle. I’ve also traveled from Oakland/Emoryville back to Chicago. What a trip! What a wonderful way to travel whether it be mid-week for work or on vacation. Go. And, be glad that some states like IL will be making it better. Thank you, WI and OH for the new money.

  2. As a boomer auto enthusiast, I’ve found that one only has to treat their rail-nostalgia the same as their car-nostalgia.

    Oh do I pine for the computerless car! When electrons were as big as tennis balls!

    1. Apparently these boomers have figured out how to work the electrons. Last time I suggested in the comments on STB that Amtrak cut its long-haul routes like the Sunset Limited, which hemorrhage money and are basically useless as a form of long distance travel to any working adult, in favor of routes like Cascades and the NEC, I was mobbed.

      1. I’ve posted similar beliefs as have others on here. Don’t let a few outspoken people color your view.

      2. Keep in mind that not all long-haul routes lose as much money as the Sunset Limited. Further, whether a train gains or loses money is not – and should not be – the only standard by which we judge whether a route or project is worthwhile.

      3. Indeed, they’re not the only metric. We should look at boardings, passenger miles traveled, and how increasing gas prices in the future will affect ridership.

        For example, $150/barrel oil will cause lots of people to stop flying. What will they do instead? If they’re going Seattle-Portland, they might well take Cascades. If they’re going Seattle-Chicago, almost no-one is going to take Empire Builder, because they don’t have the two days necessary to spend on the train reading.

      4. Who the hell drives to Chicago from Seattle to spend a weekend or attend a meeting there?

      5. People don’t get long haul Amtrak. They think it’s some form of transportation, they don’t realize it’s in fact some form of vacation. If you spend any amount of time on long haul Amtrak and you talk to people you’ll realize that most everyone there is doing it because they like to not because it’s a) fast or b) cheap.

        As much as I want fast european style trains like Cascades I hope that we don’t lose leisure trains like Amtrak long haul. Although I wouldn’t mind the trip from coast to coast taking 2 days instead of 4.

      6. Grant: There’s nothing wrong with people taking rail vacations, but at that point, you have to ask some questions about the economics of it. We don’t subsidize luxury cruises; why should we subsidize the same thing when it’s on steel wheels?

        Further, when services are run (and priced) based on the tourist market, the numbers often work out much better. Look at the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE). From London to Vienna, they charge $3,210 per person one-way (!), or $4,820 round-trip. That’s for a one-way trip of less than 1000 miles. In contrast, the Sunset Limited travels twice the distance, and yet there are one-way trips for $271.

      7. “Further, when services are run (and priced) based on the tourist market, the numbers often work out much better. Look at the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE). From London to Vienna, they charge $3,210 per person one-way (!), or $4,820 round-trip. That’s for a one-way trip of less than 1000 miles. In contrast, the Sunset Limited travels twice the distance, and yet there are one-way trips for $271.”

        You can get a ride from LA to Chicago on the Sunset Limited/Texas Eagle for $149, but that’s in coach. Add a bedroom, and it will be over $1000. But it’s not a luxury trip (although you get your own bathroom and shower, which you won’t get on VSOE). The meals are okay, but they’re not haute cuisine.

        Amtrak fills more than one role on the long-distance routes. It’s both an excursion and scenic train and basic transportation. In Europe, if you want to go between London and Venice, there will be cheaper options which involve changing trains. There will also be faster options, starting with Eurostar London-Paris. If I’m reading things right, the VSOE routes from London involve train changes with an overwater channel crossing. I’m assuming the historic coaches only run on the Continent.

        There are excursion trains in the US too, but it’s tricky ruuning a successful business at it. For a luxury rail experience, you might be better off with a private railcar hauled by an Amtrak train. That adds to Amtrak’s bottom line too.

      8. aw: I’m specifically responding to Grant’s claim:

        People don’t get long haul Amtrak. They think it’s some form of transportation, they don’t realize it’s in fact some form of vacation. If you spend any amount of time on long haul Amtrak and you talk to people you’ll realize that most everyone there is doing it because they like to not because it’s a) fast or b) cheap.

        To the extent that Amtrak is a vacation, I believe that my arguments stand — it should be operated and priced as a luxury. (That doesn’t mean that it needs to be as opulent as VSOE, just that it should be run with the intent of creating a profitable business, rather than serving a lifeline population.)

        To the extent that Amtrak is transportation, I firmly agree with Bruce that long-haul routes are simply useless *for end-to-end travel*. As Grant says, when you exclude the excursion crowd, the number of people who take Amtrak from Seattle to Chicago because it’s the most efficient choice for them is just about zero. It pretty much boils down to people who can’t (or won’t) fly or ride the bus. For almost everyone else, in almost all cases, the cheapest, shortest option is to fly.

        Thus, to the extent that long-distance trains are subsidized, it should be because of shorter trips between intermediate stations. We have a finite amount of money to spend on transportation, and it’s simply not worth spending money on services which are primarily excursions.

      9. I have heard, although I don’t have any data to back it up, that sleeper service is profitable for Amtrak. If that’s true, then the excursion passenger does support the basic transportation passenger.

      10. I agree with everything Aleks said. There is no public interest whatsoever in providing excursion train service, any more than there is in subsidizing cruise ship vacations. There is a public interest in providing transit options usable by large numbers of working adults, especially transit options that may induce them to give up their cars (as part of a package of local and regional transit options.)

        If there’s no government interest in the leisure aspect of the train, what about the “we must serve these small towns” argument? This also strikes me as bogus. The number of towns covered by the Sunset Limited and Empire builder is tiny compared to the number of towns in the south and west. Why should we subsidize service between a handful of lucky places? Coach is a far better mode to serve small towns, costing much less and being much more flexible.

        The last argument, used elsewhere in this thread, is that what we have is better than nothing. Politically, that’s wrong, because you’re now forcing yourself to go in to bat for the proposition that the federal government should be subsidizing rail vacations. This is lunacy, and it’s why we’re losing the battle. We need to take the bull by the horns, admit that some of what we’re doing now is stupid, but that much of it is sensible, and argue for rail as a cost effective option for weekend and business travel in those corridors where it can work. And we need to walk the talk, which means axing long distance service and doing our best to get short- to medium-haul service right.

      11. I have heard, although I don’t have any data to back it up, that sleeper service is profitable for Amtrak. If that’s true, then the excursion passenger does support the basic transportation passenger.

        There are a few things that could mean. (Without data, of course, it’s hard to distinguish. :D)

        One possibility could be that service with sleeper cars is cash-flow positive. But that’s simply not true, as the SubsidyScope numbers demonstrate (see below). The long-distance services, which are more likely to have sleeper cars, are in fact the *least* profitable.

        The other possibility, which is much more likely, is that the marginal cost of adding a sleeper-car passenger is positive. But there are amortization questions there. If you have an empty suite, then having a passenger fill it is clearly a good idea. But what if you compare the fares from all the sleeping car passengers to the costs of all the extra amenities they require, including extra staff, extra cars, extra fuel, extra food (if meals are included in the fare), etc.?

        Either way, even with all these sleeping-car passengers, the Empire Builder still loses $40 million a year. All together, the long distance trains cost almost $500 million a year. I have yet to hear a convincing argument (other than the political) for why that $500 million wouldn’t be better spent on improving urban transit across the country — especially when you consider that urban transit might eventually be profitable, whereas lifeline long-distance service never will be.

      12. There’s also the strong possibility that it’s just more misinformation put out by URPA or some other long-haul apologist group.

