2000 USA Population Density by Dave Walbert.
2000 USA Population Density by Dave Walbert.

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.

180 Replies to “Talking Sense About Amtrak”

  1. The problem is that regional lines that have high ridership or the potential to develop it are tainted by sharing a brand with what is essentially the ground equivalent of Essential Air Service.

    But unless states are going to build their own rail lines, Amtrak is the only option, since there’s really no other way they’ll be able to use the private freight railroads.

    1. I don’t think there’s any reason why Amtrak’s trackage easements couldn’t be transferred. Certainly, if there were an intelligent, informed decision made in Congress to stop pouring money away on long-haul lines and direct that to regional lines via the states, the easements could be transferred legislatively.

      But even without them, it’s possible to buy trackage rights: that’s how basically every shared-line commuter railroad (e.g. Sounder) works.

      1. Why shouldn’t we provide an essential long-distance rail service as an alternative to air travel? Sure, it loses money. So do a lot of much larger federal investments – social justice is a concern that’s often lost in this conversation about national rail. There are bus routes in Seattle that we should run service on at a higher level than ridership would indicate, because they serve communities that have higher dependence. The same goes for a lot of Amtrak service.

      2. Because there are alternative ways of providing lifeline service at a lower price. WSDOT does this with FTA money in the Intercity Bus program:


        This program provides a vastly more useful rural lifeline service at a much lower cost than could be done by rail.

      3. My suspicion is that if we actually said “okay, let’s do intercity bus service instead”, the demand reduction would mean the subsidy to that service would end up being higher than the subsidy to the trains, because the tourist dollars wouldn’t be there.

        Also, buses don’t have sleepers, so ridership might be even lower. You might just be making Greyhound a little bigger.

      4. I’m sure you’ve noticed that buying the easements is a very expensive proposition. Until Congress is willing to fund high speed corridor rail improvements it’s probably smarter to keep running the long distance trains as a placeholder for future short distance corridors. When passenger trains are removed from a line the freight rail companies can save money by devoting less money to maintaining the tracks at passenger standards. Then if Amtrak or the states decide years later that they would like to re-instate passenger service on the line, the freight rail companies will hand them an expensive bill for the cost of upgrading the infrastructure to allow the passenger trains back on the line. Look at the propositions to restore service on the Pioneer route or the North Coast Limited.

        But let’s say that we decide to stop running the Empire Builder between the west coast and Chicago and choose to build up some sensible shorter corridors like Seattle/Portland to Spokane (or Whitefish) and MSP to Chicago. Fast and frequent passenger service would likely be popular and maybe profitable on those corridors, but Congress and the States will have to negotiate access and agree to increase capacity on those tracks. For faster and more frequent trains between Seattle and Spokane that likely means boring a new tunnel through Stevens Pass or rebuilding the NP route through Yakima. Neither option is cheap, easy or likely to get funded in the near future, but does it make sense to kill the Empire Builder instead?

        Another reason that many of Amtrak’s LD routes lose money is that the system is short of equipment. In the high seasons it is difficult (and expensive) to get a seat or bedroom on many of the LD routes because there isn’t enough equipment to meet demand. Amtrak could likely save money in the off-season by running some of the trains less frequently, but when the peak season arrives, Amtrak never has enough equipment.

      5. So long as Amtrak remains the operator they can be. Federal Law only gives Amtrak the right to operate on freight lines at minimal cost to the freight RR.

      6. It’s very expensive to get the freight railroads to relent on speed upgrades even on lines that already host Amtrak services, like Chicago-St. Louis and the Capitol Corridor. On the Empire Corridor, CSX tried to demand 30′ track separation between freight tracks and >90 mph passenger tracks. It’s bad enough that in some cases it’s not much more expensive to build greenfield HSR, avoiding the freight railroads entirely, than to incrementally upgrade.

      7. “I don’t think there’s any reason why Amtrak’s trackage easements couldn’t be transferred. ”

        It would require changing federal law. Amtrak has special privileges which no other passenger railroad has. The freight railroads would fight like hell to prevent those from being transferred to anyone else.

      8. Bruce: Jarrett really doesn’t understand intercity transportation, and I wouldn’t hire him to do anything related to it.

        I suggest that you quote the two corrective comments underneath his misinformed comment. The first comment points out that he’s simply got the pricing wrong:

        “AndrewN Jarrett Walker • 20 hours ago

        However, this seems to be missing the point regarding travel options and environmental justice for people who live in the intermediate cities along Amtrak’s long-haul routes. It’s easy for some planner in a city to dismiss people who live in moderately remote areas (e.g., parts of North Dakota).

        But let’s say you live in Minot, and you want to go to Minneapolis for a week. If you left on May 1, returning a week later, it would cost $136 on Amtrak (9.5 hours), $422 for a flight via Denver (6.5-8.5 hours), or $786 for a direct flight. Greyhound is $208 (9-11.5 uncomfortable hours). You’re not “definitely going to fly” when the cost just doesn’t pan out, especially when incomes in rural areas are lower than in most cities.”

        The second comment points out that the Russians know how to do long-distance trains and are very successful with them:
        “Hendrik de Kock Jarrett Walker • 20 hours ago

        Not necessarily true for all of Europe though: The Russian railways run enormous numbers of some of the longest trains in the world, taking up to 7 days, and those aren’t tourist trains.”

      9. What about the people in Twin Falls Idaho that want to visit Spokane for a week? The fact is Amtrak covers only a handful of the tiny little 40k population towns in the fly over states because it’s an excursion train not a transportation system. Time to break out the violin and cue the story about how grandma won’t be able to get to her kidney dialysis.

      10. Bernie, you’ve missed the point about Minot. The point about Minot is that people there will *preferentially take trains* given the option. Jarrett *idiotically* claimed that they would fly instead.

        It changes the economic computations if you have the alternatives wrong.

      11. Nathanael, you’re missing the point about Twin Falls. Amtrak long distance trains provide spastic coverage to a tiny number of hole in the wall locations simply because they happen to be where it was easiest to lay tracks a century ago. If you’re really lucky the train stops at sometime other than the middle of the night and on occasion happens to connect to where you might want to go. Minot is only 42k people. Why on earth subsidize high capacity transit there and not say Lubbock Texas which is a population of 230,000?

      12. Forget Minot vs. Lubbock; why are the feds contributing next to nothing to improve transportation in Upper Manhattan (population 550,000), Dorchester (100,000), Oakland (400,000), the South Side (750,000)? The most important trip for almost everyone is the commute to work, and there, North Dakotans enjoy short car commutes while residents of poor big city neighborhoods have very long commutes by slow buses or trains that don’t take them to where they want to go.

      13. Good question, Alon.

        Next question: why would cutting service to Minot help service to New York or Dorchester? Answer: it wouldn’t.

        Maybe cutting our $500 billion / year military might. Maybe printing money might. But cutting service to western states certainly wouldn’t.

      14. And Bernie? I’m happy to subsidize service to Lubbock, too. If it has extremely good air and road service, the rail service will probably be unpopular. If it doesn’t, the rail service will probably be popular.

      15. Because at some point, non-cynical politicians will have to stare down the political calculus that makes it possible to run trains through North Dakota in the middle of the night but impossible to fund transit improvements where they’re actually needed, and say, “backasswards allocations harm us all.”

        Your broad, bland “advocacy” comes dangerously close to endorsing the broken status quo.

  2. This is a philosophical difference and one that can’t be bridged. You and Jarrett believe that we should build trains only where “geometric facts” indicate they will be efficient. Eric Jaffe and the rail advocacy groups whose work he quoted extensively believe that we should be building a national rail network to bring service to as many people as possible, make trains a viable method of getting around the United States, and that geometry and profit should not be driving public policy decisions on rail.

    I fall in the latter camp, and you fall in the former, and there’s just no way that we would ever convince the other to suddenly say “you know what? I was wrong and you were right all along.”

    But there are places of overlap, points where the advocates support a rail project that also happens to suit your criteria, and those are great when they occur. I won’t hold your opinions against you.

    1. “make trains a viable method of getting around the United States”

      Trains will never be a viable way of trans-continental travel in the United States; anyone who places any value on their time (virtually everyone) will chose to fly instead.

      1. I agree – but many of those who don’t have a value on their time are also those who might otherwise not be mobile at all. We’re also going to have to price air travel with its carbon impact eventually – in which case more people will need rail travel for longer distances.

        Don’t let your values get overridden by short term math.

      2. Time is NOT the only measure of validity or viability. I’m mostly in the Will Douglas camp partly because I’ve been around long enough to remember when we had 7 trains a day on 3 routes to/from Spokane plus a round trip service to Aberdeen/Hoquiam, in addition to the Vancouver-Eugene corridor trains (with mandatory change of trains at Seattle and Portland). But I’ll go further: We need to get over the fixation with arriving at station or aerodrome with minutes to spare, and then settling in with our phones/tablets/laptops for the journey. Thanks to the much vaunted “cpnvenience” of planes and autos, we’ve lost touch with what’s outside our windows and we need to get beyond that as we attempt to build a more sustainable, thoughtful and thriving society.

      3. Tim, there’s 46 miles of bike-riding in that trip. Grandma can’t ride a Schwinn anymore.

      4. “we’ve lost touch with what’s outside our windows and we need to get beyond that as we attempt to build a more sustainable, thoughtful and thriving society.”

        This sounds to me just like the Paul Patrick Condon “slow-urbanist” pro-streetcar, anti-SkyTrain waffle applied to intercity travel. Just as the real-world alternative to slow urban transit is every working adult driving their cars everywhere, the alternative to non-time-competitive trains is everyone flying or driving everywhere.

        The only smart way to deploy intercity trains, for the purpose of improving mobility, is on short- to medium-haul routes where trains can compete with driving or flying. Otherwise you are running a tourist service. Which is fine, but there is no compelling state interest in significant subsidies for scenic rail tours.

