In the August issue of Conde Nast Traveler, writer Jim Robbins takes a close look at the state of the American Railroad. American passenger trains have lagged behind those in Europe and Asia for decades, but with skyrocketing fuel costs, growing environmental concerns, and the sorry state of air travel, we may finally be ready for a rail revival.
We went to bed watching coal-black cattle graze on the Montana prairie and woke up passing a tiny town in North Dakota. Later, as my wife and I sat in the dining car with coffee and our books, the farms and woods of Minnesota were rushing by. Chicago was coming up just after lunch.
Such are the markers of a train trip across the northern United States. I had forgotten what travel by rail was like, and after decades of flying around the country and the world, I found it an immense pleasure. But my enjoyment wasn't limited to nostalgia or the relaxation or the view: I was satisfied to know that I was actually a much greener traveler on this iron horse than my fellow travelers jetting through the blue dome above, or even those taking to the highways. Travel by train consumes 18 percent less energy per passenger mile than flying and 17 percent less than driving. With record fuel prices, rising airfares, endless airport security lines, and ever more urgent concerns about global warming, train travel is sounding better all the time. In fact, Amtrak reports that ridership has increased steadily over the past several years, and it has recently upgraded its Web site and spruced up its sleeper cars. But despite train travel's green advantage and the rising interest in the rails, most plans to create new routes have been stalled -- opposed by politicians who view large-scale train projects as expensive follies.
To see firsthand the state of the American rail system and to learn why our passenger trains lag behind those of much of the world, my wife and I climbed aboard the Amtrak Empire Builder to travel 24 hours from Montana, where we live, to Chicago. From there, we took an overnight train to Washington, D.C.'s Union Station, where I had an appointment with Alexander Kummant, the president of Amtrak.
Many people ride the Empire Builder and Amtrak's 14 other storied long-distance trains -- such as the Crescent, which travels between New York and New Orleans, and the Sunset Limited, which runs between New Orleans and Los Angeles -- as much for the journey as for the destination. The Empire Builder, Amtrak's most popular long-distance most striking scenery, including the Rockies at the southern end of Glacier National Park.
These cross-country trains echo the glory days of passenger railroading in the first half of the twentieth century. The luxurious Super Chief, for instance, a Pullman car train that traveled between Los Angeles and Chicago in 40 hours, catered to A-list celebrities -- including Elizabeth Taylor and Humphrey Bogart -- who rode it regularly in the '40s, '50s, and '60s. (Pullman cars were sleeping coaches tricked out with plush carpeting and furniture, libraries and first class service.)
Today's Amtrak trains are nowhere near that fancy, but they have moved in that direction in recent years to satisfy what the railroad says is a growing demand for long-distance train service, particularly among older Americans with time and money who prefer to travel at a relaxed pace. Passengers in the Empire Builder's first-class Superliner cars are offered a wine tasting (with, unfortunately, rather lackluster choices) and fair to reasonably good meals cooked on board. Sleeper cars don't come cheap: On top of the two $280 coach tickets from we paid $534 per night, which included all meals, a double bed that turned into a couch during the day, a fold-down bunk above it, a shower and a toilet, and a large window that let in plenty of light. It was compact but comfortable, and on Sunday morning we were pleasantly surprised to find the hefty New York Times outside our door. We moved to the observation car to work the crossword as we zipped eastward.
In the dining car, we sampled newly upgraded menus, opting for flat-iron steak and roasted guinea hen. Although hardly gourmet, the meals were fine, akin to what you'd be served at a local diner. The setting, however -- a comfortable table with a constantly changing view--couldn't be beat. There is something immensely calming about clattering rhythmically along the tracks, hearing the sound of the soulful whistle and watching waiters respond with their practiced dance to the pitch and yaw of the train.
My wife and I had time for leisurely chats with each other and with other passengers and Amtrak employees. We played Texas hold 'em on the fold-down table and drank wine as sunlight streamed through the hardwood forest, creating a strobelike effect in the car. After dinner, our pleasant porter folded the couch into a bed and made it up. Forty-eight hours after leaving Montana, we arrived in Washington, D.C. A left out the front door of the gloriously restored Union Station and a short walk brought us to the office of Alexander Kummant.
