Why can’t we ride trains?

My question about the movie theme music was answered promptly, for which I am grateful. Now, let me ask another question that maybe some of y’all can answer: Why don’t we get the option of train travel in this country?

Yeah, I know there’s Amtrak (which I wrote about not long ago), and if I don’t mind going to the station in the wee hours of the morning, I will have the privilege of going one of a number of places along a corridor that runs along the Eastern seaboard. But I’d better want to go one of the few places the train goes, because outside of a few urban areas far to the north of us, there are no connecting locals to take us anywhere else.

In Europe, train travel is fast replacing airlines as the way to go. They even have supersleek, luxury bullet trains that go 200 miles per hour. Companies that provide service (remember when you got service from airlines) find they can make a competitive go of this, according to the piece in today’s Wall Street Journal headlined "Touring Europe at 200 Miles an Hour":

    High-speed rail operators in Europe are ambitiously adding routes and cutting travel times, looking to snatch customers from the short-haul airline market. They are also adding perks, such as DVD and movie rentals and free newspapers. Plush high-speed trains are luring customers weary of the bare-bones service offered on the many discount airlines that have proliferated throughout Europe: Eurostar Group Ltd. trains (which run in the United Kingdom, France and Belgium) have 33 inches of leg room in coach, for example. Discount airline Ryanair has 30 inches of leg room — and the seats don’t recline.
    Spain, which is at the forefront of the rail boom, got high-speed service connecting Madrid and Barcelona last month. The journey was slashed by two hours: Now it takes just two hours, 35 minutes. Switzerland in January saw the opening of a $3.5 billion, 22-mile tunnel that passes through the Alps, cutting travel time by 45 to 75 minutes within the country and between Switzerland and Italy.

I’m still wiped out from the trip I took over the weekend — driving all day Friday to central Pennsylvania in the rain, driving to northern New Jersey Saturday, driving back to central PA Sunday, driving back to Columbia on Monday. On Sunday, I did get to ride trains — from Isalen, NJ, on New Jersey Transit, then zipping around Manhattan on the subway. I dig that so much — just go down some steps, step on a train and find yourself in another world in minutes — that I go places I don’t have to go, just to ride the subway: We’ve got an hour! Let’s zip down to Little Italy and back! I’ll get you a cannoli!

Of course, the NJT and the subway are both ancient — I found myself at one point under New York looking at a off-painted girder and wondering just how long it had been holding up the skyscrapers above — and the scenery through the Newark area is even more grittily decayed looking in real life than it is in the opening credits of The Sopranos. But at least I get where I’m going without having to drive.

Several years ago, I would have flown this trip — the part to PA, at least. Nowadays, air travel can take more time, and more hassle, than driving. Literally.

If luxury train travel can be economically competitive over there, why not over here? Is it the regulatory environment, or what?

12 thoughts on “Why can’t we ride trains?

  1. bud

    On a local level why didn’t the so-called trolleys work out? When I have more time I’ll relate my disasterous Amtrak story. What a joke!

  2. Brad Warthen

    The trolleys were buses. They still had to traverse the streets and deal with the traffic. And they never went anywhere I needed a ride to go.
    But a subway is magic. You want to be someplace way across town, so you duck down a few stairs, and minutes later you’re there, with a minimum of hassle (I would say NO hassle, but that’s because I actively enjoy riding light rail). It’s like the streets and the traffic lights and all that don’t even exist, like you’re using a space warp to bypass them. It’s magic.

  3. Lee Muller

    Let’s you and I stop subsidizing those well-to-do commuters on the corridor from DC to Boston, and see what the real costs are, and how many will continue to ride when they have to pay the real fare.
    These rail projects in Charlotte and Raleigh have been just another mechanism to condemn land and sell it off to developers who run the city and county governments, as they do in Columbia and most places.

  4. Doug Ross

    Aside from an approximate 2 mile diameter circle around the State House, where else is there downtown that would be worth getting to that we can’t get to already fairly easily by car?
    Columbia ain’t Atlanta or New York or D.C. or San Francisco. It’s not even Charlotte.
    Let’s do some guessing here … how many riders would be required to make mass transit system viable?
    10,000 riders a day each way? at $2 each way? $40,000 a day times 365 days is $14 million bucks a year. They would spend more on consulting fees to get the program started… nevermind on all the infrastructure required. I would bet it would still lose money at 100,000 per day.
    The real issue is developers being allowed to overbuild in areas like Harbison and Northeast Columbia without consdering the impact on traffic. We reap what they sow.

  5. weldon VII

    In 1982, I returned from the Orange Bowl by train. I think it took two days to reach South Carolina from Miami. We went through every small town in about five states at least twice.
    Buses are rough, and to my surprise, the train was WORSE.