      5. Which is fine, but there is no compelling state interest in significant subsidies for scenic rail tours.

        And I was so looking forward to the cog railway- and duck boat-based economy. :-(

      6. That’s the dumbest argument I’ve ever heard. That’s like saying I value my time so I’m going to take a 0 day vacation.

        It also ignores China which is building our HSR at a pace that killing the airline industry. If you haven’t noticed China is kind of big. Like the US.

      7. “Trains will never be a viable way of trans-continental travel in the United States; anyone who places any value on their time (virtually everyone) will chose to fly instead.”

        Sure, for *transcontinental travel* from LA to NY. But that’s an irrelevance, a red herring.

        What about travel from Minneapolis, MN to Syracuse, NY? Your case falls apart. The train starts to be attractive. The alternative is a messy flight route with a transfer, which is expensive and involves delays. There are worse city pairs for flying and they’re easy to come up with. Many of these could be served quite well by train.

        This is important to recognize. “Long distance trains” are not LA-NY. They’re connecting mid-size cities to other mid-size cities. Airlines, apart from Southwest, have been using the hub-and-spoke model, and the result is that the mid-sized cities frequently have expensive and awful service. Of course, they’re using the hub-and-spoke model because the direct-flight model failed economically for most of them.

        Now, there is admittedly a gap which may never be served well by rail: crossing the Rockies, trains are not going to go fast, but airplanes can, and there’s a lot of emptiness with no midsized cities.

        I commend you, Bruce, for being more open-minded than Jarrett, however. You said: “the North East Corridor, possibly extended west out to Chicago;”. Jarrett seems unable to recognize the value of rail on the routes from NY-Chicago (with the entire rust belt in between). You seem to understand this.

        I get angry at most people who dismiss “long-distance” trains because they look at something which is never going to be more than a niche product (such as Oakland, CA to Denver, CO), and then mindlessly generalize to routes which have much more potential.

        Look at that density map. What natural rail routes do you see? I see Amtrak’s _Crescent_ from New York as far as Atlanta and probably into Mississippi. I see Amtrak’s _Lake Shore Limited_ route. I see Amtrak’s former _Broadway Limited_ route. I see Amtrak’s Michigan Line extended through Toledo to the east. If you hadn’t omitted Canada, I would see it extended through Canada to Buffalo and onward. I see natural lines from Chicago to St. Louis, Minneapolis, and other places. I see a line straight up the East Coast from Florida all the way to Maine, and a branch down the west coast of Florida.

        In fact, I see that there’s enough density for a complete, dense network of trains east of the Missouri River. Many of these would be considered “long distance” by current metrics.

        Yes, the double-overnights crossing from the West Coast to the Midwest are kind of questionable. Don’t generalize from them to the East. In the East, long-distance trains are merely the extension of logical corridor trains.

        As for those four double-overnight trains, I think most of them should stay simply as “markers”, because it’s *extremely hard* to get passenger service back onto a route after it’s gone away — and all of them overlap important corridors (Denver-Chicago, Minneapolis-Chicago, Albuquerque-California, Phoenix-California).

        Details on the double-overnights:
        – the Empire Builder performs much better than you might expect just from a map, due to bad roads and practically no airline service in its “empty quarter”, combined with terrible weather which tends to make road and airline service even worse. It’s what the states in the area want, they’re actually putting money into it, and it’s turned out useful during the North Dakota oil boom.

        – the California Zephyr is packed on the fast plains route from Denver to Chicago, and not so much on the slow mountain route west of there. I think Denver to Chicago should be beefed up and rerouted through more cities (it would help if it went through the cities in Iowa rather than through nowheresville).

        It’s worth noting that roughly speaking, Denver to California uses *four* trainsets while Denver to Chicago uses *two* trainsets, goes faster, and gets significantly more passengers. There may be some potential for support from Utah for the “weak part” of the train, but so far they won’t even build a decent station in Salt Lake. Denver to California is the most “cruise-like” of all of Amtrak’s trains.

        – the Southwest Chief is attractive from Albuquerque to California. East of there it could be improved substantially if it actually went through small cities (such as Amarillo and Wichita) between Albuquerque and Kansas City, rather than going through nowheresville. Remember, “long-distance” trains are not about endpoint-to-endpoint travel, they’re about people coming from the middle of the route where other alternatives are expensive, so the route really ought to go through the largest intermediate cities. This reroute is likely to happen.

        – the Sunset Limited is completely hopeless in its current form. Actually, anything running only three times a week is no good, but it also skips Phoenix. Worse, the states in the area have been actively uninterested in improving it. The only reason to keep it is in case Arizona or Texas ever develops interest in intercity rail service, as a “marker”. I’m not sure it’s worth helping out those states, they’re gonna die from drought anyway thanks to global warming.

      8. Nathanael, the Syracuse-MSP example is not really long-distance, because it’s a corridor that could reasonably be (eventually) connected by HSR. New York-Buffalo, Chicago-Buffalo, and Chicago-MSP are all decent to good corridors and even if it doesn’t make sense to run trains all the way, you’d still get a trip of a about 7 hours with one transfer somewhere in the Midwest. This is all within the northeastern quarter of the US, where cities fall into natural corridors.

        The problem is the western half of the US. The Viewliner long-distance trains should eventually be replaced with HSR, possibly with a short-distance legacy connection at the southern end. The Cardinal needs to be mercy-killed anyway and only exists because of West Virginia (which is most likely a total loss) and Kentucky (which should get HSR to Chicago). The others are terrible service now but are improvable. In contrast, the Superliner trains have very long segments in the middle of nowhere, often in terrain that’s difficult to build in, and the population they do serve is too sparse to bother with. The Empire Builder is hogging resources that could be used to serve Chicago-MSP reasonably.

      9. “Nathanael, the Syracuse-MSP example is not really long-distance,”

        I may simply be arguing terminology — but terminology MATTERS.

        To a member of Congress, “long-distance train” has a *very specific meaning* with respect to Amtrak, and Syracuse-MSP *is* long-distance.

        If you don’t mean the same thing as *Congress* and *Amtrak* mean by “long-distance”, *PLEASE USE ANOTHER WORD*.

      10. “The Empire Builder is hogging resources that could be used to serve Chicago-MSP reasonably.”

        If that were actually true, I’d agree with you.

        I don’t think it is. Although it’s not obvious, I strongly suspect that cuts to the Empire Builder would result directly in lower budgets, by removing the ND and MT delegation support.

        In contrast, I think that LD trains which aren’t supported by their local congressional delegations probably actually are a money-suck.

      11. Grant:

        “If you haven’t noticed”, the impressive Chinese corridors are actually no longer than NY-Chicago and only exist where anchored by destinations of similar magnitude (read: not fucking Minneapolis).

        Alon (and Nathanael, though Alon is way closer to being reasonable here):

        The chance of Minneapolis-Syracuse, with transfer, ever being attractive enough for someone to take the train the whole way is essentially negligible.

        That’s not to say that NY-Chicago high-speed rail and Chicago-Minneapolis enhanced rail aren’t each good projects separately. But at those kinds of distances and with the same hub-transfer penalty as flying, the downtown-to-downtown competitive advantage of intercity rail evaporates. Don’t plan for people making complicated long-haul trips on the system. That will never be the system’s best use.

    2. Everything Bruce said.

      People can pay for luxury transportation on their own — and transportation that people are taking to get in touch with what’s outside their windows is luxury transportation.

      Subsidized transportation should be functional. Transportation we subsidize should be useful for economic development. Transportation that is useful for economic development gets people places:

      1. safely;
      2. fast;
      3. with sufficient comfort; and
      4. at the lowest reasonable cost.

      In that order.

      If people want to take a luxury train on a vacation through the Plains and the Rockies, they should pay for it.

      1. “Talking Sense About Amtrak” is the title of this post and I’d love to take part in a discussion about improving Amtrak’s operations. But the idea that Amtrak’s long distance trains are merely luxury excursion vehicles that provide a comfortable chair for a certain demographic to lap up a subsidized view of some mountains and rivers, [sigh], that’s a pretty ridiculous argument. Sure, there are vacationers on the LD trains, but the trains are generally occupied by regular people doing regular things: going to visit friends and relatives in another state, commuting to a university, getting medical treatment not available in Small Town USA or going to see a National Park. You won’t find the “time is money” crowd rushing to close a business deal in Havre on Amtrak, (they will be using highly subsidized air service), but that doesn’t mean that the trains have no justifiable function in our nation’s transportation system.

        Amtrak’s operating grant request for FY2014 is $373 million and most of that money will be allocated to subsidize the 15 long distance national trains that post operating losses. But if those 15 train routes were terminated, how much more would we be paying to pay for EAS flights, new subsidized bus lines other highway costs. I think the $373 million in “cost savings” would disappear pretty quickly.

      2. My only trip on a long-distance train was the Starlight (OAK-SEA), and I was one of about three people under 30 and ten people under 55 in the parlour car. Most of the non-retirees were on the train as an “always wanted to do this once” semi-leisure trip, and (like me) had traveled out, or would return, on a plane. Pleasant as it was, I’ll probably never do it again, and none of the other non-retirees will either, I suspect.

        The only notable influx of people were at Eugene and K Falls, the former being served by Cascades, and the latter by Greyhound.

        There is no way on God’s green earth that rural lifeline coach service is going to require subsidy at the ~$100/ticket level. Moreover, by the simple reality of how much highway has been built, and how much passenger rail trackage currently exists and might reasonably be built, it will always be possible to have much more of a rural coach network that connects many different destinations than a rail network. The WA Intercity Bus program mentioned above is a great example of that.

      3. Oh, and the fact that Amtrak has free wine and cheese tastings in the parlour car should tell you everything about how the service is targeted.

        Number of wine and cheese tastings I’ve had on British trains? Zero.

      4. I think you could build a bus network for $50 million annually that would vastly exceed the usefulness as transportation (if not the mystique and appeal) of the $350 million train network. Buses could could provide multidirectional connections, could run several times a day, and could move faster than the trains do right now.