      13. The Sunset Limited has never been given a fair chance, between only running 3 days a week and having the New Orleans to Jacksonville segment suspended indefinitely after Katrina it is no wonder the ridership is low. Add to that loosing Phoenix as a stop and the horrible on-time performance due in no small part to its treatment by the SP and UP.

        Yet there are many segments that have potential to show decent ridership, especially LA-Phoenix-Tuscon and San Antonio-Houston-New Orleans-Mobile. Most of Amtrak’s long distance routes have a lot of unrealized potential.

        You wouldn’t think based on the population along the line that the Empire Builder would be one of Amtrak’s best performers for long-distance trains. Yet even when you factor out the passengers in the Seattle-Spokane or Minneapolis-Chicago segments there are a lot of passengers riding the train between Spokane and Minneapolis.

        More to the point would the Cascades exist if the Coast Starlight hadn’t already been running over the same tracks? Would the Chicago-St. Louis Lincoln service exist if the Texas Eagle hadn’t hadn’t already been serving the route?

      14. That Cascades might not exist now if Amtrak had been abolished (even if it’s true) is not an argument to continue running the Starlight indefinitely into the future. Given that Sounder was created out of thin air by Sound Transit purchasing service from BNSF and building a bunch of stations, I rather doubt it’s even true. In fact, only one Cascades trip per day is actually paid for by Amtrak. Everything else comes from Washington and Oregon.

      15. Okay, since we’ve gone down the path of Amtrak vacations I have a question.

        On April 18 next year, my buddies and I will be leaving the Army. We’re currently looking at some kind of Emancipation Celebration and I saw that I can get a one way ticket on Amtrak from Fayetteville NC to Seattle for I think 179 last I looked. Now considering it changes trains in DC, Chicago and I think Minneapolis, is there any way to break it up with a day or two in each city, and a day or two in Glacier for that price? Or do I have to buy a bunch of little tickets?


      16. @ Matthew ‘Anc’ Johnson:

        …. is there any way to break it up with a day or two in each city, and a day or two in Glacier for that price? Or do I have to buy a bunch of little tickets?

        A bunch of little tickets.

        Look into the USA Rail Pass. It can save you money, depending on your itinerary, but you’ll have to see if you can fit your plans into the time/segment limitations of each pass level. You still have to reserve tickets for each specific segments of travel, it’s not a ‘hop-on, hop-off’ type of pass.

      17. Anc, you don’t need to change trains in Minneapolis. The only train serving Minneapolis/St. Paul is the Empire Builder.

      18. Look, I’m agreed with the basic premises of this post, but I think what you don’t realize is that the Sunset Limited’s problem is *too little* service. Even at current speeds, if it ran twice a day and actually went to Phoenix, the passengers would mob it. Instead it runs three times a week and doesn’t go to Phoenix.

        Half-assed rail service doesn’t work well. Unfortunately, cutting half-assed rail service to *good destinations* doesn’t get us improved rail service. I’m all for cutting routes which simply go to the wrong places, places which don’t have enough demand — but routes like the Sunset Limited basically go to the right places (apart from not going to Phoenix proper!), they’re simply *not frequent enough* and *too slow*. Having them in place, with the stations and platforms and so forth, seems to generally be advantageous for getting more frequent corridor service, not disadvantageous.

      19. Aleks, the SubsidyScope numbers are simply wrong. They’re based on a failure to analyze the data.

        Sleeper service is cash-flow positive, in the following very specific sense. If you take an all-coach train and add a sleeper to it, you create positive change in cash flow — period, end of story.

        SubsidyScope, of course, did not analyze the numbers correctly — they must be analyzed in terms of marginal change or avoidable cost.

      20. I will reiterate and clarify the point regarding the sleepers: basically, the point is *if you are already running a coach train*, adding sleepers improves Amtrak’s cash flow.

        If you want to argue for cutting the train entirely, argue for that. I doubt the Congressmen whose districts would lose service would be happy. But *as long as* there is going to be a train with coach service, it is more cost-effective to add sleepers to it and get the improved cash flow.

        Note that Amtrak has taken opportunities to cut quite a few trains in the past, such as the eastern leg of the Sunset Limited; that has saved tiny amounts of money. It has *also* tried taking sleepers off of routes — such as the Boston-Albany leg of the Lake Shore Limited. That has routinely *cost* more money for Amtrak.

        There is a reason why Amtrak is funding the purchase of additional single-level sleepers out of its own budget; they will improve Amtrak’s bottom line.

        If you have a service at all, you will make more money (or lose less money) by providing optional first-class service at a premium. This is really not surprising, seriously. It’s valid to discuss whether a particular train service should be cut entirely — it’s not valid to discuss whether it should be “reduced” from sleeper service to all-coach service, because that’s basically a recipe for costing more money to taxpayers for no particularly good reason.

        If you really want the long-distance trains to make more money, however, make them faster. Make them fast enough and first-class travellers won’t *ask* for sleepers (see Acela).

        Finally: when you’re trying to analyze Amtrak cost numbers, don’t be a moron the way SubsidyScope was. They were stupid enough to use the “fully allocated” numbers, which don’t give a remotely meaningful set of numbers. For a dopey example, there are a whole lot of fixed costs associated with running a train on a given route. If you have one train on a route, the “fully allocated” numbers put all that cost on the one train and it looks very expensive. If you run a second train on the same route, the “fully allocated” numbers split the fixed costs among two trains and suddenly each train looks much much less expensive. Given that more frequent service attracts more passengers, the situation is even more extreme. If you doubled the frequency of every long-distance route, someone doing a dopey level of non-analysis would suddenly be saying “Oh, the trains just got so much cheaper to run”.

        In other words, most arguments against the long-distance trains could easily be arguments for quadrupling their frequencies. Meanwhile, the assumption made by many, such as Aleks, that they are not really in demand is just that, an assumption with no hard data behind it.

      21. I don’t care about sleepers or coach. The long-distance services, coach or otherwise, are all equally useless to adults in big cities with jobs, lives and other commitments. They are all hopelessly uncompetitive with flying, and are basically government-funded cruise ships on rails. If running 100% sleeper excursion trains is profitable, someone will most likely do it. That money has better uses elsewhere, namely the short-haul lines that serve far more people. End of story.

      22. Nathanael,

        It does look like Amtrak hopes that sleeper cars will make money. I’d love to see a report with actual hard data (this article is 2 years old and not very detailed), but the fact that Amtrak has publicly declared their interest in sleeper service for revenue reasons does mean a lot.

        I completely agree with you that, if adding a sleeper car will increase Amtrak’s net revenue, they’d be silly not to do it. I also completely agree that, if quadrupling service on a line would increase Amtrak’s net revenue, they’d be silly not to do that, too. In fact, I’d love to see Amtrak run every long-distance train 2-4x a day, and add tons of sleeper cars, and set prices at the optimal level, and all that good stuff.

        But suppose that, even if Amtrak operated the service perfectly, the lines still weren’t profitable (in all likelihood, because of the cost of coach passengers). In that case — and I believe this is the only issue on which we disagree — I would say that the money being spent to subsidize those routes would be better spent on subsidizing service that is more useful for everyday urban transportation.

        For the record, if it were the case that the only way for Amtrak’s long-distance routes to be profitable was by expanding first-class (sleeper) service and completely eliminating coach service on some/all long-distance trains, I would be totally fine with that, too. I see no problem with having the government own a *profitable* cruise ship company. ;) The only thing I don’t support is spending part of our limited transportation budget on subsidizing these trains, when that money could bring a greater benefit to the economy and to greater numbers of people if it were spent on other services.

