GOOD Magazine sends a reporter across country on Amtrak to give a riders-eye view of the system.
"With no rush about me, here I was, on a trip from New York to San Francisco that runs exactly 3,397 miles, rolling through 11 states, on two legendary rail routes-the Lake Shore Limited (from New York to Chicago) and the California Zephyr (from Chicago to just outside San Francisco). This could take exactly 77 hours and 15 minutes, if the trains keep to schedule. Most likely, they won't.
The American passenger rail-once a model around the globe-is now something of an oddball novelty, a political boondoggle to some, a colossal transit failure to others. The author James Howard Kunstler likes to say that American trains "would be the laughing stock of Bulgaria." The numbers show just how far this once-great system has fallen. In 1960, U.S. rail travelers logged 17.1 billion passenger miles (the movement of one passenger one mile), the standard measure of a system's reach; by 2000, that number had fallen to 5.5 billion, just one percent of the total travel between U.S. cities that year. (Of course, over this same period, airlines' passenger miles increased 16 times; even intercity buses' service nearly doubled.) Most of this decrease was seen in the 1960s, as highways and air travel took precedent both in travel plans and in government subsidies. Since its ill-fated formation as a quasi-public, for-profit corporation in 1971, Amtrak has seen only meager growth and loses billions of dollars annually."