A former Union Pacific vice president, Kummant was appointed president of Amtrak in 2006 by President Bush. In his spacious office decorated with pictures of trains, Kummant described how new life is being breathed into Amtrak's once-moribund business. "We're seeing phenomenal demand on all routes," he said. "Customers are beating a path to our doors." Travel on Amtrak's long-distance routes has climbed steadily over the last few years, to about 3.8 million riders. Overall, Amtrak ridership grew 6.3 percent to 26 million last year, and so far this year it's up nearly 11 percent.
Apart from the skyrocketing cost of oil and the horror show at the airports, Kummant told me, the rebirth of the downtowns in cities around the country -- including Denver, Memphis, and Sacramento -- is driving business. "People are looking for better ways to move from city center to city center," he said. "They don't want to sit in traffic for two hours anymore."
So far, however, consumer demand in the United States has had little impact: The fact is that the U.S. passenger rail system, compared with those in most other developed countries, is limping along. Across the pond, for instance, high-speed trains are humming in France, Germany, Spain, and Switzerland, and new and expanded routes, faster travel times, and more comfortable trains have given the airlines stiff competition (see "Continental Connections," page 52). The TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse), France's "old" electric high-speed train, travels at an average speed of 200 miles per hour (it went 357 miles per hour last year, breaking the rail speed record). The AGV (Automotrice à Grande Vitesse), a new train being built in France, will travel at speeds of up to 224 miles per hour while consuming 30 percent less electricity; it is expected to begin service in 2010. Across Europe, 2,600 miles of high-speed train lines are under construction and more than 5,300 miles are planned. China is expected to lay some 6,000 miles of high-speed track within the next 15 years.
The closest thing to a state-of-the-art American passenger train is Amtrak's Acela Express, which runs between Boston and Washington at an average speed of just 82 miles per hour. Although the train can travel up to 150 miles an hour, it runs on track laid during the Civil War -- rails that cannot support such high speeds. In the rest of the country, trains chug across the landscape at 50, 60, or 70 miles per hour -- a pace that hasn't improved much since Jesse James stalked the rails. The United States spends between three and four dollars per person on rail travel, while other countries allocate 10 or 20 times that, and there are wide swaths of this country where it is difficult to find a train. Several proposed U.S. high-speed rail projects have been on the drawing board for years, mired in political squabbling and red tape because each would require laying new track and would cost billions of dollars.
I talked with a number of experts who think rail travel is more important than ever, and who say there is no good reason why it has been neglected. "The short answer is stupidity," said Bill Vantuano, editor of Railway Age magazine, which covers the industry. "The long answer is we have no national policy regarding rail travel. We have to have a policy. Our highways and are airports are maxed out. We need to build high-speed trains."
Proponents say that if trains were taken as seriously in the United States as they are abroad, rail travel would be a viable transportation alternative to flying and driving on trips of up to 600 miles. Take the trip from St. Louis to Chicago, for instance -- a distance of about 260 miles. An airplane flies the route in approximately an hour, but to that you have to add almost three hours in travel time -- getting to the St. Louis airport, waiting in security lines, and getting from the Chicago airport to downtown. If you could hop on a high-speed train in St. Louis, Chicago would be an hour and a half away. But you can't. The Amtrak trains currently serving the route run at an average of just 53 miles per hour, and the trip takes five hours -- about as long as the drive time.
Amtrak's Acela trains, which travel between Boston and Washington, D.C., have shown that when a high-speed rail network is built, passengers come -- in droves. Demand for Acela is strong and growing. When the Amtrak had 45 percent of the passenger market between New York and Washington, D.C. That number has grown to 56 percent. Similarly, Amtrak's share of passengers traveling between Boston and New York has climbed from 27 percent to 41 percent. Acela, after all, is typically cheaper than a flight--especially when booking at the last minute--and it arrives on time more often than the airlines do. A round-trip walk-up fare between New York and Washington on Acela costs $300 to $400, while airlines can charge more than
$600 for last-minute bookings between Washington's Reagan National Airport and New York's LaGuardia. The train arrives on schedule about 90 percent of the time, whereas just 62 percent of the flights from Reagan to LaGuardia got there on time last year.
