Why Trains Suck in America

Let’s face it: trains kinda suck in America. They’re slow, expensive, and just don’t
exist in many parts of the country. The simple reason for this is because the
US is so sparsely populated. Aside from here, here, and here, cities just
aren’t close enough together to make train travel faster or cheaper than plane travel. When cities are within 200-300 miles of each
other, it’s often faster to take a train from downtown to downtown rather than driving
to an airport, checking in, going through security, flying, then driving downtown. However, as I mentioned, there definitely
are regions in the US with cities this distance away from each other, so why do trains still
suck? The United States has the geography to support
trains in certain areas and yet a train from DC to New York costs at least $49 dollars
and takes 3 hours and 29 minutes, only 30 minutes less than driving. A train from Rennes to Paris, France, a very
similar distance, costs 27 euros, the equivalent of 30 dollars, and takes only 2 hours and
4 minutes. The US does have one high speed train, the
Acela express, but it costs at least $120 dollars for a ride from DC to New York and
still takes 2 hours and 50 minutes. Turkey, Poland, and Uzbekistan all have trains
that travel faster that America’s fastest train. Alright, so understanding the whole issue
requires a bit of background knowledge. Back in their heyday, railroads in America
were… amazing. We built our first in 1826 and had a transcontinental
line by 1869—only 19 years after California even became a state. Trains travelled almost everywhere and most
historians agree that the development of railroads was an absolutely crucial catalyst to the
American industrialization period from 1843 to 1860. They even prompted the US to create one of
the world’s first standardized time systems as discussed in an old video of mine which
you can find here. While passenger trains could sometimes be
profitable, freight services were where the real money was so most rail companies basically
ran passenger services as a mobile advertisement for their freight services to the executives
that would decide which company to ship goods on. Trains were, after all, the most glamorous
and efficient way to travel. However, as cars became popular in the 30’s
and planes became popular in the 50’s, there was little purpose any more to set up passenger
services as advertisements to executives who would be taking the more trendy car or plane
instead. At this point, the few profitable passenger
services only made money because of their contracts with the US Postal Service. Most trains would have one car that served
as the railway post office—an office on wheels where workers would sort letters en
route to the destination to save time. In the 1960’s, mail sorting was mechanized,
trucks and planes began to transport letters, and railway post offices were discontinued. It became essentially impossible to make money
with a passenger railroad. By the end of the 1960’s the only thing
keeping the few passenger routes alive was a legal obligation by the Interstate Commerce
Commission for the train companies to keep running those routes. But then Amtrak came along. In 1970, President Nixon signed into law the
Rail Passenger Service Act which formed the federally funded national rail company that
promised to save and make great again passenger rail travel… except it didn’t. In the United States, a nation of 319 million
people, Amtrak operates a mere 300 train journeys a day, while in France, a nation of 66 million
people, the Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer Francais, also known as SNCF, operates
14,000 trips every single day, 800 of which are high speed. One common criticism of Amtrak is its unreliability. On average, only 72% of Amtrak’s trains
arrive on time. The California Zephyr route from Chicago to
San Francisco even arrived on time a paltry 31% in June of 2016. So what does Amtrak blame the delays on: freight
trains. You see, Amtrak only owns 730 miles of the
21,300 miles of track it operates on. On the California Zephyr route, Union Pacific
owns about half the track and BNSF owns the other half. According to Amtrak, only 1.4% of all delays
on this route were their fault. The other 98.6 percent were reportedly the
fault of the rail companies who own the track. Union Pacific will naturally lend priority
to their own trains on their tracks instead of Amtrak’s so Amtrak trains are often told
to wait to let a freight train pass. After all, it’s not like Amtrak can go and
use competing tracks so there’s little incentive to give priority to passenger trains. Most rail operators in Europe don’t have
this problem. In France, for example, the national rail
company owns all the track so priority can be given to passenger trains. Also, only 8% of freight in Europe is moved
by rail compared to 38% in the United States, so there are far fewer freight trains congesting
the tracks. Since Amtrak is so young, they never got the
opportunity to build their own tracks. The Northeast corridor—which is absolutely
perfectly shaped to have a high speed rail network with five major urban centers located
on a straight line—built up it’s rail system in the 1800’s and the railroad had
such an impact that towns and people flocked to the area around it. For that reason, this area is incredibly densely
populated and there truly is no open space between the cities. Consequently, it would be unbelievably expensive
to raze a bunch of houses and build a new, straighter route of high speed tracks from
DC to Boston. Amtrak says that it would cost an estimated
$151 billion dollars to build tracks up the spec of France’s high speed rail network
in the Northeast corridor. Since the Northeast Regional, the train running
between DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, is one of the few routes that
makes money, there’s little incentive for Amtrak to sink a lot of funds into upgrading
the tracks. Additionally, American cities just aren’t
built like many European cities. With population densities averaging lower
than 15,000 people per square mile, cities in the United States are far less walkable
than their European counterparts which can have as many as 55,000 people per square mile. Due to their ancient roots, European cities
naturally developed compact urban cores since for all but the rich there was no option but
to walk everywhere. Given that, it’s much easier to walk to
your destination from a train station in a European city than it is in an American city. It’s believed that since most Americans
have to take another form of transport to get to their destination after taking the
train in America, they see the train as not that much more convenient than the plane where
you also have to take another form of transport to get to your final destination. So what’s the solution? How should America fix it’s rails? Well, unfortunately, we’ll probably never
get a big network of fancy high-speed trains like in France or Germany. There are dozens of plans in the US to build
high-speed rail lines, however few if any of them will likely come to fruition. There is a high-speed rail line currently
being built between Miami and Orlando by a private company called All Aboard Florida,
however, with a top speed of 125 miles per hour, the service will only be slightly faster
than driving due to speed restrictions on many parts of the route. The state of California is also building a
high-speed rail line between San Francisco and Anaheim with a estimated transit time
of 2 hours and 40 minutes which would be less than half the driving time between the two
cities. Despite construction already beginning, phase
1 of the project isn’t estimated to be completed until 2029 and public support is diminishing. Many have proposed that America shouldn’t
be concerned with building a flashy high-speed network. Amtrak’s 151 billion dollar proposal for
a true high-speed northeast corridor system divides down to $320 million dollars per mile
or $60,000 per foot of high speed track. What would be far more efficient would be
to upgrade current track to allow trains to operate at their top speeds. On the Northeast Regional route, trains reach
a top speed of 125mph briefly, and if they operated at that speed for all of the DC to
New York leg, the trip from DC to New York would take only slightly longer than two hours. Small improvements can cut minutes from the
journey times which can add up to hours. Unfortunately, Amtrak is stuck in a rut where
they have no money to improve anything, which causes low ridership, which worsens the problem
of no money. SNCF in France is so great because taxpayers
pay for about half of the operating cost of every journey, while Amtrak is designed to
be a for-profit yet government subsidized corporation. Right now, Amtrak is kinda like the neglected
little brother in the US transit family who doesn’t get any money, and until that changes,
we’re still going to have our slow, expensive trains. Thank you for watching! Make sure to click here to subscribe to Wendover
Productions. You can also follow me on Twitter @WendoverPro
for behind the scenes updates between videos. Aside from that, make sure to check out my
last video on Maritime Law here. Thanks again, and I’ll see you soon for
another Wendover Productions video.

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