  3. Great post. I knew it would be awesome when I saw you quote Kundera at the start.

  4. A lot of rail critics like to criticize rail supporters by saying they are nostalgic or emotional supporters of trains. Yet rail – trains and transit – embodies a set of characteristics that generally assure a high quality transportation experience (though Amtrak does NOT meet all these). These are:

    o Smooth ride
    o Generally plenty of capacity and space aboard the vehicle
    o Permanence – given the investment, the service will be there for years to come and will be operated
    o Generally good frequency and span of service – again leveraging the infrastructure – see Amtrak’s Northeast corridor and San Diego service
    o Generally dedicated right of way which is not obstructed by cars and trucks and ensures reliable, punctual service (this is where Amtrak falls most short)

    Clearly rail isn’t a viable solution everywhere, and given the infrastructure investment it is only viable in high demand corridors. However rail does give a different quality travel experience than driving a car or riding a bus, and it could be that the “emotional” preference or nostalgia for rail reflects that. There are many people who would almost never consider taking a bus for 3 or more hours who might be open to a train instead of driving a car.

    I also agree that incremental improvements are the primary way to improve rail – and if you look at how it was done in France and Germany it was all based on incremental improvements. Every once in a while a new high speed line is built, and then it is hooked up to the existing network, and virtually all high speed trains run on a mix of old and new lines. And yes, eliminating slow areas to the extent possible offers the biggest payoff in shortening travel time. That’s a law of physics. If you increase the speed of 5 miles of track from 30 mph to 60 mph, you save 5 minutes. If you increase it from 60 mph to 90 mph, you save 1.67 minutes. If you increase it from 90 mph to 120 mph, you save only 0.83 minutes.

    1. Thanks for pointing out the simple math that most people don’t think about. It’s the same reason that improving mpg from 10 to 15 has way more impact than going from 30 to 35. Hybrid small cars don’t really offer much improvement compared to regular small cars, but a hybrid bus is a huge improvement over conventional diesel (obviously all-electric is better). Just to keep this vaguely on topic, it means hybrid-electric trainsets are a good investment. We should really just use gallons per mile, as most countries do.

      1. People use this same logic to justify not improving too. Seattle to Portland

        30 mph – 6 hrs
        60 mph – 3 hrs
        120 mph – 1.5 hr
        180 mph – 1 hr

        The percentage increase goes down but at 1 hr and 1.5 hrs the trains will be packed and the freeways and airports empty, at 3 hrs the trains are only 1/2 full and at 6 hrs they’d be completely empty. So what’s the best deal? Should we stop at 3 hrs because we get the most bang for the buck? I don’t think so. I think 120 mph provides the biggest increase for the dollar spent. But then the TGV is 200 mph capable and makes 1 billion euros a year so maybe it’s worth it in the end…

      2. I think Zef’s point is just that our metrics are wrong. Rather than miles per gallon/hour, we should use gallons/hours per mile.

        Which is the biggest improvement: 25 mph to 50, 50 to 75, or 75 to 100? If you invert the numbers, to get (say) hours per 100 miles, then you end up with:

        – 25 mph = 4 h/100mi
        – 50 mph = 2 h/100mi
        – 75 mph = 1 1/3 h / 100mi
        – 100 mph = 1 h / 100mi

        From these metrics, it’s clear that, if you want to achieve the greatest total time savings, it’s much more effective to speed up the slow segments.

        Another way of looking at it is this. Suppose that a journey from A to C takes 60 minutes, and point B occurs about 15 minutes after A. If you speed up the journey from A to B so that it goes at light speed, the journey from A to C will still take 45 minutes. But if you merely double the speed from B to C, then the journey from A to C will take 37.5 minutes.

        The point is not to justify skipping improvements, but to figure out what improvements would be most effective.

      3. As Aleks said. This applies everywhere. The best “bang-for-the-buck” is in removal of bottlenecks which cause trains to slow down very slow. Washington’s Cascades Long-Range Plan has been *very* smart about this. Illinois’s CREATE program is focused on this. North Carolina has done large amounts of this and turned a completely non-viable service into a fairly popular one.

        New York, on the other hand, was consistently stupid about this, which is why we haven’t made any real progress on the Empire Corridor in decades.

  5. As we are all transportation advocates here, I’m kind of disappointed that there are not more of us who are active in our local and national rail advocacy organizations such as All Aboard Washington and NARP. Even if you don’t attend the meetings or participate in any of the events simply joining the organization does a lot for helping retain and improve what we have. NARP has an online joining mechanism, and very soon All Aboard Washington will as well. $25 a year is only a few Starbucks coffees but goes a long way towards keeping and retaining what we have.

    1. And conversely, I wish more of our friends from All Aboard WA were posting here. I let my NARP membership lapse years ago when ti seemed they were seldom critical of Amtrak and seemed to believe that “All Trains are Good (even if they make no sense).” AAWA gets my money every year, though.

      1. All Trains are Good (even if they make no sense)

        Well, DUuuhhhHH!!!

        Someone has to sit on the other side of the balance beam from the Entitlement Generation’s “All Roads are our GOD GIVEN Right, regardless of the MONEY we have to spend on them in TAXES” group.

        All Aboard WA members have real jobs, they don’t get time to post here, plus they have that high-paid Olympia lobbyist to keep fed and clothed.

  6. I was with you until the last paragraph when suddenly the Agenda peaked through the paint job.

    First of all where in the article did you make a case for density and affluence? It was rail the created the first “suburbs” … which used to be known as the Frontier. It was rail that allowed people to flee cities, to live in almost all of America in small towns and to own and be productive on land. That is why I would celebrate an intricate network of true 160mph+ high speed rail, to allow people to sprawl back into the country from which they were forced out of.

    And “quiet incrementalism” in the Northwest is merely a code word for giving a 1 billion dollar handout to BNSF to make a 43 mph curve a 53 mph curve and calling it “high speed rail”.

    1. “And “quiet incrementalism” in the Northwest is merely a code word for giving a 1 billion dollar handout to BNSF to make a 43 mph curve a 53 mph curve and calling it “high speed rail”.”

      How about getting your facts straight?

      WS-DOT has not spent $1 billion on the Cascades yet, much less to BNSF.

      Second, of the appx. $350m spent over the 10+ year lifespan of the Cascades is included money spent buying railcars and locomotives, as well as paying construction contractors to rebuild portions of the rights-of-way, as well as the actual cost of materials.

      If you are talking about the next $590m investment from the ARRA funds, the same pattern holds. It is in no way a blank check to BNSF.

      Also, stating it is just to get a 43 mph curve to be a 53 mph curve ignores the additional round trips — from one up to four between Portland and Seattle now — the overall trip time reduction to parity with driving, and the rapid growth of ridership.

      Or to put it another way, as clever and witty as your dig is, its not only inaccurate, but it has about 900,000 people who are ready to prove it wrong.

      1. A lot of the money is to replace a route with *10 mph one-lane* tunnels with a route with a minimum speed of 50 mph, if I remember the Point Defiance Bypass correctly. Quite an improvement there.

    2. That’s not entirely true. The streetcar helped increase the “3 mile radius” of the factory commute and created ‘streetcar suburbs’ but these are nothing compared to what we would consider a suburb today. No one commuted daily over heavy rail and certainly not from country to city centre. Sprawl as we know it was caused entirely by highways.

      1. None of it’s true. Everything Bailo types is drivel. That he equates suburbs with the American frontier should indicate that the lights may be on, but no-one is home.