      5. Bruce, the ONLY “long-distance” train you’ve taken was one of the “highly questionable” segments: the mountain crossing from Portland to Sacramento on the Coast Starlight. Worse, you were hanging out in the first-class-only lounge.

        You’d be surprised how many people you see who are using the train for ordinary transportation when you take the Empire Builder in coach through North Dakota. Or when you take the Lake Shore Limited through upstate New York. Or when you take the Crescent through South Carolina.

      6. Amtrak has sleeper cars with wine tasting because it’s a cash cow, which Amtrak desperately needs to minimize the subsidy Congress keeps threatening to terminate. But that’s not all Amtrak is. The vast majority of passengers are in coach. Coach amenities have been upgraded over the past 20 years to be competitive, but they’re not luxury. Essentially, the amenities focus on what Amtrak can do that planes and buses can’t: more space, more luggage space, electric outlets, big windows, a 5-item dinner menu with real silverware, non-tiny pillows, etc. As GuyOnBeaconHill said, the people in coach are ordinary people travelling for the reasons that long-distance transit exists to serve: people visiting relatives, going home from school, going to a job training, going to a job in another city, etc. In winter the trains are pretty empty (of course, because nobody wants to go anywhere when it’s rainy and snowy), but in summer they’re full a month ahead, and Amtrak could easily sell more seats and sleepers if it had capacity.

      7. David L: no, you could not build such a bus network. A few points:

        (1) Watch the bus system in the Northeast and Midwest fall apart as we speak.
        (2) Watch the roads which they require to operate fall apart. Tracks are cheaper to maintain and rebuild than roads.
        (3) Watch the horrendous scheduling, which really can’t be fixed without huge expense.
        (4) Pay attention to the sheer unpleasantness of the ride quality, especially if you get motion sickness.
        (5) Notice that the buses go slower than the train. (NY: train speed limit 79, road speed limit 65.)
        (6) Notice that to have the same capacity as one train, you have to run half a dozen buses. Look at the fuel costs alone.

        Interestingly, bus service hasn’t deteriorated nearly as badly “out west”, west of Chicago, where the roads are better and faster, in the extremely empty areas where the roads are uncrowded — and where Greyhound actually runs buses itself rather than subcontracting.

        Buses DO NOT scale up. East of the Missouri, we need services which will scale up efficiently. In Wyoming, they don’t. But out here, we do — and “out here” extends as far west as Minneapolis, Kansas City, Austin, etc.

        (For example, the Texas Eagle is on an excellent route — look at the density map — and its only problem is that it’s too damn slow.)

      8. “Moreover, by the simple reality of how much highway has been built, and how much passenger rail trackage currently exists and might reasonably be built, it will always be possible to have much more of a rural coach network that connects many different destinations than a rail network.”

        Out here in upstate NY, this comes across as a nonsense statement. We had a rail network which connected every tiny burg, before it was ripped out by shortsighted people.

        Expressway network? It’s never had the same extent, and it *never will*, because roads take up *too much space*.

        Ordinary road network? Well, fine, if you want to travel at speeds no higher than 55 mph and stop at a lot of stop lights.

        In short, here rail is the only option for improving travel speeds. I realize it’s different in Wyoming.

      9. Bruce Nourish

        “Oh, and the fact that Amtrak has free wine and cheese tastings in the parlour car should tell you everything about how the service is targeted.

        Did you stiff them the 5 bucks? When did you go?

      10. Much of the Coast Starlight’s route traverses trackage that should be upgraded to high(er) speed operations. Between Eugene and about Redding or Chico will likely never be upgraded to HSR, but Seattle to Eugene and Sacramento to Los Angeles should be targeted for fast and frequent corridor trains with the necessary infrastructure upgrades. Will killing the Starlight generate enough money to pay for those corridor upgrades? Not even close. But if those upgrades are made, would the Starlight generate better ridership because it runs faster, more reliably, more efficiently and connects riders with more transportation options? I think so.

        The LD trains that run east of the Mississippi River pretty much define the proposed HSR corridors that, we almost all agree, should be built. (The Heritage Foundation and Cato Institute will likely object, but….) Washington DC to Charlotte is currently covered by one train that operates once a day and requires a 9+ hour journey each way. But once that line is upgraded to HSR and multiple daily frequencies are offered in the corridor, the LD train that currently runs will likely be redundant. But until the HSR corridor is built, I think it’s best to keep the Amtrak’s once-a-day vitamin pill service running.

      11. Amtrak has sleeper cars with wine tasting because it’s a cash cow,

        Given the ~$1,000 upcharge on a bedroom I can believe the sleeper cars do help the bottom line. Think about it this way, do cruise ships offer coach? The wine, I don’t know, but they certainly aren’t using any cash cow in the burgers.

      12. As far as I can tell from riding the Coast Starlight, there are three kinds of Amtrak passengers:

        – People who just plain love trains
        – Retirees who are touring the country and in no hurry
        – People who are afraid of flying, but don’t want to take Greyhound and end up being decapitated by a crazy person.

      13. I’ll chime in with the people pointing out that the demographic mix in coach (which doesn’t have access to the parlor car or wine & cheese tastings) is very different. Plenty of young and middle-aged adults, some elderly, varying numbers of kids, almost all traveling for “ordinary transportation” reasons.

        (At least, this goes for the fellow passengers on the trains I’ve taken: long-haul routes, mostly west of the Mississippi, mostly in the last five years or so.)

      14. In a lot of areas in the West, buses are actually faster than trains. The Empire Builder takes 8 hours to do Seattle-Spokane. On I-90 it takes a bit more than 4 hours.

        The network that Upstate New York lost is not the long-distance trains, but rather the regional trains. When the highways were built in the 1920s, the regional trains stopped making money and were canceled. The long-distance trains never really competed with cars, because people don’t mind spending 16 hours on a train if the alternative is 16 hours driving; those trains financially collapsed only in the face of jet travel, which was a generation later. Upstate still has the Lake Shore Limited, just a few hours slower than the Broadway Limited. What it doesn’t have is trains serving the Southern Tier, the Boston-Albany market (a daily departure making the trip in 5:40 doesn’t count), Binghamton-(Ithaca)-Syracuse, and maybe Watertown. None of these is long-distance under any definition, and many would be called regional express rather than intercity in Germany.

      15. @Alon Levy

        “In a lot of areas in the West, buses are actually faster than trains. The Empire Builder takes 8 hours to do Seattle-Spokane. On I-90 it takes a bit more than 4 hours.”

        Now just because we know Nathanael is on the east coast, doesn’t mean you can just toss out a meaningless comparison.

        If you drive your own car, straight through, according to Google, it’s a 4 hour trip.

        Greyhound is a 5 1/2 hour trip with only a stop in Ellensberg and Moses Lake, both right off I-90.

        The closest bus approximation is Northwestern Trailways, which follows basically the same route as the Empire Builder.

        The Empire Builder’s schedule includes a 10 min layover in Wenatchee, and uses airline time for the arrival on the Spokane end (it’s padded).

        Leaving Seattle at 4:40 PM, and arriving in Spokane on average about 1/2 ahead of schedule 12:15 AM (Remember, Spokane is where they join the Portland and Seattle sections of the train, so there is cushion built in at the point in the trip)

        On the train, that means it’s a 7 1/2 hour trip, and on Northwestern Trailways,… well guess what… it’s also a 7 1/2 hour trip.

        Make meaningful comparisons, please.

        It just clouds the issue when data is cherry-picked.

      16. Jim,

        Who cares? If I just want to get to Spokane, it’s not remotely interesting to me that the way-out-of-the-way Amtrak route would have been even slower on a bus!

        When I bitch about how long it takes to get from Ballard to Capitol Hill on Metro, I don’t care in the least that it would take even longer to drive there via Kenmore. I do care that driving is 3-5 times faster along a near-identical route to the Metro trip.

        Because it’s the getting there that matters. The inability of the foamers to see that is utterly head-scratching to me.

      17. @d.p.

        Is your anti-rail bias that overwhelming that you didn’t even bother to read the original comment, and how my reply addresses that?

        Obviously it is, if only by your use of the pejorative term “foamers” in your comment.

        Read it again:
        @Alon Levy

        “In a lot of areas in the West, buses are actually faster than trains. The Empire Builder takes 8 hours to do Seattle-Spokane. On I-90 it takes a bit more than 4 hours.”

        Looking at Greyhound’s schedule, which has only 2 stops between Seattle and Spokane, (Ellensburg and Moses Lake), the trip is 5 1/2 hours.

        Why don’t they make more stops along the way? Snoqualmie Summit, perhaps? Vantage? Cheney? How long would the bus trip take then?

        Anon Levy’s comment is categorically wrong. The bus isn’t quicker.

        The only way a bus would take 4 hours is if it were a straight up express bus. And Bolt Bus doesn’t do that route.

        And your construction of a diversion from Ballard to Capitol Hill via Kenmore is a straw man.

      18. Anyone who knows me knows I have a very strong rail bias, actually.

        It just happens that my bias for intelligent decision-making — and my understanding that transportation is a means rather than an end — place reasonable limits on my rail bias.

        In your last comment, you claimed that the only valid comparison for an 8-hour rail trip from Seattle to Spokane would be a bus that takes the same windy, overlong route and stops at the same fake-Bavarian tourist traps along the way.

        You are wrong. The only valid comparison is “the other stuff that gets me there way faster”.

        If the train can’t take a direct route, that’s not something you can equivocate. It’s simply a strike against the train!

  3. I generally agree with you Bruce. I’d love to see what we might be able to achieve for regional corridors if we ditched the long-distance trains in favor of higher frequency and upgraded track.