  6. bud

    In 2004 I got married. We decided to go to New York for our honeymoon. My wife was very hesitant to fly, I didn’t want to drive so we decided to take an Amtrak sleeper car. BIIIIIG mistake. We started out 5 hours late. The sleeper was tiny, the was food awful, the staff rude. And there was absolutely no security. We ended up losing half a day in New York. When it was time to return, my wife was ready to fly back and simply forfeit the Amtrak tickets. I persuaded her that we could upgrade to the deluxe sleeper. Although the return trip was a bit better we still arrived more than 4 hours late.
    After 150 years of train travel why can’t we get the trains to run on time? It really shouldn’t be that difficult.

  7. Tom West

    Amtrak will always be at a disadvanatge when freight trains have priority on the tracks it uses. Amtrak’s managers shoudl negotiate deals with host railroads taht see penalties for delays caused by host (and bonuses for good service).

  8. Jerry

    Why not dual drive buses for a start? Have some locations in Irmo, the NE, and maybe somewhere up Garners Gerry where cars can be parked and the bus can pick up the riders and then go straight up the rr tracks bypassing all of the rush hour traffic. The bus could then run a route downtown. Just rush hour at first because I know there would be lots of coordination with the freight trains needed. Brad, I am the one that sent you the results of World Quest and was wondering if you got it?

  9. Mike Cakora

    Why can’t we ride trains? We can and do, but we forget that the distances between oft-traveled destinations in Vespucciland are somewhat greater than what one finds in Yurrip. I lived in Germany for eight years and am a big fan of the rails, but I preferred driving in a country where one has a constitutional right to drive as fast as one’s vehicle can go. We could, and did, drive the 146 miles from Augsburg, Germany to Strasbourg, France in less than two hours. For lunch and a stroll. And then drive back for a humble dinner at home. (It would have taken a bit more time to follow the Wehrmacht’s through Belgium, but our intentions were peaceful.)
    Train travel ain’t cheap even if one does not deviate from the popular routes. For example, about twice per month I travel from Columbia to Northern Virginia (NoVA) and back. Possibilities via Amtrak are limited to an eleven-hour trip with a 4:00 AM departure and arrival in the work-free drug place that is our nation’s capital at 3:00 PM. The return? Washington, DC to Columbia, SC is also eleven hours with a departure time of 3:00 PM and arrival in our state’s hub of government around 2:00 AM. The one-way fare for one adult, for which I qualify, is $122.00. That gets me to DC, not to NoVA where my work is, so there’s additional costs involved.
    I can (and do) drive the 507 mile to my actual destination in about 7.5 hours unless stinky weather or traffic intervene. There are no restrictions as to schedule, nor for items like liquor, guns, ammunition, bulky items, power tools, and so forth that I might want to take along. Heck, the NRA range is near one of the places that I visit for work, and my mom and one of my sisters are in the area, so a miter saw or hammer drill might make the trip with me. The cost works out to $65.50 for 19.5 gallons of premium at $3.359 per gallon for 25.9 MPG. I can listen to hate talk on AM radio, Weird Al or JS Bach on the CD, or the roar of squad cars in hot pursuit as my mood moves me.
    An equivalent trip by train in the old country, say the 544 miles from Berlin to Paris, would take around nine hours and cost $483. The distance from Berlin to Frankfurt is 339 miles, a little over 5 hours by train at a cost of $278.
    Train travel is heavily subsidized wherever, so costs become distorted. I really do think that part of the reason that the Globowarmists are after the airlines is because clever entrepreneurs have slashed the cost of air travel for the masses here and overseas. But that’s just another right-wing notion that lurks in my brain.

  10. Bill

    The poster who said that we not subsidize commuters should apply that logic to air and road travel. Those modes are already incredibly subsidized in a manner that Amtrak wishes they could be. Also, there are already penalties in place for freight rrs. It is just a necessary cost of preserving their status quo.

  11. bud

    Train travel is heavily subsidized wherever, so costs become distorted.
    And so is car travel. Here in SC for example we have the state infrastructure bank which is not funded with gasoline tax revenue. Hence, huge projects like the Ravenel Bridge are heavily financed from sources other than what motorists provide. The same is probably true in most other parts of the country. And of course the figures don’t take into account the impact from auto exhaust, conjestion and other factors that do cost, but they are just not born by the motorists involved in travel.
    Also, when you figure your car expenses you shouldn’t limit the analysis to the cost of gasoline alone. Clearly that is only a portion of your actual car expenses. If you take into account depreciation, taxes and insurance you’ll see that the true direct cost is actually double the cost of gasoline. Add that to the indirect costs that are born by others and you’ll see that travel by auto is very expensive indeed.

  12. Lee Muller

    So go back to letting private companies build toll bridges, like most of them used to be. They cost less and were better.

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