  7. I disagree with this post.

    Carefully utilized nostalgia is an important part in getting people to support rail. Part of being a good political steward on rail is playing to people’s emotions. People are VERY emotional about their car. Logic alone will not get everyone out of their car. Because if it did, then very few people would actually use the car to commute. Emotion can help play a much bigger role. Cold, hearless numbers on travel time and energy useage per passenger mile and carbon emissions puts people to sleep. A smiling family on a clean train (or bus) does a great job in winning people over. Or letting them ride it themselves. Advocates from all sides of the political spectrum say we should look to the past to give people an idea of what once existed, what it was like, what conveniences rail offered, and how it can help improve our cities, just as it did a century ago. One just has to argue it and target it properly. How many historical rail societies exist? How many Class I&II railroads operate historical equipment as a gesture of goodwill and to remember the past? How many bus/bike historical groups exist? People respond to the nostalgia and you can’t just call it irrlevant. Take the New Orleans streetcar. People go ape for that kind of stuff.

    There were no regards to environmental or labor 120 years ago because there were no laws requiring them to do so, so they didn’t have to. Railroads acted perfectly within their legal means and it was deemed ok by most people. I don’t believe for a second anyone here would have acted differently if they were at the controls 100 years ago. It appears appalling today what the government and the railroads did to expand west. And MANY other industries have this appalling lack of X and Y by “modern standards”. I’d imagine 100 years from now, people will be appalled at something we have done today. It’s difficult and almost ignorant to use todays subjective lens to judge decisions made in the past. We can only learn from these decisions and grow from the mistakes made, as we have done rather well. Do you know why the government gave land to the railroads? To offset the cost for them to build the line in the first place. It was one of the biggest quid pro quo deals ever made. They choose the best routes because they had the lowest grade profile. Trains don’t like grades. There is a good reason why there’s a rail line between Olympia and Everett on the water. ZERO % grade! That’s why the Link is being put in a tunnel; it cannot handle the Seattle topography whether it be hill or canal.

    I’m tired of this wimpy attitude that only some places are allowed to “go big” with rail and others have to wait their turn. We are only harming ourselves by not building out more while resources are still plentiful, oil is still cheap, and land is still somewhat available. The Ohio 3C project was an incremental improvement. If our quiet, government funded incremental improvements will “pay off”, why won’t theirs? The Florida project was going to be such a success that every HSR operator and manuf in the world wanted a piece of the action and nearly every credible report said the line was going to do great things. Hell, Florida has only been studying it for 20 years. If anything, the Flordia project is the biggest blow to the rail community in the last decade. It was going to show people how useful and great real HSR trains are, the costs associated with building the infrastructure, and it’s doable! Paul Weyrich (a well known conservative transit advocate) argues that first we must create a reasonable starter line to show people how useful it can be, and the desire will spread. Here, we already have our starter line in the form of the Seattle Streetcar, that Link thing, Sounder, and Amtrak Cascades. BTW, you must not have read the WSDOT study, because on page 20 it concludes that it would work if the money was available.

    Lets look at the CAHSR LA to San Diego corridor. The existing train takes 3 hours. The proposed HSR train will take 1.2 hours. In this case, speed is critical to be competitive with air and car travel. In some corridors, speed makes sense. If the Acela was able to go faster, not only would the capacity of the line increase, but so would it’s appeal. Also, the fastest train on the continent is profitable. The other profitable train? Amtrak’s AutoTrain. The TGV makes so much money it helps pay for SNCF’s local trains. So, either make it fast or have it involve our personal cars (looping back to people’s emotional attachment to their car). On a side note, a Seattle-Portland-Bay Area AutoTrain would be awesome!

    And to be honest, Seattle, Portland, Vancouver BC, the Bay Area, or LA would not exist to be the cities they are today if the rails were not blasted through the hills. Looking up at Stevens Pass, or Snoqualmie, or here in the Palouse, looks like the near-by environment has one again survived another day.

    1. Good post (esp. the first half) — it’s a good nuanced point that I don’t think completey contradicts Zach’s post.

    2. Thanks for the comment!…and yes, I agree that nostalgia can be important, but my goal was simply to tame it to a reasonable level, to “differentiate the sentimental from the sensible”.

      Re: your last paragraph, I also wasn’t saying that I wish they had never blasted their way through the mountains, but I was trying to make the point that tools are only as good as the end they serve…trains were once tools of destruction that have now become environmental goods.

      1. The US Interstate highway system did much more blasting through the landscape than the railroads ever did.

    3. @Mike B, you have some good points and I agree with Jeffrey that it doesn’t completely contradict Zach’s post. On a personal (and very likely naive) level, I think emotional politics are of the lowest form, and it is unfortunate that political arguments almost always end up there.

      1. Studies have shown that with the exception of a tiny minority of people with oddly wired brains, practically everyone reacts emotionally first and rationalizes afterwards, about *everything*. :-/ Some people are able to let their rationality overcome their emotional reaction, but when you get to POLITICS — influencing masses of people — you have to deal with the fact that *MOST PEOPLE AREN’T.* Emotional politics is the *only* form.

  8. Zach, while I agree with your overall premise, I suggest you may want to revise it in regards to Amtrak. You state:

    “Thus it seems self-evident to me that a skeletal, widely-dispersed national system exempt from competitive pressures represents the worst way to do rail; our 40-year experience with Amtrak should prove as much.  Such a system absorbs all the sunk costs of rail operation without reaping the profits that its true capacity offers.”

    This is dangerous ground for a transit advocate to stand on. I’ll outline a few key points why I think this point is wrong, and then what I agree with and why.

    Amtrak’s long distance routes provide base level transportation for hundreds of rural communities across the nation. Yes, they do serve distant city pairs, e.g. Linking Seattle with Chicago, but they also (and more importantly, in my view) serve intermediate points. The Empire Builder is as important for its connection betwee a Shelby, Montana and a Rugby, N.D. as it is for its end points.

    Amtrak’s ridership is up to an all-time high, which I think flies in the face of the notion that it is the “worst” way to do rail. It serves a mission, it is well patronized, and it has survived a 40 year barrage of attacks on it as being wasteful, socialist, or anti-American. If anything our 40 year experience should show that there is a legitimate role for the Amtrak model.

    Attacking the Amtrak model on the basis of it being too rural and low density and on it not being able to generate the profits that a true high speed corridor might is to fall into the rhetorical trap of Libertarianism. These are the same arguments — the exact same arguments — used to attqck conventional urban transit. Lines that have lower ridership? A drain on the system. Lines don’t make money? They ought to! Etc….

    Transit is not, has never been, and will never be about making money. There are times it might make money, but that will never be its mission or purpose. Its mission and purpose is to provide transportation options to people — some would argue especially for those people who cannot use other options, but the jury is still out for me on that aspect. In short, Amtrak is exactly like your local bus.

    Now I do understand why you broughht this up. And I do agree that, by and large, the Amtrak model is not a model for long term large scale growth. There are some routes that in my view probably ought to have an Amtrak train that do not now, but overall we don’t need more long distance Superliner equipped services. Corridors similar to the Cascades have far greater potential for ridership gains, and are far less married to nostalgic fantasizing. I agreee that investing in them ought to be the priority. I merely point out that that does not negate the important public role that Amtrak plays for those portions of the country that it serves.

    1. I think we agree more than you think. The point isn’t that we should kill the Empire Builder or its kin, but rather that capital should be spent in promising short corridors rather than somewhere out on the Hi-Line. I think it’s a point in rail’s favor that despite a terrible national system we are nonetheless breaking ridership records. And I agree that transit isn’t about making money, but that doesn’t mean that the scale of money lost is unimportant. The ‘worst way to do rail’ is to scale it low and keep it on life-support for political reasons, like running a thrice-weekly train across our southern border. Make it daily or better, or emphasize sleepers, and you lose less money.