    One devil’s advocate question, however. In the past, you’ve argued against short turns for buses saying that it’s not necessarily cheaper unless it allows you to you remove capital and labor inputs. Say we broke the Empire Builder into two corridors, Seattle/Portland-Spokane and Minneapolis-Chicago, and left Spokane-Minneapolis out to dry. With the same financial resources, could we operate those corridors twice a day? Three times a day? I’d like to see an analysis of that.

    1. You can’t assume the same financial resources – a lot of the funding for those trains is farebox, and you’d dramatically reduce farebox from the lost tourist passengers.

      1. If a lot of the funding for those trains were farebox, they wouldn’t be hemorrhaging money to the tune of $111 per passenger served.

        Useful trains do better at the farebox. Minneapolis-Chicago and Seattle-Spokane have a far greater chance of being useful than Fargo-Whitefish.

      2. Good riddance. There is no possible way we’d lose enough in farebox receipts to make up for the exorbitant cost of maintaining a functional passenger train network in such out-of-the-way places.

        Lifeline transportation is a valid concern, and subsidized buses are the way to provide it. Where there are so few people who need it, trains and their enormous fixed costs are an extravagant and pointless luxury.

      3. “Minneapolis-Chicago and Seattle-Spokane have a far greater chance of being useful than Fargo-Whitefish.”

        d.p.: First of all, you’ve failed to notice the North Dakota oil boom.

        But more importantly, you do not magically get Seattle-Spokane and Minneapolis-Chicago trains if you kill the Empire Builder. In fact, the only way you will have Seattle-Spokane OR Minneapolis-Chicago service right now is to retain the Empire Builder.

        Given current federal law, Seattle-Spokane would require WA to pay for it, while Minneapolis-Chicago would require a three-state compact. They actually had one of those, and the insane, evil governor of Wisconsin broke the deal. This coordination problem is also the reason we don’t have a Chicago-Cleveland “corridor” train (Ohio and Indiana would have to agree), the reason why Chicago-Denver hasn’t been rerouted along the sensible route in Iowa (Iowa would have to agree), the reason why the Michigan-Chicago trains slow down terribly upon reaching Indiana, etc.

        The coordination problem is a very serious one. As it is, when you lose a “long-distance” intercity train, you do not magically get a corridor train instead. You get NOTHING.

      4. Ah, yes, the North Dakota oil boom. The one that produces oil. People are totally going to reach that on the overnight tourist train rather than just driving their fucking pickup trucks to the site!

        As I’ve already said (twice), the policy that would stick states with 100% costs of a useful service while continuing to fund a useless service (that happens to serve those states, badly) is a bad policy.

        If it takes killing Amtrak to start over on the policy, then I’m for killing Amtrak: https://seattletransitblog.wpcomstaging.com/2013/04/18/talking-sense-about-amtrak/#comment-320834

      5. d.p.: actually, Amtrak has been getting ridiculous levels of ridership to the oil boom towns. Yes, from people going to work there. Not kidding, not making it up.

      6. d.p.: I don’t support the PRIIA policy requiring states to pay for short routes.

        Neither did Amtrak management. Killing Amtrak wouldn’t reverse that policy, it would probably *entrench* it.

      7. I truly do not understand how you, Nathanael, with your breadth and depth of knowledge about worldwide transportation, could bring yourself to describe any part of the Empire Builder as having “ridiculous levels of ridership”.

    2. If there’s additional demand along portions of a corridor, that argues for adding service along that part of the route. To my mind, it doesn’t justify breaking up the long distance route. Specific to the Empire Builder, adding trips between Seattle and Spokane or Pasco, especially at some time of day other than the dead of night, and via some alternate route like Stampede Pass/Yakima would add a lot of utility to the system. Likewise a Hiawatha extension to MSP or Fargo via Madison.

      As noted in the Jaffe article, LD routes have a lot of city pairs that are served. Splitting a line in the middle greatly reduces the number of combinations and reduces the feeder effects of connecting passengers into the hub cities.

      Yet another thing to understand about the Amtrak subsidy numbers is that they’re not based solely on the operating costs of the line in question. There is also an allocation of fixed Amtrak costs (HR, IT, management, etc) to the trains. Deleting a route can increase the share of fixed costs taken on by other routes.

      1. “LD routes have a lot of city pairs that are served.”

        Not really. Long distance trains have a few big-city/big-city pairs that are served badly (and will not be served well at any frequency or reasonable level of capital investment) and lots of pairs involving tiny towns that may or may not be served well, but which truthfully don’t matter, as in no event are they likely to draw enough ridership to justify the expense of a train rather than a subsidized motorcoach service.

      2. Again, Bruce, you’re simply wrong. You’re generalizing from your one trip from Oakland to Seattle.

        Take a goddamn trip on an east coast “long distance” train and watch the hordes of people boarding at Atlanta or Syracuse before you shoot your mouth off about “long-distance” trains.

        If what you mean is “mountain west trains”, say “mountain west trains”.

    3. Long story short: an LD train consumes about twice the resources of a corridor train per frequency. The LDs run with 2-3 locomotives and long consists behind them, and have more than twice the staffing levels because of the sleeping car attendants and the dining car staff. They also don’t earn more revenue per seat-km.

      On top of that, the Empire Builder also wastes a lot of resources with its scheduling. If it ran on time and turned within 1-2 hours it could run its route with 4 trainsets. Instead, it needs 5. So the equipment can actually be turned into 6 Chicago-MSP trains and 4 Seattle-Spokane. Chicago-MSP travel time is such that about 2 of the trains could run roundtrip in the daytime, 2 more could run roundtrip but one would be a night train (without sleepers), and 2 would run one-way. So that’s 5 trains per day per direction. Seattle-Spokane with 4 sets gives you about 3 roundtrips per day at current speeds, but honestly current speeds are so laughably low it’s not worth it without major infrastructure upgrades. At Milwaukee Road speeds it could be done in just less than 4 hours and then 4 sets would be enough for a train every 2 hours.

      1. “So the equipment can actually be turned into 6 Chicago-MSP trains and 4 Seattle-Spokane”

        Unfortunately, not legally — see PRIIA. This would require state money.

        The oil boom in North Dakota and the infusion of North Dakota cash means that this is also neither politically sound, nor responsive to demand. You’d have to run at least one train Chicago-MSP-Williston, ND for the oil boom traffic, at which point your equipment utilization advantage is much reduced.

        This would indeed save on the travel through Montana, but I don’t see the point in losing two Senatorial votes for Amtrak for such small benefit.

        Now, if you’d proposed axing the Sunset Limited, I’d have to go along with you. It runs three times a week (a proven ridership killer). It fails to serve Phoenix. It has an absurdly slow route from Houston to New Orleans. It uses FOUR trainsets for this nearly-useless service — and on top of that, the three-a-week scheduling means that it has unusually high staffing costs, because staff have to be paid to sit around a lot. Finally, the Congressional members, and especially the Senators, along most of the line vote against Amtrak!

      2. If the point of subsidizing transportation is to promote economic activity, then all transportation subsidies to North Dakota should end immediately until it finds things to produce that don’t destroy the world.

  4. I think it’s there is a similarity to the technical/political divide among transit advocates described by Alon Levy. To some, expanding transit to as many geographies as possible means building a broader base for transit. To others, deepening transit where it fits best means building a broader base for transit.

    In the national/local train debate, I’m one who thinks transit should be something that works for the most people, not the most places. It’s like building a new subway line out to the suburbs rather than a new line downtown. Sure, you’re broadening transit to the suburb, but you might only serve half the ridership.

    All that said, Amtrak has not proven to be firmly in this camp, either. They’re so focused on top speeds they don’t invest in average speeds, and so they don’t operate like a business. It doesn’t help that a camp in Congress expects them to pour money into these long-haul services and still make a profit.

  5. Why aren’t we debating the relevance of long-haul interstate highways across these unpopulated regions?

    Eliminating unprofitable Amtrak routes that cross the country make as much sense as eliminating unprofitable highways like, say I-90 that cross the least populated areas of the country.

    We spend, what, like 50 billion dollars of federal funding on publicly subsidized highways alone (not counting billions and billions more at the state level. And we’re debating whether it’s wasteful to subsidize rail travel to the tune of 0.5 billion dollars?

    I think we should dramatically increase spending for rail travel, and provide dedicated passenger rail corridors throughout the country, rather than forcing Amtrak to be a second-class rail carrier over private freight lines. Europe doesn’t do this, it’s ridiculous.

      1. Generally not, no. The container rail business is much more about moving long trains with lots of containers over very long distances. Idaho’s TVs are likely coming via truck from LA or Tacoma.

      2. If your town is too small to have a railway container transload, you can afford to have the trucks take the rural roads — you don’t need an expressway.

        Expressways are overkill. It’s not worth it. Get rid of I-90 through Idaho. I do not feel the need to subsidize getting a plasma TV to Idaho *slightly faster*.

      3. A lot of the container freight is actually “land bridge” operations — a container ship unloads in LA or Seattle, then the containers move by rail to Texas, where they’re loaded on another container ship. It reduces the turnaround time for the ships and saves the expense of going through the Panama Canal.

        A major reason for rural expressways is safety, not speed. US-2 is a good example of what happens when you have heavy traffic on a non-divided rural highway — the accident rate goes up dramatically.

      4. Rebuilding to Interstate standards makes the road segment safer, but doesn’t make the overall network any safer. When the pre-Interstate expressways and the Interstates themselves opened, the traffic accident rate per VMT was fairly flat, but the increase in traffic led to a doubling of fatalities.

    1. Because we need to subsidize some form of transportation, and (especially discounting capital costs, since they are already built) highways are the cheapest in that application. Maintenance is expensive, but can’t compare to the operational costs of a train or air network.

      In even more remote places, that equation changes. It’s cheaper to subsidize air service than highways in remote parts of Alaska, for instance. Rural Alaska is far more remote than the parts of Montana or North Dakota that have interstates.

      1. So we should subsidize the trucking companies, but not the railroads.

        Or, subsidize the tourists in cars, but not trains.

