Why Is American Passenger Rail So Far Behind?

In a segment for WNYC, journalist Simon van Zuylen-Wood discusses Amtrak's current status as a "national embarrassment." Decades of lackluster investment, he argues, make it difficult to prove demand in the first place.

1 minute read

May 5, 2015, 5:00 AM PDT

By Philip Rojc @PhilipRojc


Northbound Amtrak

James Tuttle / Wikimedia Commons

Since its establishment in 1971, Amtrak has been a "money-losing ward of the federal government." Politicians eager to cut excess spending frequently target its low ridership, patchy service, and regular delays. Though these criticisms contain some truth, van Zuylen-wood has faith that Amtrak will "muddle through," as it has so many times in the past.

Compared to its analogues in East Asia and Europe, American passenger rail is simply an ineffective way to get around the country. A possible exception is Amtrak's Northeast corridor Acela line, which still pales in comparison to, say, Japan's shinkansen. Throughout the half-hour segment, van Zuylen-Wood covers how this inferiority came to be. Reasons include:

  • During the 20th century, rail transport—freight excepted—took on a "collectivist veneer," which also hurt urban light rail.
  • The possibly mistaken belief that flying is faster. 
  • In the United States, passenger trains share track with freight trains, which often monopolize the system.
  • It is impossible to prove demand for passenger rail with no adequate initial investment.
  • Other national governments see passenger rail as necessary infrastructure (how we view roads and highways) and do not demand profitability.

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