What Happened to America's Trains?

In an age of rapid technological improvements in almost every aspect of life, it's difficult to understand how a technology like trains could actually be less advanced now than it was in the 1940s, writes Tom Vanderbilt.

"There is at least one technology in America...that is worse now than it was in the early 20th century: the train.

[Prewar train timetables show that] the Montreal Limited, circa 1942, would pull out of New York's Grand Central Station at 11:15 p.m., arriving at Montreal's (now defunct) Windsor Station at 8:25 a.m., a little more than nine hours later. To make that journey today, from New York's Penn Station on the Adirondack, requires a nearly 12-hour ride. The trip from Chicago to Minneapolis via the Olympian Hiawatha in the 1950s took about four and a half hours; today, via Amtrak's Empire Builder, the journey is more than eight hours. Going from Brattleboro, Vt., to New York City on the Boston and Maine Railroad's Washingtonian took less than five hours in 1938; today, Amtrak's Vermonter (the only option) takes six hours-if it's on time, which it isn't, nearly 75 percent of the time.

[President] Obama's bold vision [for high-speed rail] obscures a simple fact: 220 mph would be phenomenal, but we would also do well to simply get trains back up to the speeds they traveled during the Harding administration."

Full Story: Stop This Train!



Back to the Future with Trains

Putting back the second track on many of our freight railroads, putting in enough sidings, and decentralizing the dispatch system, with dispatchers who actually know the route would go a long way towards accomplishing this. And restore the rule that passenger trains have right of way, and there you are.

Irvin Dawid's picture

Obama can't have it both ways

"I don't want to see the fastest train in the world built halfway around the world in Shanghai," President Obama said recently, announcing an $8 billion program for high-speed rail. "I want to see it built right here in the United States of America."

Obama also states: no increase in the gas tax, no VMT fee.
Nations that historically embraced HSR all had high gas taxes.
Low gas taxes = national subsidy for auto travel.

But Ken, yes, I do think there's lots that can be done to 'speed-up' America's trains without building HSR....

Irvin Dawid, Palo Alto, CA

Sure he can.....


Obama is cunning. He comes from Chicago (which desperately needs its rail system untangled). Biden is pro-Amtrak and is very familiar with politics in the Senate.

They are setting the stage very nicely to shift public opinion wrt rail in this country. Right now rail is viewed negatively but is trending positive. Their goal is to push that trend along.

This does not demand a "big-bang" investment. This requires selected, focused, highly visible improvements to the rail system.

Once rail is as strongly or more strongly supported by the public - Obama can then tell Congress that the public is demanding HSR, more rail, etc. and we have to pay for it.

Its only at that point that it makes sense to talk about a specific tax.

First things, first. Create the demand, then talk price and how to pay for it.

We want bedrock economic conservatives demanding improved rail to get to their business meetings because taking a flight is a painful, delay-prone, costly option. Once the rail debate is about good business ( a conservative value) and not about the environment, the opposition will be divided and rail will win.

popular rail

very good points, but i wouldnt say that rail is unpopular now.

go to gallup and other polling agencies and it has overwhelming approval, from all ages groups, both political parties and all corners of the country. plus trains are sold out, even ones that go 40 mph, run once a day, have no services onboard, arrive at awkward times, etc. it seems pretty clear to me americans want quality rail service, this is a perfect example of if you build it they will come.

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