        If you want to get rid of Amtrak, privatize the road network.

        Then it would be obvious which is the better value, especially to the travelling public.

      2. If you want to spew insults, Chris, that’s fine, but it doesn’t mean I’m wrong.

        The state of Montana (to use an example where highways are particularly expansive and therefore expensive) spends about $60 million per year on highway maintenance.

        How many Montana cities could you connect with a more than marginally useful train network for $60 million annually? Not many.

        Trains make sense where you can use their best attribute, which is very high capacity, especially per unit of land used. You don’t need very high capacity in Montana.

      3. “Because we need to subsidize some form of transportation, and (especially discounting capital costs, since they are already built) highways are the cheapest in that application. ”

        Bullshit. Look up the actual numbers; railways are substantially cheaper.

        Now, if you’re talking rural roads, we have to have those anyway for local access, so that makes sense, and they’re not that expensive.

        But EXPRESSWAYS are stupidly expensive to maintain, FAR more expensive than parallel railways. FAR more.

      4. Nathanael, the difference is that you only have to pay to maintain the highways. You also have to pay to operate the trains. Maintaining highways is far cheaper than maintaining rail AND operating almost totally subsidized trains.

    2. Actually I would debate the relevance of many of the Interstate highways. The idea that the whole country needs highways built to Interstate standards has been disastrous. They’re overkill in rural areas where two-lane highways are perfectly sufficient. They resulted in mass urban destruction in places where similar mobility could have been provided with less impact. And much of what was developed around them in the suburbs is largely inaccessible without a car.

      1. I agree with you on urban interstates.

        Many rural interstates were a waste of capital funds to build, sure, but that’s already in the past (with only tiny exceptions). They’re not doing any real harm now that they’re in place.

      2. Pavement is not forever; every mile of wasteful freeway is a mile that has to be rebuilt. Many are built parallel to previous highways that could already handle all the traffic demand, so there are six or eight lanes of road that need to be maintained where only four are needed. As freeways they require grade separation for all intersections and crossings — this means fewer, more expensive crossings that are more vulnerable and harder to repair.

        And when a small town builds outward around a surface freeway the results are the same as in suburbs that grow out along surface freeways. The most unwalkable sprawl there is. Bird’s-eye distances are magnified because space is required both for the highway and local access roads when only one road is needed; direct routes are thwarted, making travel distances between apparently adjacent buildings even greater; and the intersection designs encouraged by Interstate standards are rather unpleasant without a car without even the justification that there’s a lot of local traffic… until ultimately the road becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and there is.

        I’ve lived in a growing but still small town in the American West without freeways, where newer developments (all kinds — residential, commercial, retail, industrial, government services) mostly spring up along the major highways out of town. It’s unmistakably auto-sprawl and nobody would confuse it for model urbanism, but it’s at least basically accessible on foot or bike. This doesn’t mean very many people take advantage — people there largely drive everywhere, even just down the block — but were driving to suddenly become more expensive this stuff would be more resilient than freeway sprawl.

        There is also, of course, harm in placemaking with rural freeways; even little towns in the west have centers with some quality as a public space. Freeways divert travelers and their business away from these places (as they were often built along older travel routes, or older travel routes were built to them in some cases) and to places with no hope for such quality.

      3. “Many rural interstates were a waste of capital funds to build, sure, but that’s already in the past (with only tiny exceptions). They’re not doing any real harm now that they’re in place.”

        As long as you don’t maintain them or attempt to rebuild them when they collapse, I agree.

        However, that’s NOT the situation we’re looking at.

  6. What you’re missing here is that there are so many things we can do to make the network function better. Most trains are impractical for those without unlimited time because the trains are so slow and infrequent. Ridership consists of actual people who make rational decisions, and there is so much unserved demand for rail travel. If we upgrade tracks and add service we’d have much faster service, enough that something like NY to Chicago would become competitive with flying. Instead of writing off something we haven’t cared about, let’s invest to make it a practical transport mode and attract many new users.

    Another thing is that we need to analyze regions and corridors to see what options work best in different situations, considering the usual transit issues like frequency and costs of different modes. Some places can do fine with a bus while in other places a long-haul train is more efficient/effective. We should not run unprofitable tourist trains but if a train is the only connection to a town, do we just ignore that those people?

    Think of Amtrak trains like we think of local buses. Service quality is generally poor now but with some investment it can be great. These conversations always assume it’s all or nothing, which is why advocates dig in their heels. Instead, let’s start a public dialogue on how to use the existing resources in more useful ways (not throw the money away).

    1. “If we upgrade tracks and add service we’d have much faster service, enough that something like NY to Chicago would become competitive with flying”

      A corridor I explicitly called out in my post as probably making sense for intercity rail, which is anchored at each end by a >10 million person megalopolis and continuously urbanized (at the macro level) throughout.

      “These conversations always assume it’s all or nothing”

      Huh? No, that’s exactly the opposite of what I said. I’m saying we should stop wasting money on trains through the middle of nowhere and focus them on corridors exactly like the ones you describe.

      1. Bruce, “long distance” has a technical meaning in Amtrak parlance. It refers to a train which is not part of a “state supported corridor” and not part of the “Northeast Corridor Service”.

        Basically it refers to a train which runs on a route longer than 750 miles off the NEC. It includes NY-Montreal, NY-Toronto, NY-Chicago, DC-Chicago, NY-Atlanta-New Orleans, NY-Florida, etc.

        If you mean “mountain west trains”, say that.

      2. Aaah, I got some of that wrong. Sorry.

        After doing my research I find the following: to confuse matters there are at least three definitions of “long-distance” in use.

        (1) all trains with sleepers.
        (2) trains with sleepers, plus a few non-state-supported trains without sleepers like the Palmetto.
        (3) the above, plus some long state-supported trains which run with “long-distance” coaches such as the Adirondack.

        All three of these definitions would make NY-Chicago “long-distance”. So if you aren’t attacking NY-Chicago, please for goodness sakes use a different word than “long-distance”.

        I would suggest “double overnight”, “mountain west”, or “super long haul”.

      3. Nathanael, I couldn’t care less that I am not using the lingua foama you would prefer. Every person besides you on this blog has apparently been able to correctly work out which trains I was talking about.

      4. Bruce: terminology matters when you’re doing politics.

        Do NOT use the phrase “long-distance train” when criticizing the mountain west trains in a form *which your Congressman might read*, or he’ll happily axe the NY-Chicago and NY-Atlanta trains, even though that isn’t what you meant.

  7. Australia isn’t perfectly salient because the maps are even more extreme:

    You can out to places where nearly no one lives from big cities in very short order, and the small towns there are much smaller.

    As you can see here, “urban centres” fall off quickly from Seattle-sized to Spokane-sized to Mt Vernon sized.

  8. This seems politically naive. To build a coalition for rail, we’re probably going to need the sentimentalists. The cost of supporting them is pretty trivial–to small to matter in the federal budget.

  9. Booking travel to Vancouver next week, I had four choices: fly, Amtrak, BoltBus and drive. I know that doing customs at Vancouver Airport in either direction is terrible. BoltBus would require me to stand at a corner in the ID possibly in the rain. Amtrak allows me to park for free at Everett Station and just hop aboard. It wasn’t a hard choice.

    1. Indeed, that’s the choice I make almost every time I travel to Vancouver; and Portland-Seattle-Vancouver is exactly the kind of short-haul rail corridor we should invest in. But if you had to visit Chicago for a week, would you take the flight or the 48-hour one-way scenic train?

      1. Nice try, Ramp.

        Number of passengers last year who boarded in Ephrata, WA, and disembarked in Havre, MT (at 1:12PM the following afternoon) = precisely zero.

      2. @J. Reddoch — I am genuinely, unsarcastically happy for you that your life arrangements allow you to spend four days working on a train to make a round trip between Seattle and Chicago. However, 99% of people don’t have lives like that, and I am not interested in paying to run trains for the 1% who do; and who would be served just as well by privately-run excursion trains.

        I am very, however, very interested in paying to operate and improve trains on short- to medium-haul trips where that 99% of people would be very likely to chose rail over flying or driving, if the service were better.

      3. I do go to Chicago and I do go by plane.

        But even without the border issue and even without the upcoming improvements, the train is also my preferred way from Seattle to Portland. If only because I got sick of I-5 in a year of commuting to Longview (where there was no practical way to get from Kelso station to where I needed to go in Longview without a car; they don’t do ZipCars there).

      4. Bruce, your comment about the 99% paying for the 1% to take trains is interesting. Amtrak carries the same number of people per year as fly out of O’Hare International Airport. With your logic we should shut down O’Hare because the other 99% of us don’t fly there.

      5. Grant, are comparing all of Amtrak to O’Hare? How about just the LD passengers?

      6. 66 million people a year use Ohare. All of Amtrak carries only 30 million people a year and 11 million of those are on the NEC. Where between NYC and D.C. Amtrak carries 3X as many passengers as the airlines. Amtrak’s long distance passenger trains are an anachronism who’s time has passed.

      7. Bernie, you’re making the same damn mistake as everyone else.

        Go look at the Russian railway network; they’re not stupid enough to get rid of their “long-distance” trains.

        *Some* routes are no good, namely the routes which won’t attract intermediate on-offs. If you can chain your way through many stops which attract substantial patronage, the “distance” the train runs is irrelevant. The trip time is relevant.

        I believe that trains compete meaningfully (i.e. for non-cruise traffic) on trips up to 8 or even 12 hours, provided the scheduling is right. The actual route can be longer if you aren’t really basing it on end-to-end traffic.

        Again, what I get annoyed by is generic attacks on “long distance” trains, when the “long-distance” trains in different places are different animals.

        I will concede immediately that Eugene-Sacramento and Reno-Grand Junction exist almost entirely as cruise and “plane hater” service. Spokane-Williston ND exists almost entirely as lifeline and “plane hater” service, and until the oil boom, I would have said Spokane-Fargo. The Sunset Limited appears to be *entirely* “plane hater” service, since nobody else would even consider it.