      It has only been dangerous for a transit advocate to criticize Amtrak because there has been no alternative; we’ve all had to be automatic in our defenses because if we lost Amtrak we’d lose everything. I hope that can no longer be the case, and I see state-supported corridors as a success story to be emulated, and I think the near-term potential to introduce competition is encouraging. I want us to be able to support rail without having to defend unsustainable compensation structures and archaic service practices (assigning seats with a Sharpie and sticky notes? Un-replacable paper tickets?).

      1. While I probably agree with you on Tri-Weeklies and the like, and on Congressional meddling, again I see some poor metrics for criticism. Your examples of archaic service practices are a bit underwhelming. A paper stub and a sharpie may seem archaic but if it works it works, and its damn cheap. Un-replacable paper tickets might be a stronger case, though to be honest I’ve only ever lost a ticket once, and that was my own fault, not Amtrak’s.

        Competitiveness, though? Seriously? Are you really suggesting Amtrak has no competition? Last I checked there are dozens of airlines serving Amtrak’s major cities, not to mention millions of private automobiles. Plus — though it barely counts anymore — Greyhound. Amtrak has faced ludicrous levels of competition for its entire existence.

        However, I think my point didn’t get through quite right. Amtrak has done (and continues to do) many silly things. Although I don’t agree with some of the specific examples you cite as weaknesses, I do agree that Amtrak *has* them, and I am not saying not to criticize Amtrak. What I am saying is that criticizing it for concentrating on long-distance low-density routes both misses the point of Amtrak. It is also “dangerous” in my view for a transit advocate to state note because it endangers Amtrak, but because it opens up all transit to evaluation based idealized metrics (“where it works best”) vs. service metrics (“where it is needed.”) The difference is subtle, but it is there, and a philosophy that suggests Amtrak over the last 40 years was the “wrong way” is a philosophy that leads to the John Mica approach to trains: Northeast Corridor yes, everywhere else no.

        Put it another way: Cascades would never have happened if there wasn’t the skeleton of Amtrak to hang it on. While developing the Cascades was definitely thinking outside of the Amtrak box, it was still under the national carrier’s wing and would not have been possible without that base level to build atop. Amtrak has not in any way been the “wrong” way to go. It has been the essential bulwark to keep the mode of passenger rail alive. Every HSR, HrSR, MSR, or other Intercity train in the USA, even where it exists on a new alignment, and even when it is a creation independent of Amtrak — owes its existence to the survival and thriving of paper-plate, pasltic-fork, bus-on-rails, broken-down, hand-me-down, and much maligned Amtrak.

      2. “It has only been dangerous for a transit advocate to criticize Amtrak because there has been no alternative; we’ve all had to be automatic in our defenses because if we lost Amtrak we’d lose everything. I hope that can no longer be the case,”

        Maybe after another 20 years of advocacy. We aren’t anywhere near there yet. Examples: Governors Walker, Snyder, Kasich, and Scott.

    2. And I also don’t think it’s all necessarily Amtrak’s fault…their operations are as much the result of Congressional meddling as anything else. If Amtrak were freer to be responsive to rider needs regarding schedules, frequency, etc…we’d see a much better system.

    3. You’re lucky Zach replied to you first, as I was about to write a much more scathing reply saying basically the same thing.

      Amtrak needs to cut the deadwood and focus on the services that can flourish in the 21st century. That means trains that can be competitive with flying and driving between the major destinations (i.e. cities) that lie along their route. Providing service to a lucky handful of tiny towns is no way to justify running a railroad.

      Unless Amtrak is able to get with this program, eventually the congressional support that’s staved off its privatization for decades will be overcome and we’ll have no federal influence or support for whatever passenger system remains after that.

      1. “Amtrak needs to cut the deadwood and focus on the services that can flourish in the 21st century. That means trains that can be competitive with flying and driving between the major destinations (i.e. cities) that lie along their route. Providing service to a lucky handful of tiny towns is no way to justify running a railroad.”

        Providing that service to those communities is exactly the same rationale — exactly the same — as why your bus runs where it does, when it does. It is the base philosophy of all public transit: the provision of service to those who need it. That is the first duty of public transit, everywhere, in every mode.

      2. Alexander, I would argue that providing a social equity service should be the second duty of transit everywhere. The first should be to provide mobility to the most people at the least cost, which means routes in high-density corridors. Geographic and social equity should be added back in after the primary goal is realized. We have been doing this backwards for too long, and as a result most people see public transit as a service for the poor and elderly.

      3. I agree with zef. An excess of social and geographic equity is why we have busses like the 201 driving empty around Mercer Island (5% farebox, 8 rides/hr), while my local busses, the 1/2/13 through Belltown are frequently standing room only (55-60% farebox, 80-90 rides/hr).

      4. Bruce,
        In many cases continuing to serve those “lucky handful of tiny towns” is how Amtrak has managed to survive attempts to kill it. All of that rural service is where much of the Congressional support that keeps it on life-support comes from.

      5. Today’s political climate means that kind of bringing home the bacon will no longer work in red states. Rail’s support base is increasingly urban, coastal and liberal. Might as well get with that program too.

      6. “Amtrak needs to cut the deadwood and focus on the services that can flourish in the 21st century.”

        Then quadruple its budget.

        Every one of the existing lines, with the possible exception of the Cardinal, would be flourishing if it were twice as fast and ran at least twice a day (and in a few cases, like the Sunset, was relocated to not “just miss” major cities).

        Not kidding. The Empire Builder’s high demand is well-documented, the Coast Starlight fills up regularly, the California Zephyr draws huge and growing demand from people going to and from Denver (in either direction), the Southwest Chief is far fuller than you’d expect given the cities it misses, and that’s before I start getting into the “shorter” long-distance trains: the Florida-East Coast services basically just need to run faster, the New Orleans-Atlanta-NEC service is an obvious winner, New Orleans-Chicago is almost as good, while the value of Chicago-Cleveland-DC, Chicago-Cleveland-NYC, and Chicago-Cleveland-Boston should be obvious to anyone paying attention.

        I’m not sure some of the anti-LD folks understand that intercity travel by train is popular and is only going to get more popular. Or perhaps they don’t understand that people WILL take a reliable overnight train, or even an 8-10-hour day train, in preference to a full day’s air travel or an even longer car trip.

        The single-overnight routes are really not very many improvements away from being *extremely* popular, and I include Denver-Chicago and Denver-SF in those. The double-overnight routes need to be sped up and have their intermediate routes arranged so that they can provide viable single-overnight trips between major cities; several already can.

        I’d shed no tears for the triweeklies — and Amtrak has already said they want them to go daily or die — but don’t you dare try to cut New York-Chicago overnight service under some idiotic theory of what’s “competitive”, when you haven’t even checked what’s actually competitive.

      7. “Then quadruple its budget.”

        Are you really this disconnected from reality? Did you miss the last couple of years where the economy tanked and now Republicans are in control of the House? Quadrupling the budget is NOT in the cards, now or anytime in the foreseeable future.

        This discussion about the most efficient allocation of scarce resources. In a perfect world, yeah it would be great if we could afford to keep pouring money into long haul, but we don’t live in a perfect world, so many of us feel it is best to invest our scarce resources in routes that have the highest fair box recovery or chance thereof so we get more bang for our buck.