The next high-speed rail project most likely to be realized is a proposed $42 billion line between San Diego and Sacramento. The train would whisk visitors along at about 220 miles per hour, a speed that would mean the trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles could be done in two and a half hours. Total flying time between the two cities, including getting to and from the airport, is about four hours; driving takes at least six hours. And it is estimated that the train would reduce traffic by two million cars and would eliminate 12 million tons of greenhouse gases annually--and by 2030, it would generate twice as much revenue as it cost to build. The train fare would be $55 in each direction: That's less than what it costs to take a
taxi from LAX to downtown.
But the project has been delayed for years by legislators reluctant to approve expensive public works projects unless they are for highways. "When the definitive history of California boondoggles is written, this one will loom above all others," said Tom McClintock, a Republican state legislator from Los Angeles, during floor debate on the proposed rail line in 2002. A $10 billion bond to start the project was scheduled to be issued in 2004, but Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger delayed it, worrying that it would conflict with another bond for highways. Now the governor says that he supports the project, and it's scheduled to be on the ballot this November. If the measure passes, the leg between San Francisco and Los Angeles--the first phase--could be carrying riders by 2019.
The wheels meanwhile, have come off of Florida's effort. Gov. Jeb Bush successfully led the 2004 overturn of a constitutional amendment passed by voters in 2000 to build a TGV style $6.3 billion high-speed rail project. The first phase would have connected Orlando to Tampa, and St. Petersburg, about a hundred miles. Eventually Miami, Jacksonville and Tallahassee and other cities would be connected.
President Bush is no fan of Amtrak (neither is John McCain, one of the railroad's staunchest Senate opponents). He has tried to whittle away at its subsidy, proposing a budget of just $900 million, down from the current $1.3 billion. But Congress has ignored the administration's number and, by a veto-proof margin in June, passed legislation to give Amtrak $2 billion to $3 billion a year for the next five to six years--a hefty increase intended to enable the railroad to undertake an upgrade of tracks and equipment.
The solution to America's rail problem, according to Joe Vranich, the former head of the High Speed Rail Association and a leading critic of Amtrak, is to jettison long-haul trains, which receive the majority of government funding, and concentrate on routes of 300 miles or less. "Close 'em down," Vranich says of the long-haul trains. The government gives airlines about $6 for every 1,000 passenger miles, while Amtrak gets nearly $200. The idea that all modes of transportation receive similar subsidies is "an argument that is flawed from the beginning," he says.
Kummant defends keeping the long-distance train routes, calling them a treasure akin to the national parks and saying that he has vowed to preserve them. "Once they're gone, they'll be tough to get back," he says.
Amtrak's subsidies, which have come under fire from lawmakers, are simply a reality for public transportation, Kummant says. "The FAA gets $2.7 billion; the Federal Highway Administration, $10 billion. There is no model [for a railroad] anywhere in the world that can operate without government support," he says.
While there's little chance long-distance trains will ever present any real threat to the airlines, some do dream big. "We need a national initiative like the Interstate Highway System," says Sam Gurol, program manager of the magnetic levitation train program at Gener an average speed of two hundred fifty miles per hour, it wouldn't take long to cross the country. You could go from Los Angeles to Chicago in ten hours."
For the time being, though, the reality of rail travel is much more modest. Amtrak can't be a true high-speed rail system--traveling at speeds of 200 miles per hour and up--on its current track. But Kummant says that new signaling equipment would make it possible to increase average train speeds to 100 or 110 miles per hour--the high end of what the existing tracks can bear. To do that, however, states would have to fund the installation of signaling equipment in congested areas, something few lawmakers are willing to do. Apart from funding, Amtrak's other major challenge is that its trains run at the mercy of the freight railroads, which own virtually all of the 21,000 miles of track it uses. Consequently, Amtrak can't increase the frequency of its trains in busy areas, where freight traffic has grown to near capacity.
The storm clouds of crowded skies and rising fuel prices may have a silver lining for rail travel. "The traveling public is making its desire known," says Ross Capon, executive director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, a 23,000-member organization that lobbies
for rail service. "This country cannot exist exclusively on the fly-drive system. People want another option."