        But Atlanta-New York and Buffalo-Chicago ARE “long-distance” by all commonly used definitions. The result is that attacks on “long-distance” trains are perceived by politicians as attacks on, you guessed it, Atlanta-New York and Buffalo-Chicago. You have to use clearer language if you don’t mean to do that.

  10. I agree that high population corridors should be invested in. However for long haul trains, we can learn from past practices when small freight companies included a few passenger cars. Yes they are slow, but if a locomotive is already clogging the ROW with freight cars, theorerically the fares could be lower. Low fares could save rural towns where people still line up at the station for every low frequency train that goes by. Also, air travel includes bag fees, security, and higher fares to small towns. For example sf to bend, is about 250 at best so my friends usually drive. I take the train because I can sleep during the travel time. It only takes about 5 waking hours and I get there refreshed, vs an all day drive that makes me exhausted.

    1. That service has existed elsewhere, and is being phased out. Nobody needs trains that move at freight rail speed, least of all in rural areas in the Interior West, where the coal trains are very slow. (The hot intermodals are faster, but those aren’t about to make station stops in every town.)

  11. First, I wouldn’t look to the UK as an example of how to run trains. Or much of anything else.

    Second, why can’t we have the locals AND the long distance trains? The LD’s take so little money to run (after all, the entire Amtrak subsidy is a drop in the bucket) why go after them? People like them, isn’t that enough? Why not expand them?


    1. He’s not looking to the UK for operational advice (although your negative characterization is quite antiquated). He’s citing it as an example of the distances over which intercity rail transit can meet an actual, inarguable need.

      Why go after them?

      Because the same party that the “touch every state” policy is supposed to placate is the party that goes after Amtrak viciously in its platform and public rhetoric for being “wasteful”. When in fact the NE Corridor is extremely profitable and the short-haul state subsidized corridors more than hold their own. It’s the long hauls make Amtrak citeable by opponents as a boondoggle.

      And those long hauls actually siphon off the NE Corridor’s profits, preventing those funds from being used to gradually improve that line to provide the level of service that its customers frankly deserve for the ticket prices they’re paying.

      That’s “why go after them”.

      1. Oh, and also because the regional corridors such as Cascades just got their federal funding cut to zero on the basis of the aforementioned fraudulent rhetoric, which promises to significantly raise fares or hamper service or both.

        It’s total bullshit that we should keep subsidizing a silly railfan service, while penalizing a form of service with the potential to do well. Much as we subsidize crap commodity corn while making healthful food as expensive as possible, it is deeply counterproductive in the long term.

      2. If we’re going to look at this *politically*:

        The North Dakota and Montana and Minnesota delegations have been strong Amtrak supporters. So keep the Empire Builder.

        The Ohio and Indiana delegations have attacked Amtrak incessantly. However, to serve Chicago-upstate NY, Chicago-New England, Chicago-Pennsylvania, etc., you have to go through them. Cutting the LSL and Capitol Limited *would not hurt* those delegations, it would hurt the NY and Illinois delegations, who *support* Amtrak.

        Something similar is going on in Georgia; the only part of Georgia which votes for passenger rail is Atlanta, which is also the part which would be hurt by cutting the Crescent.

        The NY-Florida trains get no voting support from Georgia or South Carolina… but cutting them would hurt the passengers who overwhelmingly come from areas which DO vote for Amtrak, in Florida, NC, and the NEC.

        Politically speaking, I think the only trains you can cut using the political logic you’ve given are the Sunset Limited and perhaps the Cardinal.

        (I’m not seeing much Amtrak political support along the Sunset Limited route, except at the three locations which already have service in other directions — LA, San Antonio, and New Orleans. The Cardinal has been a reliable source of WV votes, but there is some evidence that this may be ending.)

        You might be able to sever the Coast Starlight and drop the Sacramento-Eugene section, I suppose, if Northern California tends to vote Republican / anti-train. Note that one area which always voted against Amtrak, the panhandle of Florida, *did* lose its service and it’s *still gone*.

      3. d.p.: I severely doubt that.

        The FTA can only fund operations which are run by a designated regional transport agency (a.k.a. fiefdom).

        What’s the fiefdom for transportation projects which pass beyond the bounds of a fiefdom? Answer: Amtrak. There’s a reason why most of the corridor projects are being funnelled through Amtrak, even ones with FTA grants — there’s no other viable fiefdom to manage them with.

        You wanna fix this, you have to nationalize things a lot more.

      4. To follow up further, why does Amtrak control the Northeast Corridor? Because it’s not possible to get all the states along the route to cooperate. It’s hard enough to get NY (via Metro-North) to cooperate.

  12. I’m surprised that you’ve left out (what I feel is) the single biggest critique of super-long-haul rail service.

    The best transit services do not simply connect point A to point B. They also prove service to many intermediate points along a corridor. Link is just as useful for trips within the Rainier Valley as trips to the airport. The 40 is a great way to get from Ballard to downtown, but it’s an even better way to get from Fremont to South Lake Union.

    Currently, the Empire Builder runs one train daily. The times of this train are chosen so that it departs and arrives from Chicago and Seattle at reasonable times. But there’s no way to arrive at the intermediate stops at a reasonable hour. The town of Detroit Lakes, MN has an Amtrak station, but the only trains that pass through there stop at about 3 AM. In my book, that’s tantamount to not having service at all.

    If you want to avoid this problem, and ensure that every stop has at least one train that arrives at a reasonable hour, then you probably need to run at least 3 trains a day. That’s a lot of money. And it’s almost unquestionable that the money would improve the lives of more people if it were spent on short-haul or urban rail.

    1. The schedule is largely controlled by the timeslot available. The Empire builder could be made usable just by adjusting the schedule by about 5 hours if that timeslot was free which it isn’t.

      1. My point is that there’s a major difference between a service whose frequency is measured in minutes and a service whose frequency is measured in times per day. A once-daily train with a 24-hour trip time simply cannot be a useful service for most of the intermediate points.

        Shifting the schedule might get you more useful times for the endpoints, and maybe a key and conveniently-placed midpoint, but that’s it.

        For that reason, it simply doesn’t make sense to consider a train like the Empire Builder as a corridor. It’s a point-to-point service between Seattle and Chicago. The stops in Minnesota at midnight are only marginally more useful than the planes flying overhead.

        Compare this with the Northeast Corridor, where there are dozens of trains every day. The big demand generators are Boston, NYC, and DC, but plenty of people use Amtrak for trips from New Haven to New Jersey, or from Rhode Island to Baltimore, or from Philadelphia to Virginia. They can do so, because every stop on the Northeast Corridor has trains at reasonable times of day.

        Trains are much better than planes at serving corridors, but planes are much better than trains at covering long distances between two points. I just don’t see any world in which there’s a Seattle-Chicago “corridor” that needs that kind of service. I’d much rather spend the financial and political capital on the corridors that are desperately crying out for more service.

      2. “A once-daily train with a 24-hour trip time simply cannot be a useful service for most of the intermediate points.”

        And yet somehow it is useful anyway, even though the only train goes through at 2am or 4am. The fullest part of the Empire Builder is in North Dakota. Train ridership picks up where the alternatives leave off (e.g., between Glacier MT and Minneapolis).

        A once-daily train that arrives at 2am is substandard, but not necessarily useless.

      3. Westbound, the Empire Builder leaves Minneapolis at around 10:30 PM and arrives at Glacier Park at around 7 PM the next day. Eastbound, it leaves Glacier Park around 9:30 AM and arrives in Minneapolis at around 7 AM the next day. For long-distance travel, those are fairly reasonable times.

        In contrast, I doubt that many people are boarding or exiting at Fargo at 3 AM. Certainly, the last time I rode the Empire Builder, I remember it being a pretty quiet stop. But then again, I was half-asleep, so maybe I don’t remember correctly.

        The Empire Builder isn’t useless, but it has a daily ridership of about 1,300 people. It’s hard to imagine that the ridership in North Dakota wouldn’t be higher if there were a stop in Fargo at 3 PM, instead.

      4. When I rode in November 2008 I think, North Dakota was the only segment where I had a seatmate. A group of some fifty people got on in one city and got off in another, in the middle of the night.

      5. “In contrast, I doubt that many people are boarding or exiting at Fargo at 3 AM. Certainly, the last time I rode the Empire Builder, I remember it being a pretty quiet stop. But then again, I was half-asleep, so maybe I don’t remember correctly.”

        On the other hand, I’ve heard that Williston is a pretty busy stop these days. There was an NPR story about the oil boom last fall that talked of the role of the train in bringing in workers. Did you notice which stop was pictured in the Jaffe story?

    2. “super-long-haul rail service”

      Aleks: thanks for calling it that, rather than generically saying “long distance”.

      I often specify “double overnights” vs. “single overnights”.

  13. “He’s not looking to the UK for operational advice (although your negative characterization is quite antiquated)”

    Not really, if you talk to average Brits, as opposed to Thatcher-addled syncophants, most will tell you service has degraded while prices have gone up.

    Everyone is entitled to their opinion, of course, but this tired old bundle of BS that has been charitably described as an “editorial” has been trotted out by self-important “big thinkers” for decades, and I’m sick of reading about it. The long-distance trains ridership levels speak for themselves. They are a service that the American people obviously enjoy. That is enough of a justification for their existence. Calling them a pet project for foamers is both stupid and inaccurate, and the editors of these posts, [comment policy whining].

    1. The train service in England has gotten downright miserable. Not only that it’s much more difficult trying to figure out how to get around than it used to be. In France you go up to any kiosk and you buy a ticket. In England you try to figure out which train company goes to which area much like you’d have to figure out which airline flys to which city. It’s a mess. A country smaller than Washington has 23 different train companies.

