When the Stourbridge Lion steam locomotive rolled down train tracks for the first time, it was moving very quickly toward the future. It signified a new era for the United States. And by the time the golden spike took one last whack at Promontory Summit, Utah Territory in 1869 to connect sea to shining sea in America for the first time in history, the train had already contributed to rapid growth and a blooming domestic economy.
But the train shouldn’t be lost to history. Quite the opposite, actually, as we have seen in countries around the world. The train is a clean, dignified way to travel, and rail travel only continues to improve.
Well, in most countries, anyway: The train is still chugging toward the future. It’s the United States, it seems, that is falling behind.
On the train
For trains to (re)gain popularity, we have to understand the role they have played, and continue to play in the lives of people, and the benefits of travel by train compared to travel by automobile or airplane.
The train has of course been romanticized in literature and film for years. The meeting of Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke while passing through Austria in Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise. The poetry of Philip Larkin’s Like The Trains Beat. The dreams of American ancestors leaning their heads against the glass as scenery rolls past, untouched, beautiful.
Scenery shoots past the windows. We wobble ever so slightly through the gangways as the train rocks side to side. The dining car smells of sandwiches and hot coffee steaming from behind newspapers. Another train passes outside, so close you can see the faces of the passengers reading, dreaming, lazy, comfortably lost in thought so clearly relaxed.
But is this all the train can do for us?
The train is more than just a romantic, nostalgic, way to travel (though those sentiments do help keep Amtrak afloat). It’s actually a cleaner, more efficient way to travel.
(Read more: 27 reasons trains are better than planes)
Especially with highway infrastructure failing, resulting in an increase in taxes (which most taxpayers are reticent about taking on, but here we are), much of the country will no longer be as accessible to the average traveler.
But our trains have to improve.
In China, trains are pushing 300mph. Countries like Germany, Japan, Belgium, Taiwan and more aren’t far off. Amtrak, the only high speed rail provider in the U.S., tops out at 150mph, and most of the operational trains only run at 100. Imagine how quickly we could move state to state if we’d kept up with rail. We would have incredibly fast transportation for people from point to point, with cars on either end for local transit as needed.
Relaxing, sitting back in the dining car sipping a cold beer, hot tea, or espresso, feet up and arms back…
It would be a much more efficient way to get from the Twin Cities to Chicago, for example. With modern rail technology, we could travel from Union Depot to Union Station in under six hours (including stops), or under 3 hours non-stop. This means we could travel quickly and efficiently without the undignified security measures (the groping and scanning), confined on the plane like animals in factory-farms, with dehydration, germ-swapping, and all other indignities of air travel.
Air travel would remain the best option for overseas and coast-to-coast travel, but flying from the Twin Cities to Chicago or Milwaukee or anywhere else in the region would no longer be necessary.
But the biggest problem facing Amtrak is, of course, a lack of adequate funding. Since 1971 (the company’s inception), Amtrak has only received $70 billion in federal funding. Roads, on the flip side, have received nearly the same amount ($65 billion) since 2008. The train then struggles to maintain maintenance, and plan for future growth, even as they have now managed to pay for 93% of their costs through ticket sales.
The focus is clearly on the automobile in the United States.
But the future isn’t the only thing affected by a lack of rail funding. As reported in AmericanProgress.org,
“Amtrak also struggles to comply with safety requirements, such as the installation of positive train control, or PTC, technologies. Positive train control is a communication-based technology that relies on transmitting information using radio signals to provide real-time data on the location, speed, and direction of trains. This system is capable of preventing derailments from excess speed, train collisions, and incursions into work zones, among other benefits.”
Congress does not offer additional funding to offset costs of PTC. What is left, then, is the decision to spend what money there is on either basic upkeep, or safety.
Amtrak has also struggled with efficiency, as they are forced to use the same tracks owned by private freight railroads, and must defer to freight as necessary. Amtrak only owns 28% of the 20,000(+) tracks it covers. If ever there is a problem with freight, or any one of the other private entities who own the tracks, Amtrak is forced to wait. This gives them almost no control over their punctuality or on-time performance/whether or not they arrive on time.
There is an interest in updating rail in the U.S.
Amtrak ridership is steadily increasing. Ticket sales are at the highest point of Amtrak’s 40(+) year history. As we mentioned before, Amtrak was able to cover 93% of operating costs last from ticket sales alone.
Imagine if rail received the same amount of subsidies as highways…
The more interest travelers have in riding trains, the more attention rail receives from both local, and federal government.
Other developed countries around the world continue to leave the U.S. behind when it comes to rail travel, yes. But this could be changing. There is a renewed interest in rail here in the Twin Cities, as in the Star Tribune story Twin Cities passenger rail climbs back on track from December of 2016,
“Tim Mayasich, director of the Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority, said Ramsey County has picked up much of the cost of initial studies but now looks to get help from the Legislature to help make the second train a reality. The Minnesota Department of Transportation’s rail office is assembling a request, he said.”
And POTUS Donald Trump has (somewhat surprisingly) stated that he plans to allocate funds towards expanding high-speed rail (though we won’t hold our breath – even keeping the conversation going is a positive). If interest in riding trains continues to rise, and the president comes through on plans, perhaps we could see new tracks even sooner than anticipated.
As ridership and interest continues to increase, perhaps we’ll start to see trains on tracks taking passengers, their dreams and poetry, across the country once again.