    4. @Zach Until you clarified here, I was in full disagreement, but your position makes better sense with your response to Alex. Still not with you on your example of 3C and Florida.

    5. I’m only going to add one thing, anyone who seriously wants to comment on Amtraks success or lack thereof needs to read “Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service–A Year Spent Riding across America” by James McCommons. It’s not a book advocating Amtrak or the way they’ve done things but rather and explanation after a great deal of interviewing and riding Amtrak. Amtrak was designed to fail and for 40 years it’s “failed” to fail. In my opinion there’s lots to be done to make Amtrak a better system but there’s never been any money to do anything about it. They limp one year to the next and as long as that’s the situation it won’t change. We have great examples of how to run a train system and even be profitable at it (TGV) but all of them require state controlled and owned infrastructure not unlike with highways and airports. As long as the infrastructure is privately owned tax payers don’t want to pay to improve it, Amtrak can’t afford it and the track owners don’t care either since it’s fine for freight, and trains will never run on time. Just keeping Amtrak alive has been our only real choice.

      1. The future lies in the purchase of railroad lines by governments inclined toward passenger service (possibly including Amtrak). This is clear enough. I keep cursing New York State for not buying the Empire Corridor (it should have done so long ago).

  9. I believe that one of these days, the rail rennaisance will result in privatization of intercity passenger services in the USA (just like railways in the UK were privatized after 45 years of nationalization), ending Amtrak’s monopoly. Not saying that the freight railroads would go into the passenger biz, but new private passenger-carrying companies woul result.

    The four mega-merger giants would be broken up into a seemingly endless array of railroads that resembled the pre-1955 railroad lineup.

    Again, I am just thinking out loud.

    1. 1/ @SR DAS – yes the companies that run the trains in the uk are private, but they operate to the timetable and level of service laid down by the governments transport department. The split up of all the services is slowly morphing back to four or five big transport groups that control the whole network between them, and the majority of private bus companies are now owned by the SAME set of groups.

      2/ I have just finished reading a book by Christian Wolmar – Blood Iron and Gold. It is about the global inception and development of the railway and its social and political changing history. To quote a paragraph you may find interesting:
      “Of major developed economys only in the US has intercity passenger rail travel [not high speed] become entirely marginal. Amtrak serves 500 stations but carries a mere 28 million passengers per year, barely 10 days worth for countries like the UK or France.”

      The London Underground carried 1 Billion passengers last year.

      However, before you all get upset, he does go on to say:
      “the US has the worlds largest rail network at 155,000 miles of track.”

      I see the problem you guys have is the opposite to the UK. You have so much freight on your lines it is difficult to fit the passengers in between. The UK has so much passenger traffic it is difficult to fit any freight inbetween.

      The solution is the same for both: build new dedicated passenger lines, with no level crossings, sharp curves or freight to slow things down.

      If you can i recommend reading this book. The railway boom created urbanisation, commuters, sprawl, colonisation of far distant places. It freed the populus from being stuck their whole life in one place, the freedom to travel ‘anywhere’. It certainly makes you think: where would we all be now if it werent for the railways?

    2. In addition, it’s not full privatisation. The companies contract with the government, but the government retains full ownership of the rails, facilities, and much of the rolling stock. In essence, the companies simply own their contract to run services and their employees. It’s also very unprofitable and consistently loses money for the companies (recent bankruptcies to note) and has increased the cost of running services by nearly double. It’s a huge government hand-out to private companies at the taxpayer’s expense. No reason to follow that model. The only one that works is private HSR intercity services. But again, why bother privatising it when it’s profitable enough to subsidise the whole system and benefit the taxpayer? With the transport investment bank coming forward, we really don’t need private investment in the long-run.

    3. S R Das,

      You may be thinking out loud, but you really shouldn’t do that. Break up the big four national freight carriers? That’s not only not going to happen, but also it would be stupid. The reason railroads have increased their capacity so spectacularly in the last four decades while eliminating track miles is more than anything else the profit from LONG HAULS.

      The AT&SF was profitable through the miserable 1970’s, even though it didn’t have the deep industrial base of the UP or coal like BN because it had the the long hauls from LA to Chicago and south Texas. Nobody else could put together a two railroad haul between California and the large population centers of the Northeast. So AT&SF made money on I/M when everyone else lost on it. Long Haul.

      So now you want to bring back short haul railroading AND the overhead of twenty-five accounting and sales departments? A businessperson you are not.

      1. The only reason I said “break up the mega-merger giants” is that I am tried of the monopolisic zeal that has caused a seemingly endless array of evocatively named railroads to be merged and compacted into a few giants with names as colorless and unromantic as CSX.

        I mean look, Union Pacific had bought 3 other railroads whose names also ended with the work “Pacific”–without ever changing their name or identity. Coincidence? I think not!

        Than there’s the Conrail split–originally, both NS and CSX wanted all of Conrail, BUT WHY DID THEY WANT TO GET RID OF CR IN THE FIRST PLACE? HUH?

        It’s this monopolistic behavior that I am unsatisfied about, and that is why I once again want a seemingly endless array of evocatively named railroads.

      2. The Class 1 railroads are hardly a monopoly. Not only do they go head to head against each other for much of their business they also have to compete directly with the trucking industry for everything except bulk goods like coal. Plus more than half of the tonnage moved by rail are in cars owned by shippers, lessors, and other entities that are not railroads. A monopoly is able to grossly overcharge for their goods or service. The railroads operate on tight margins had have huge capital outlays. Although the percentage in tons of freight moved by rail is rising:

        Railroads’ share of intercity freight revenue has been trending down for decades, a reflection of the intensity of the competition for intercity freight transportation in the United States and of the significant rate reductions railroads have passed through to their customers.

        If the government were to knock the railroads out of business (which breaking up the Class 1 carriers would do) our dependence on foreign oil would skyrocket, passenger service would all but disappear, and there would be hundreds of thousands of additional trucks on the highway.

    4. “I believe that one of these days, the rail rennaisance will result in privatization of intercity passenger services in the USA (just like railways in the UK were privatized after 45 years of nationalization),”

      Which is why train service in the UK is vastly substandard to that in France.

      1. Actually, it’s more complex than that. British rail has sucked compared to the continent for decades. There was a concerted effort by the government in the 50s to move people off trains onto busses and cars, which involved the government blowing up rail bridges to ensure the lines could never come back. In many ways, it resembled the aggressive pro-freeway anti-urbanism (á la Robert Moses) in the US around the same time. British Rail often underfunded maintenance and capital improvements for the duration of its existence.

        The British model (it’s not really British) of owning the track and contracting out the service is actually quite prevalent in public transit across Europe, I believe. Almost all bus operations in the UK are contracted out, and funnily enough, the same company (Veolia) runs the busses in Phoenix and Rutland, the tiny county where I grew up.

        The biggest mistake with the initial privatization of the railways was privatizing the ownership of the track, giving that job to a regulated monopoly that was supposed to make huge investments for public benefit while making money for investors while and charging exorbitant rates. It was a disaster in every way.

        One thing I can say with certainty is that train service in the UK is vastly better now than it was in the ’80s. How much of that is due to public and private effort is a question that really requires a book-length answer, a book that I am not qualified to write. But you certainly can’t point to Britain and announce that privatization is evil and public ownership is good. It’s more nuanced than that.

  10. I echo the many sentiments of this being a good piece overall, thank you Zach.

    Passenger service as far as I understand it was designed to fail when Amtrak was created. Gifted with lots of Penn Central management and a mandate based upon freight rail exec’s who finally got their wish to rid the coaches and money losing service, its amazing the agency has continued to survive.