      1. Huh? The trains in England work great, much better than they worked under public ownership. There is a national booking companies like The Train Line that will purchase whatever tickets you need from whatever companies’ trains you travel on, if you can’t figure out your own itinerary. The US can only dream of a train system as functional as the UK’s.

      2. Exactly. I take offense to the “Thatcher-addled” accusation.

        I might prefer the legibility of SNCF, but there are a surprising number of key French corridors running skeletal service, if that. Medium-haul rail is much better in France, but comprehensive travel is actually a hell of a lot better in England.

        And the existence of http://www.thetrainline.com is a game-changer for understanding how the network functions as a whole.

    2. Think what you like mate, but the trains today are much better than the trains I rode in the 80s.

      1. So, the trains were terrible under Thatcher…. hmm.

        The fact is that the UK train network is the embarassment of Western Europe. There are worse networks: Ireland comes to mind. And Greece.

        Sure, the US network is worse, but the US train network *sucks big time*. Given the extreme density of England, it should have a train network the quality of that in the Netherlands. It doesn’t.

      2. Population density of the Netherlands, 1,287 people/sq-mi. Population density of the UK, 673. The UK also isn’t pancake flat like the low counties. FWIW, population density of the United States, 89; which coincidentally is the same as Washington State.

      3. @Nathaniel & TL;Dr. No it’s your own political biases that insist rail travel has got worse in the UK. The near doubling of rail travel to levels not seen since the 1950’s tells a different story.

        Actually the 1980’s were a reasonable time for BR. It transformed its efficiency by finally ditching the old structure which was still based around the old big four rail groups and regrouped around different business sectors. The eighties saw a record amount of line and station reopenings and a considerable amount of electrification.

        Thatcher was indifferent to the railways she largely left them alone and let them do their own thing.

        In this time the intercity division moved into considerable profit and Network Southeast was apparantly only one year away from going into the black.

        Then we had privatisation in the 90’s. A mixed bag in truth, but money has been poured into the system.

        The UK may have an overly complex fare structure lag a bit on city transit systems outside London, but it has very good rail coverage and runs very frequent trains all over it’s network. Many other countries don’t have half hourly or better connections between cities or frequent rural services.

        A lot of other countries run much longer yet more infrequent trains.

  14. And here we go again. You’d think on a transportation blog people would understand subsidies.

    In America the infrastructure is subsidized for airplanes and cars. Airplanes and cars don’t break even because they’re running on tax payer paid for infrastructure which they are NOT paying for in whole.

    In America trains run on private infrastructure that makes money and the operator is subsidized.

    Demanding that long haul Amtrak make money is just making yourself look like someone who doesn’t understand how transportation is funded. Why would Amtrak EVER have to break even? If they have to break even then I want all airlines to pay 100% of all costs to the FAA, the TSA and all airport operating costs!!! All freeways have to be toll roads and all bus companies have to pay 100% of the cost of driving on the freeway.

    This argument is basic I don’t know why we even have it and yet about once a year when Amtrak asks for operating money for the year here we are again.

    1. Almost no one here believes Amtrak should be forced to break even. The question is what represents the best use of subsidy funds. Bruce thinks (and I agree) that poorly used, infrequent long-distance train service that has no hope of being competitive with air travel is not a good thing to subsidize.

      On the larger point of subsidizing the transportation system as a whole, we do it because it’s a net plus for the economy. That’s been true ever since mechanical transportation became common, and it’s a much easier question than what specific mode of transportation is the best one to subsidize for a given need.

      1. The problem is that you’re thinking of Amtrak funding as a zero-sum game.

        It’s not.

        Cutting funding to one train does not generate funding for another train by magic; it’s more likely to cause fewer votes in Congress and therefore to reduce funding for other trains.

        As far as I’m concerned, the only government funding stream which is large enough that reducing it will cause Congressmen to feel “free” to start funding other things is the DoD — 500 billion per year.

        And yes, that WAS on topic. It’s a matter of political calculus related to Amtrak.

      2. Operating profits from the Northeast Corridor are consistently siphoned away to balance Amtrak’s books, rather than being reinvested in improving the corridor that generated them.

        So, in fact, cutting some boondoggle like the Southwest Chief would immediately make funds available for improved service and capitol investments in the NE. “Magic!”

  15. The argument that we need the LD trains to buy votes in Congress makes sense to me. But now that Congress has decided the Feds will ONLY fund LD lines, and the states have to pick up the entire tab for State and Regional lines, I’m not seeing what we get out of this arraignment anymore.

    Am I missing something?

    1. You’re not missing anything.

      If Amtrak is to be exclusively synonymous with slowpoke cross-country meandering, then cut its political support and let it die. The regional corridors should be able to apply for a totally separate pot of FTA funding, evaluated on a case-by-case basis, just as major metropolitan transit projects are.

      The NE Corridor, meanwhile, will finally be able to reap the capital-reinvestment benefits of its own success (rather than serving as one more example of the Welfare States stealing coastal dollars wholesale).

      1. And who do you think is going to manage the Northeast Corridor?

        Trust me, none of the state governments is going to step up to do it.

        Regional corridors? Who’s even going to apply for them? It’s been just barely possible to get two states to cooperate, but it’s been nearly impossible to get ANY three-state corridors operating – the sad fate of IL-WI-MN speaks to that, as does the non-improvement in Indiana on the Michigan routes. I suppose VT-MA-CT might be considered an exception, and good on Massachusetts for that. That had to be applied for as three separate projects, however! Isn’t that stupid?

        Now, there are ways to fix this. Most of them involve changing state borders. I’m all for it, but it’s a huge political lift.

      2. Never replied to this one.

        Regional corridors: the very same states that currently pay for routes like Cascades, the Hiawatha, or the Keystone — either solo or in collaboration.

        These corridors are cut off from Amtrak funding as of this year, remember? If the states in question can collaborate to fund them tomorrow, they can collaborate to make a case for them in a post-Amtrak era.

      3. The Northeast Corridor, meanwhile, is profitable.

        If Amtrak ceased to be a national entity, the region would find a way to make it thrive.

        Still better than letting those profits get stolen and squandered on empty trains to Williams, Arizona.

  16. I am of the opinion that what would suit the US topology and lifestyle most when it comes to rail is neither intercity (better served by planes) or local (better served by buses) by what I would term metropolitan or regional. The best use of rail around here is Sounder. Could it be improved? Yes, more frequent trips and faster track and train set, one going 120 mph would be appreciated. And east west routes so someone in say Wenatchee could do a daily commute in to Bellevue in quick time.

  17. One of the big efficiencies of rail that if often overlooked is that while traveling in between big cities, they can make stops at smaller towns along the way at a much smaller time penalty than any other mode of transportation.

    For a bus to stop in Ellensburg on the way to Spokane, this means getting off the freeway and waiting at a bunch of stoplights to get into and out of wherever the bus stop is. The loading an unloading of passengers itself also takes longer on a per-passenger basis because intercity buses typically have only one door for the entire bus. (And simply adding more doors doesn’t work because that would require removing seats – since nobody wants to stand for an entire 4-5 hour bus ride, this would reduce the passenger capacity of the bus).

    For an example of this, let’s look at travel between Seattle and Portland. Amtrak is scheduled at 3 hours 30 minutes. BoltBus is nominally 15 minutes faster, but makes no stops whatsoever along the way. Greyhound does stop on the way at Tacoma, Olympia, Centrailia, and Kelso, just like Amtrak does, but in spite of having no stop at Tukwila or Vancouver, the Greyhound schedule calls for a trip a 4 – 4 1/2 hour travel time. The additional 30-45 minutes to serve two fewer stops shows why local intercity service that actually serves the towns in between the big cities, rather than passing them by, will always be significantly faster on a train than on a bus.

    1. This is indeed true.

      This is why subways work better than zig-zagging buses and LQA detours.

      This is why commuter rails (where demand warrants) tend to work better than looping in and out of transit centers.

      But this is only an important case to make demand is high enough that the “efficiencies” actually matter in aggregate.

      A once-daily overpriced service along a long-distance corridor that 99.9% of people are going to choose to drive or fly (even when the train exists) is not a compelling case for the need to “maximize efficiency” by avoiding pull-offs. Especially when the average running speed of highway buses remains faster than the train regardless of pull-offs.

      For good reason, no one is making (or would make) the case for bustituting the Cascades corridor.

      1. “that 99.9% of people are going to choose to drive or fly (even when the train exists)”

        As has been pointed out, this is simply not the case along the middle of the Empire Builder route, where driving is on a non-expressway which can be very difficult and slow in the winter, and where airline service ranges from nonexistent to extremely overpriced.

        You can simply say “I don’t give a damn about serving those locations, why do we subsidize North Dakota”. That is a *perfectly reasonable position*. But you can’t accurately say that the people living there will choose to drive or fly in preference to the (even overpriced!) train. The facts show otherwise.

      2. There are expressways going more places in the vicinity of “the middle of the Empire Builder” than there are train lines (i.e. >1). And it’s available 24 hours per day.

        I dare you to look up the actual rail modeshare for intra-Montana/Dakota trips. Say, over 100 miles but less than 1000 miles. The number of decimal places you’ll be required to use will make your head explode.

      3. I mean… seriously, Nathanael? “The facts show otherwise”??

        What facts!? The people making the intermediate rail trips you describe barely number in the dozens!

  18. I’ve taken the Empire Builder from Seattle to Chicago twice— once in 2011 and once in 2012. On both trips, more people boarded in Williston, ND (in the middle of the night) than at any other stop (including Seattle).

    In fact, I’ve travelled all over the country by train. The idea that long-distance trains are only used by tourists outside urban corridors is completely wrong; lots of people, particularly those who are far from wealthy, use the train to travel long distances between cities. So it’s not profitable? Neither is urban bus service outside of rush hour; should we reduce Metro to peak hours only? And while we’re at it, lets cut electricity to rural areas, since all those miles of power lines are so inefficient…

    Bruce Nourish acknowledges that he’s only been on one long-distance Amtrak train— and his post makes that very, very obvious. Maybe he should try to gain a little more experience so he has some idea what he’s talking about.

