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Thread: Terrible regional rail system in US

  1. #1
    Cyburbian
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    Terrible regional rail system in US

    So I was listening to NPR today and there was a discussion on how this summer is pretty much the end of airline travel as we know it... higher prices, cut in flights, commercial travel to some midsize cities completely cancelled, and so on. This leads me to the natural conclusion that people are going to start relying on trains more and more. As someone who has travelled extensively on rail in both Europe and Japan, I have seen how smoothly and efficiently trains can function... but the regional rail system in the US is pitiful in comparison and I personally don't think can pick up the airlines slack as it is right now. As an example: I was recently looking to take a train between two destination which are about 3.5 hours away if driving. The amtrak train was almost 200 dollars and it took almost 7 hours! Taking a bus cost 20 dollars TOTAL and was the same travel time.

    Compare that to this: this summer I will be taking the TGV from Paris to Nice, France. To take the train is 5 hours, which is HALF THE TIME it takes to drive (9 hours)... and it costs less then the above mentioned trip for triple the distance. Yeah that's right... 3X the distance of the train in the US, and yet it is 2 hours quicker than the trip in the US and it's cheaper.

    Sorry to rant a little bit, but even though I can afford to take a $200 dollar train and sit around for 7 hours, many people cannot and with airlines becoming more expensive, those people will be out of luck. When the technology is out there, and other countries are literally lapping us, I think it is time to step up to the plate and rework the system. I would love to hear your opinions, or hear from some people in the field whether or not I am way off base.

  2. #2
    Cyburbian boiker's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by s1m0n66 View post
    So I was listening to NPR today and there was a discussion on how this summer is pretty much the end of airline travel as we know it... higher prices, cut in flights, commercial travel to some midsize cities completely cancelled, and so on. This leads me to the natural conclusion that people are going to start relying on trains more and more. As someone who has travelled extensively on rail in both Europe and Japan, I have seen how smoothly and efficiently trains can function... but the regional rail system in the US is pitiful in comparison and I personally don't think can pick up the airlines slack as it is right now. As an example: I was recently looking to take a train between two destination which are about 3.5 hours away if driving. The amtrak train was almost 200 dollars and it took almost 7 hours! Taking a bus cost 20 dollars TOTAL and was the same travel time.

    Compare that to this: this summer I will be taking the TGV from Paris to Nice, France. To take the train is 5 hours, which is HALF THE TIME it takes to drive (9 hours)... and it costs less then the above mentioned trip for triple the distance. Yeah that's right... 3X the distance of the train in the US, and yet it is 2 hours quicker than the trip in the US and it's cheaper.

    Sorry to rant a little bit, but even though I can afford to take a $200 dollar train and sit around for 7 hours, many people cannot and with airlines becoming more expensive, those people will be out of luck. When the technology is out there, and other countries are literally lapping us, I think it is time to step up to the plate and rework the system. I would love to hear your opinions, or hear from some people in the field whether or not I am way off base.
    I agree, I agree, I agree. I don't know what else to say. The collapse of the airline industry is as loud of a signal as we can get. We need good quality, redudant transportation systems.
    Dude, I'm cheesing so hard right now.

  3. #3
    Cyburbian Raf's avatar
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    one thing you need to remember is that trains in other countries, espeically in Europe, are heavily subsidized by sin taxes such as gasoline. It is why they pay almost $9-11 a gallon in gas as compared to our 4.50 a gallon. I understand that Amtrak is also subsidized by the government, but no where near where it should be to improve service or even rail infrastructure. As one of our recent planning magazines pointed, America is facing an infrastructure nightmare, rail being one of them.
    Men do dumb $hit... it is what they do to correct the problem that counts.

  4. #4
    Cyburbian CJC's avatar
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    Trains in other countries are subsidized, sure. But high speed trains are generally not subsidized for operations - meaning that high speed rail in Japan or Taiwan or France or Spain or Germany all operate under essentially the same business plan as US airlines - government heavily subsidizes or flat out pays for infrastructure (runways, airports, air traffic control for air travel, tracks and stations for trains), but operations must pay for themselves (the TGV and Japan systems make enough to finance train capital costs - not sure about the others). The problem is that in the US we've decided to only pay for subsidize air infrastructure instead of rail - and to top it off, we've left all of the rail and rights of way in the hands of private rail companies (who themselves can't afford to invest in their own freight infrastructure to the degree needed).

    At least we are now making a little bit of progress in some areas. The California high speed rail bond is on the November ballot, and I'm hoping that the next president will be willing to back ponying up federal funds for that project as well as several others throughout the US. In many places, we wouldn't necessarily even need high speed - just occasional passing tracks that are dedicated to passenger trains. For example, between Seattle and Portland just a few passing tracks could turn a typical "always late" 12 hour trip into an "always on time" six hour or less trip - and really wouldn't cost that much.
    Two wrongs don't necessarily make a right, but three lefts do.

  5. #5
    I ride the train between Boston and New York a lot. It is okay, but the frequency should be greater and the speed should be boosted so that it takes less than the current 3.5+ hours. There should be trains west to Albany and north to Montreal. But until we are willing to pay for anything besides cars...