    I almost second the Chief be abolished, it’s an abhorrent train. Heck, can’t even take my bike to Raton because of their screwy baggage policy. grrrrr.

    Hard to not see electrification coming back to the mainlines, at least I see that possibility stronger than ever. With the amount of diesels each major Class one has, stricter emissions down the future, stringing cable above Stevens again I hope to see.

    Definitely need to increase the short haul, I will pay more for in taxes for that.

  11. Sort of OT, but maybe not. Whatcom Co. is supportive of the new shipping terminal west of Bellingham, which will support up to 25 coal trains from WY/MT fields. These will be over a mile long. Apparantly BNSF is ‘giddy’ at the prospect of seeing revenue from 2500 cars/day over the Cascades.
    So who gets kicked to the curb in the 2 tunnels going through the Cascades. Surely not the intermodal traffic from the Ports. It seems that incrementaliasm of passenger rail is going to be the big loser in all this, not to mention all the coal dust along the tracks through Seattle if they don’t allow double stacks through Stampede Pass.

    1. The added traffic might be enough to convince BNSF to improve its cross-Cascades infrastructure on it’s own dime. Signalize the Stampede line, allow double stacks in the tunnel, etc.

      It wouldn’t make sense to run coal unit trains bound for Bellingham through the Stampede Pass route, but it would make more sense for coal bound to Longview (if the Longview coal port is built).

      1. The coal for Longview will likely come down the Columbia Gorge on BNSF from Pasco to Vancouver, thence to Longview. Level is the path of least resistance with heavy coal trains.

      2. The Longview coal port is no longer an active project. The big push now is for Bellingham. It does seem rather silly with the weight of the coal trains to not use the gorge and instead go over Stevens which is already a bottle neck. The frequent closures (although most are south of Everett) could also be an issue. Coal doesn’t mind if it sits but ships waiting to sail sure do. One advantage for B’ham is that it’s closer to all the Canadian wheat. If they do push this through I hope covered hoppers are mandated. Better yet would be some value added process at the source like coal liquification or K-Fuel.

    2. There’s no capacity over Stevens for coal trains. It would require a second tunnel and extensive double tracking, and honestly, coal is not that profitable when added to the 1000 miles from northern Wyoming to Bellingham.

      I really don’t understand what the problem with something in Gray’s Harbor would be, but nobody seems to be interested. Maybe its not deep enough for very large colliers, but surely it would require less dredging that would the Columbia for 40 miles to Longview.

      It would require trains to cross the summit at Napavine which is not trivial. But it is considerably smaller than the climb up to either Stevens or Stampede.

  12. I just read “Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service: A Year Spent Riding across America” by James McCommons. He describes several trips from upper Michigan (Chicago) to all parts of the country including the northwest (Cascades, Empire Builder), and his interviews with train officials and politicians at all these destinations. He describes the on-time runs and late runs, pleasant passengers and unpleasant passengers, good intermodal connections and taxi rides, and trainspotters whom he said are called foamers in the US.

    Regarding incremental rail vs high-speed rail, he contrasts the west coast on the one hand, and Florida on the other. The west coast focused on incremental improvements and now has the Cascades, Capitols, San Joaquin, Pacific Surfliner, Caltrain, and the beginnings of California HSR. Florida focused on HSR exclusively during those years and got nothing. It wasn’t just the cancellation this year; there was another cancellation in 2009 when the book was written.

    He also describes how Amtrak was founded and its contradictory mandate. Nixon was president when a northeastern railroad went bankrupt and several others were slowly dying. He saw the sudden loss of the northeast corridor as devastating. So they created Amtrak and Conrail, a freight RR in the NE. Conrail was later privatized and the NE corridor given to Amtrak. Amtrak’s subsidy was meant to be temporary until it became profitible. None of the politicos believed it would be, but the white lie made Nixon and Republicans more comfortable about supporting it. Nixon thought passenger rail would wither away, and Amtrak was political cover for winding it down. (“We tried to save it but nobody would ride it.”) In the following years Congress repeated the profitibility lie while simultaneously saddling Amtrak with expensive mandates. But surprising to everybody, the riders didn’t wither away. Towns in Louisiana and Texas lobbied for an Amtrak station or line.

    He says the private railroads, The freight railroads, freed from their passenger-rail burdens, went from languishing to creating a world-class freight system. Most of the current freight-rail business was built up in the Amtrak era. The freight-rail system is actually full and congested: that’s why Amtrak trains get slowed, and it’ll be a problem if we want to move more truck shipping to rail. But passenger rail is getting so popular that the railroads are starting to change their attitude. It’s going from “Passenger trains are bad” to “Give us money to add passenger tracks to our ROW, and to make other improvements to expand and speed up both passenger and freight trains.” Because passengers are voters, and cities with passenger trains are voters. Passenger rail has become the railroads’ public-relations tool: they say that such-and-such will help passenger service when it’s really something they want anyway. And one northeast railroad is contemplating getting back into passenger-rail service itself. (I’d have to look to see which one, I think it’s in Virginia or New England.)

    1. There you to Mike, everyone posting here needs to read that book. I’ve carried it back and forth on Amtrak trains reading his thoughts on the lines I was on. I’ve changed my mind about a few things because of his insight.

    2. One important thing he says: frequency is the biggest factor that attracts riders, not speed. People will ride it and grumble if it’s slow, but they won’t ride it at all if the departure time doesn’t fit their schedule.

      1. “frequency is the biggest factor that attracts riders, not speed.”

        This is almost a truism among “transit aficianados”, but I guess not everyone knows it yet.

        I’ve previously suggested doubling all the one-a-day Amtrak services with a service 12 hours off. I have no doubts that it would more than double the ridership on most of them.

    3. The big turn-around for rail companies nit he US was the passage of the Staggers Rail Act in 1980, which allowed the railroads to compete on a closer to even level with trucks and other competitors as far as regulations were concerned.

      Of course, not having the extra money loss of running passenger service for the 9 years before that passed did help some of the carrriers to survive long enough to be around in 1980.

  13. This strikes me as two posts rolled into one. The first is a worthwhile discussion of the limits of nostalgia. But I’m not seeing how that translates to the latter part of the post, which is a brief discussion of which projects should and should not be supported.

    As others have noted above, the Florida HSR project was actually a very good one – the ridership numbers were very strong, and the project was fully funded. Its death is a tragedy that we should not celebrate.

    1. Being as I have no interest in setting foot in Florida, I’ve never bothered to learn enough about the HSR project to comment much on it. One fact I did note is that none of the places it planned to connected were places where a working adult could function without a car, unlike, say, the NEC, Chicago, the big cities in California, even Seattle and Portland.

      The segue in the post isn’t great, but the last paragraph is related to the rest. If you believe, as I do, and I suspect Zach and most other STB-ers do, that cities are the natural powerhouses of future growth, we should advocate transit systems that reflect that belief, and prioritize fast, frequent services between big cities over skeletal national service. Nostalgia is one of the many forces that tends to conflict with changes in that direction, although it is true that nostalgia has helped preserve the skeletal system we have now, which is ever-so-slightly better than nothing.

    2. The reason for (passenger) rail nostalgia is pretty simple: there hasn’t been enough serious investment in modern passenger rail, so virtually all that’s left of passenger rail is a skeletal system with equipment designed in the 1970s. Build a modern system that serves the mobility needs of the 21st century traveler and this darned nostalgia will go away.