    1. more people boarded in Williston, ND (in the middle of the night) than at any other stop

      Beyond the fact that Williston is a single stop on a vast network of tourist routes why should congress fund subsides for the oil companies? If Microsoft can pony up to give their employees company provided transportation so can the companies reaping huge profits off of oil from public land.

      1. Is Seattle – Portland a tourist route? What makes a route a tourist route? Are we going to start asking people their reason for traveling before giving them a ticket? Transit exists to serve transportation demand, because our economy, culture, and health depend on people being able to go where they want to go most of the time. Since there is only one train route on the Hi-Line, everybody uses it. If there were two lines with different service levels, tourists might use one and other people the other, but that’s not the situation.

        (By the way, the main cities in this area have north-south buses but not east-west buses. To go east or west, you have to take a daily north-south bus 90 miles down to I-90/94.)

      2. Even more so, what is tourism? I went to Chicago to visit my friend who was stationed there in the navy. Since I was there anyway, I walked around Chicago’s neighborhoods and rode the el. Was that a tourism trip? Would it have been if I’d been visiting a non-navy friend? Or is it only tourism if I’m on a package tour? The border guards consider “tourism” everything except working, studying, business, or moving long-term. But that’s an expansive definition that’s not shared by the general public.

      3. Please don’t intentionally muddle the terminology.

        If it serves no other valid purpose except to be ridden for its own sake, than it’s a tourist train.

        You wouldn’t describe Chicago as a “tourist trap” just because tourists happen to go there. But Navy Pier is a tourist trap because there’s no reason whatsoever do go there unless you’re being a tourist.

      4. If we’re going to go around canceling lines because they’re too “tourist”, then we need to talk about what tourist is. I ride the Empire Builder because it’s the most energy-efficient, cost-efficient form of transit there is, and to raise its ridership numbers vs airplanes so people don’t say “nobody uses it”. And I’m also putting up with a two-day journey. I like the large seats and electric outlets and meeting people at dinner — these are amenities. But I’m told none of this exists because the Empire Builder is only a “tourist train”, as if its only value is to ooh and ah at the landscape. So instead of saying it’s great that some people are taking the most environmentally-friendly form of transit and we should build it up, we say they “should” be in an airplane, which is the most irresponsible form of transit and an overused luxury, or on a motorcoach, which is the second-most energy-intensive form. This is just like when they ripped out rails and canceled lines fifty years ago and forced everybody onto the highways, and transit fans are supporting it?

      5. I ride the Empire Builder because it’s the most energy-efficient, cost-efficient form of transit there is.

        No, you don’t. You ride it because you’re a transit fan. You enjoy blowing two days on each one-way trip, because you enjoy the trip!

        That’s not a bad thing. But it is not rational for any other reason than your own transit tourism.

        and to raise its ridership numbers vs airplanes so people don’t say “nobody uses it”

        That’s also thinking like a transit tourist. If taking it were a rational choice, you would not attach emotions and preemptive defenses to your decision-making process.

      6. So let me get this straight… you’re saying we shouldn’t fund trains used by tourists, and we also shouldn’t fund trains used for work-related travel. Exactly what kinds of train travel do you consider acceptable?

        Also, how did you determine that most long-distance trains are ‘tourist trains?’ On the many long-distance train trips I’ve taken, no one from Amtrak ever asked me my reason for travel; they do not keep records of who travels for what reason. When I was on those trains, most of the passengers did not seem to be tourists; people I spoke to were nearly all traveling to visit relatives, to relocate for jobs, to go to college, etc. Try riding from Chicago to New Orleans, through the Mississippi Delta, and tell everyone on board how you think they’re all tourists who are unworthy of train service. You’ll be in for a pretty uncomfortable ride.

        It sounds to me like you just hate trains, and want to shut them down out out of sheer vindictiveness.

      7. @monorail

        I try not to characterize d.p. that way, since what I see is a more parochial view on his part.

        His desire for a better Ballard – Capitol Hill connection for himself.

        Just as Kemper Freeman can be characterized with the statement “All Roads [should] lead to Bellevue Square”, d.p. sees any non-highway funding not going towards his version of Rapid Ride D, as a threat.

        What I look forward to is for d.p. to “come out” as it were, just as Joe A. Kunzler (“Avgeek Joe from Skagit County”) did with his post “Help Save the Tri-County Connectors”, with an in-depth guest post on what it would take to bring Rapid Ride D up to his particular BRT standards.

        We know he has the appropriate intellect to actually put meat on the analysis. I’m confident he can come up with a hard analysis of the infrastructure and operational improvements needed for his two seat non-transfer BRT ride.

        I would like to be able to compare that to the Seattle Subway.

        Given his proximity to that corridor, it would most likely exceed the quality of the I-405 Corridor analysis.

      8. Jim,

        RapidRide can certainly be better, but it will never be sufficient.

        This city needs subways, but in the absence of billions of dollars growing on our trees, we need to choose our segments wisely and get them right the first time, rather than tying the funding for good projects into the funding for useless projects or pretending that this exists anywhere in our future. It’s also insane to waste our energy “connecting” neighborhoods with toy trolleys that are actually slower than the buses they replace.

        I’m not opposed to regional connectivity by any means, either. You might have noticed how forcefully I’ve been advocating against Sound Transit making a whopping error on East Link design. But I strongly oppose “projects for the sake of projects” and call b.s. on the abjectly false claim that “demand follows transit” (when for all of history is has been the other way around).


        I’ve already explained this to Mike. There’s a difference between transit that is useful to commuters and transit that is useful only to commuters. And there’s a difference between transit that tourists might use on their vacations and transit that exists only so railfans can be tourists on the journey itself.

        These distinctions should not be hard to understand!

        I am categorically not an opponent of rail. Neither is Bruce. I’m an opponent of making huge, destructive errors because you care more about the existence of steel wheels on rails than about making the correct choices for mobility needs and mobility pleasures.

      9. @d.p.

        I’m only making the case that your reputation would be enhanced if you actually posted a PLAN for what Rapid Ride needs to accomplish what, in your opinion, makes it a true BRT option.

        Your opinions about rail are just that, opinions.

        The exchange might be entertaining, but the general public, including those with their hands on the purse strings, really don’t care what someone calling themselves d.p. on some blog of transportation wonks (which we all know we are), thinks.

        They are making decisions that affect non-automotive (transit/bus/train/streetcar) options in a much more negative way than the minutae of the spending issues we discuss on this blog.

        Your anti-rail rants are a waste of time and intellectual effort.

      10. Only someone delirious would call me anti-rail. Apparently you insist on maintaining that delirium.

        I just said that RapidRide is never going to cut it. I’ve laid out — repeatedly — a case for why an East-West Spur north of the ship canal would be the greatest bang-for-buck subway line we could possibly invest in relatively quickly and on a budget. Any person who routinely uses transit to travel everywhere around Seattle (and not just to shuttle from downtown to various points for P.R. events) agrees with the wisdom of this plan.

        The attempts to discredit it as physically or politically impossible — “you can’t branch trains even past the peak-demand segment, for some reason”; “you can’t alter a design before we’ve dug a single shovelful of dirt, for some reason”; “we need to build more trains downtown before we build anything else, for some reason”; “we should build slow streetcars now and then miraculously find money for real transit later, for some reason” — don’t hold an ounce of water and frankly speak to the incredible callowness of those who claim to be transit “experts” in our city. Especially those in charge of the purse strings.

        But our desperate need for functional rapid transit doesn’t seem to stop “the wonks” from whining for 158 comments that trains that take 48 hours to do what the vast majority of people can do faster in a car (never mind on a plane) is somehow vital for our national integrity, or to stop the rail-everywhere fetishists from craving more streetcars making loop-de-loops downtown and waiting 5 minutes to cross Mercer.

        If calling out asinine fetishism makes me “anti”-something in your mind, then I guess I’m “anti”.

      11. d.p.: “If it serves no other valid purpose except to be ridden for its own sake, than it’s a tourist train.”

        You can’t legitimately say this of any Amtrak train, though you can say it of some segments of some Amtrak trains.

      12. On the entire long-distance network, the exceptions are edge cases, if they exist at all.

  19. One hidden benefit of long-haul Amtrak routes might be public safety. If you’re traveling along the corridor, but not too or from any big city, the only option besides Amtrak is usually to drive and the drive might be be 10 hours long or more.

    The train gives people who have trouble staying awake behind the wheel for such a long time an option that doesn’t pose a danger to others on the road.

    1. Again, maybe… if the ridership numbers and percentage of far-flung locations served weren’t statistically insignificant.

  20. You arguments waste time. You only make arguments against other non-automotive options under the guise of a transit supporter.

    Your arguments FOR better bus service for yourself would accomplish more, but you waste your effort instead taking on other transit supporters.

    All the while, those who see roads only (sov specifically) solutions are moving ahead without being questioned.


    1. I have advocated for better service in all its forms.

      But instead we got a “BRT” that idles while people pay cash, sits for minutes at lights, wastes more time on a detour than the whole rest of the route, and runs at proper “RT” frequencies about 2 hours per day.

      We get a subway that no one can access on foot, that doesn’t go anywhere with all-day demand, and seems to go out of its way to misplace its stations.

      We get streetcars that barely move.

      And we get trains on excellent corridors from the East Coast to Wisconsin to California to the Cascades that can never get up to snuff because they’re hog-tied to routes that meander around the country at sub-50mph carrying all of a few hundred people a day.

      Ignorance isn’t peripheral to the problem. Ignorance is the problem.

      We need to be unified in the pursuit of well-implemented transit and the education of the people-in-charge, and opposed to politically-exploitable waste, because that’s the only way we’re going to wind up improving things in the long run. “Woo! Woo! Choo-choos!” is the opposite of productive.

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