There was a time when you could get on a train in your hometown and travel to just about any other town in the United States. That was before the Interstate highway system, and before America started its love affair with the automobile. To be fair, travel by passenger train was on the decline before either of those two things happened. The nation’s improved road system of the 1920, the emergence of the intercity bus, and the emergence of the truck all had an effect on passenger rail traffic. But the Interstate highway system and low-cost air fare were the death knell for intercity passenger rail. By the time AMTRAK came into being in 1971 intercity passenger rail service was on life support. Only four railroads opted out of the initial AMTRAK system: the Boston & Maine Railroad, the Southern Railroad, the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad, and the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad. AMTRAK cut the existing routes in half and started business as a government entity.
From its inception there was acknowledgement for the need of certain “corridor” passenger rail service. These were seen as likely money-makers for the new system. The original plan was to somehow turn a profit on the other non-corridor routes. That was pure pie-in-the-sky thinking of course. During the Reagan years there was a movement to shut down AMTRAK entirely if it could not live without a subsidy, which it could not of course. Gasoline was still relatively cheap in those days and it was generally assumed that our transportation infrastructure could survive quite well without AMTRAK outside of a few named corridors.
Fortunately forward thinkers of the day kept the system alive. The Clinton administration brought some long overdue cash infusion into the system. A true high-speed route from Boston to New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC was put in place. That high-speed still pales in comparison to high-speed trains in Europe or Japan but it is still pretty good.
Over the past 10 years patronage on AMTRAK has climbed significantly, particularly in the corridors, the Northeast, Detroit/Chicago/St. Louis, and San Diego/Los Angeles/San Francisco. Even more, the government has identified a number of other potential corridors that need to be developed in the future on top of improving the existing ones.
True high-speed rail will make AMTRAK competitive with the airlines in what is referred to as “short-haul.” Cities like Chicago and Detroit, or Chicago and St. Louis with true high-speed rail can be two or three hours apart on the train. High speed rail would also make an overnight trip New York to Chicago and other mid-west cities possible. You could board a sleeper at Penn Station in New York at 8 in the evening and arrive in Chicago by 8 the next morning. Even better, it is from one downtown location to another. Some good planning and using existing technology will give Americans a via alternative to both the automobile and the airplane.
We are approaching $4 a gallon gasoline. But people also need to realize that aviation fuel prices are also rising and will be reflected in air fares, even on discount airlines. The upward movement of fuel prices is unlikely to change ever again. There will be fluctuations, of course, but in the long-term prices are going to rise considerably as world demand rises and world supply plateaus and falls.
The time will come when Americans will be clamoring for more rail service because they will realize it to be the most affordable transportation available to them. But our investment has to come now. The price of that investment has to go up as the years pass. One time investments in the straightening of railroad rights-of-way, necessary for good high-speed rail, is at its least expensive right now.
The necessity for a good and comprehensive passenger rail system in America is not speculation. It is going to be a necessity at some future date, that is an absolute. How we deal with our future is a choice we have to make now. Economically, the amount a fuel needed to transport 1000 people between any two cities via rail is far less than any other mode of transportation that now exists. That translation will become evident to all Americans in the future. How well we are able to deal with it in the future is dictated by our actions now.
If you want to see what a first class rail system looks like go to Europe. Get on a train in Paris and go to Rome. The entire trip, the same distance as New York to Chicago, takes 12 hours. The New York to Chicago trip takes 18 hours. There are two trains from New York to Chicago, and four Paris to Rome. There are actually many more trains between Paris and Rome, those four are just the high-speed trains. In the U.S., there are only two New York to Chicago trains regardless of speed.
It is time Americans came to accept what Europeans and Asians have known for decades. Americans have to accept the fact that we need trains, more of them, and faster.