      Obama’s $8 billion gift to passenger rail isn’t enough to build an effective national HSR network, but it is a good start. It would be ridiculous to build HSR from Tampa to Orlando and stop there. But if the system gets built out to Miami and maybe Jax, it would be viable. The 3C corridor has a similar story. It’s a good start, but the real benefits would come when it’s connected to a larger network. Oh well, maybe in 10 years or so people from FL, OH or WI will come to the west coast and see how their money was spent.

      1. The nostalgia will go away when people my age, who remember extensive, quality rail passenger service, die.

  14. Interesting discussion, with many valid points. But I would like to know why it alway always seems to be an either/or proposition when it comes to rail. Why can’t we have fast, efficient rail between the close cities, etc, etc, etc, and still have a good, dependable, albeit slower, service that covers longer stretches, or areas of less demand?

    I am looking forward to retiring. When I retire from work, I also intend to retire from driving (I drive for a living) i would love to have the option to get to Portland in three hours and don’t need a dining car to do it (although You might as well fly if they went to “at-seat” service. Part of the fun of the train is the ability to mingle a bit in the lounge car). I would also like the option to get off in places like Centralia, or even Puyallup (at least during fair times)

    But I’m also happy to spend twelve hours (most of them asleep) to get to Glacier. I’d love to have a similar way to get to Yellowstone. In fact, I’d go so far as to say I’d like to see gas engines barred from all national parks, and rail be the only way in, but that would undoubtedly get me called a communist in today’s addle-minded political discourse.

    Yes, the long-distance trains should go faster. But I personally don’t need tens of billions of dollars spent with the end result being that the route of the zephyr through the rockies is just a blur, or routes like that get sidestepped in the name of speed. Zip across the plains states all you want, but there certain parts of our rail system where slow is a virtue, and not a nostalgic one either. The chance for ordinary people to see nature without a bunch of other cars, gas stations, McDonalds, etc, is rare and getting rarer.

    I think too many times we who advocate for transit put ourselves in a box, trying to prove our fiscal responsibility in a world where that is bandied about all the time, but rarely practiced. Our elected officials only get their “stteely resolve” out when they know it’s something they can cut without angering their big money donors. Transit is one of those things.


    “Railroad had an extensive microwave communications system along its rights of way used for internal communications; later (after the Execunet II decision) they expanded by laying fiber optic cables along the same rights of way. In 1972, they began selling surplus capacity on that system to corporations for use as Private Lines, thereby circumventing AT&T’s then-monopoly on public telephony. “

  16. So which is it in terms of costs? Some say Amtrak’s longest runs are the most expensive per passenger and should be scrapped, and others say the exact opposite, that the short-distance trains cost the most. This is in the United Rail Passengers’ Alliance FAQ, the site that has that “Amtrak Week” article somebody linked to recently.

    “Amtrak’s current business plan revolves around the most expensive types of trains to operate – short distance corridor trains – with the lowest return on investment. Amtrak’s great cash cows are the full service long distance trains, all of which throw off excess cash from above the rail operations costs. Amtrak’s current business plan mostly ignores the transportation output potential of long distance trains and the good return on investment in these routes in favor of short distance corridor routes which constantly require public subsidy.”

    1. What Bruce said. Whatever URPA may say about themselves, it appears to be just a bunch of people pretending to have legitimacy, who don’t want their opinions to be biased by any facts.

    2. Well, this article looks better. A professor Herzog suggests reviving or creating a whole ton of routes. I don’t know whether most of them used to exist or he made them up. It keeps several of the short-distance routes including the Cascades and Capitols. Others it adds on to to make long-distance routes.

      There are three different routes from Seattle to LA, and two from Seattle to Chicago. So it’s actually possible to have a train from Seattle going through Missoula and Butte? Nifty. He also suggests extending the Capitols to Reno, which is not a bad idea. (My cousins could ride it!)

      1. This is not creating. For the most part, it is reviving. But, as Zach points out, this is nothing but NOSTALGIA.

        Get a copy of a 1954 Official Guide. Or 1955. Or 1960. Or, what the hell, 1970. You will clearly see that this is reviving. You can buy these Official Guides cheap, on ebay.

        But, it doesn’t really matter. Nothing really matters, anymore.

      2. The “press releases” link has two items, both nearly a decade old. The “commentary” section’s most recent entry is from 2007. This is perhaps the first website I’ve seen that’s almost as janky as CETA’s.

        The more I look at it, the more this whole outfit sounds like a dozen old guys in their slippers churning out rants that their wives got tired of hearing.

      3. I want to rebut one specific point I read on their site, namely that the long-distance trains are increasing ridership faster than the short-haul services. That’s simply false according to a straightforward inspection of Amtrak’s most recent data.

        The Acela, which alone has 85% of the riders of all the long-haul trains put together, grew 12%. On average, the NEC grew 7.3%, the short distance services 8.1% and the long distance services 6.3%. Those translate to gains (in thousands) of 53, 77 and 18. Any way you look at it, they’re full of crap and should be ignored.

      4. So restoring any route whatsoever is forbidden because that’s “nostalgia”? But it doesn’t matter anyway because “nothing matters anymore”?

        I think you meant to post on and ended up here by accident.

      5. Bruce, suppose I have free time.
        Suppose I’m plane-phobic.
        Suppose I have the ducats to waste on a train excursion across the country to visit Grandma.

        Your parameters don’t necessarily apply to me.

        Also if you’re concerned about business passengers, how exactly is an overnight train from Chicago to DC different from a redeye out of O’Hare? A nice dinner in the diner, a bed to sleep in, a shouwer to refresh in before arrival. Given the choice, I’d take the train.

      6. Ack, wrong reply link… This was meant to be in reply to Bruce’s April 4, 2011 at 6:49 pm reply below.

    3. Neither is true. Neither the long runs nor the short runs should be scrapped (at least not based on “length”).

      The truth is that the least frequent runs are the most expensive per passenger. This is based on the simple fact of railroading that *most costs are fixed costs*.

      The least full runs are also the most expensive per passenger, for the same reason. it’s well known that low frequency is a key cause of low ridership, so frequency is crucial. Low *reliability* will also drive away passengers, so schedule adherence is crucial too.

      In other words, run several trains a day and make the trains run on time, and it doesn’t matter if your runs are long or short, it won’t cost that much to run. Run a train three times a week and have it routinely late and it will cost a lot to run.

      1. That’s only true for corridors where the operator owns the track, like Amtrak in the NEC. If you have to pay freights to allow your trains to run, your cost structure is not fixed.

        Frequency is only one of the necessary but not sufficient conditions to drive ridership. You have to be selling something that people want. I don’t dispute that there are some people who’re willing to spend two days on a train to get from Seattle to Chicago. I do say that those people comprise a minuscule segment of travelers, the money spent there would be far better spent on the short-haul services, and moreover that there is no state interest in providing vacations.

        As a busy working adult, Cascades, once the Defiance bypass and additional service start in ’16, will provide an excellent option to visit Portland and a decent option to visit Vancouver (could be excellent if the frequency were the same as Portland) on the weekend or for a day during the week. Absent a $20 billion-plus investment in Shinkansen-style bullet trains on the west coast, it will NEVER EVER provide me with useful options beyond that distance.

        If you can’t see why this is true (for me and virtually all working adults) and why this permanently constricts the growth of long-haul trains thus rendering investment in long corridors much less effective that short corridors, then I cannot take anything you have to say on this subject seriously.

  17. On a fun side note, the Mt. Rainier Scenic Railroad will be visiting Tacoma, May 14th and 15th with vintage equipment (newly restored 1922 Steam locomotive and a 1955 EMD diesel) for more information.

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