  6. #6
    Cyburbian The One's avatar
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    Hmmm.....

    I wonder if all those rails to trails conversions that looked so great over the last ten+ years will come back to bite us all in the butt? In the form of lost connectivity and huge land acquisition costs for a rebirth in track building Then again, maybe those trails are just a "holding" use for future rail

    How much would 10,000 miles of track (two lines) cost for a bullet train from LA to Boston via Chicago and near New York? That would be cool....only one stop allowed in each state and an average 190mph train......I say we build it.....just cause it would be cool What is the best route involving those stops???

    LA- Flagstaff
    Flagstaff- Albuquerque
    Albuquerque-Denver
    Denver-Omaha
    Omaha- Des Moines
    Des Moines- Chicago
    Chicago-Gary (HA HA HA HA HA)
    Gary- Ft. Wayne (mid point between Detroit and Indi)
    Ft. Wayne- Youngstown (mid point between Pitt and Clev.)
    Youngstown- Scranton (New York City)
    Scanton- Albany (Just because it's there)
    Albany- Boston
    Skilled Adoxographer

  7. #7
    Cyburbian Brocktoon's avatar
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    Or maybe its time to re-regulate the airline industry. Most people don't realize that the amount of commerce that the airline industry is responsible for. Although the airline industry does receive some level of subsidy by way of the ATC (which is a system that is crumbling) which it pays user fees on, it also pays landing fees, gas taxes etc that make the debt possible to build and maintain the airport that is so vital to most major cities.

    The US rail system is in bad shape. Most the tracks were laid 100+ years ago. The "high speed" Acela line from Boston to DC can rarely get up to speed and gets you there only 45 minutes faster than a regular train. Most if not all rail tracks are owned by the private sector which AMTRAK and many other commuter rails pay a lease to use. Without a law change on priority and use of track it will be difficult to create a truly functional, nationwide rail service, regardless of the amount of subsidy.
    "If you don't like change, you're going to like irrelevance even less" General Eric Shinseki

  8. #8
    Cyburbian DetroitPlanner's avatar
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    If you want to take the train from Detroit to Cleveland you have to go to Chicago first. You have an option of a bus connection to Toledo however.

    If you want to take the train from Toronto to Chicago, there are two places where VIA and Amtrak are only a few miles apart (Detroit and Port Huron) At one time you could take the Port Huron Train Tunnel but due to customs and immigration issues, that was closed. So should a person need to do this trip, they must take the train from Chicago to Detroit then transfer onto a Detroit City bus, get downtown, then transfer onto the Tunnel Bus to cross the border, and finally transfer to another route of Transit Windsor that would take them to the Via Station. Just think what all that transfering, from four different providers does to travel time!

    These days I would much rather take the train then deal with the airports. However, I can only go west, east into Canada with some difficulties, or drive to Toledo. Bear, can I keep my car at your shop?

    Ohio is working on a plan to connect its big cities that we will one day be able to link into. However, it will cost a pretty penny to implement and last time I checked, Ohio is not doing much better economicly than we are.

    I agree with Brocktoon, one of our big pushes is for commutter rail between Ann Arbor and Detroit with stops in Dearborn and Metropolitan Airport. Our biggest hassle in getting this done are private sector companies, I can't really blame them for wanting to protect their own interests, I know I would want to, but there has to be some way to balance the public's needs and private industry.
    We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes - Fr Gabriel Richard 1805

  9. #9
    Cyburbian CJC's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Brocktoon View post
    Most people don't realize that the amount of commerce that the airline industry is responsible for. Although the airline industry does receive some level of subsidy by way of the ATC (which is a system that is crumbling) which it pays user fees on, it also pays landing fees, gas taxes etc that make the debt possible to build and maintain the airport that is so vital to most major cities.
    Isn't this just because we've chosen to make air travel a priority? Sure, right now the airline industry is handling a large volume of commerce - but is it responsible, or merely the only game in town? Airports will no doubt continue to be very important for the commerce of any large city, but I'd like to see a shift to something more like the roles that airports have in other first world countries - merely a part of the short to medium distance transportation system and almost all of the long distance transportation system, rather than being almost all of every distance.

    Also, not actually thinking this will happen, but I'd really like to see a nationalized system where the government owns and maintains the rails and stations - with rail companies (freight and passenger) paying user fees, much like the air travel system.
    Two wrongs don't necessarily make a right, but three lefts do.

  10. #10
    Dont we as a country value choice? A dozen cell phone companies, pepsi/coke, mcdonalds/burger king. So why dont we set up a system with multiple ways of getting from point a to point b? IT would be safer and better in emergencies, and it would be better when there are problems in one system (the airlines).

  11. #11
    Cyburbian Mud Princess's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Gotta Speakup View post
    Dont we as a country value choice? A dozen cell phone companies, pepsi/coke, mcdonalds/burger king. So why dont we set up a system with multiple ways of getting from point a to point b? IT would be safer and better in emergencies, and it would be better when there are problems in one system (the airlines).
    Excellent point. I wonder what the presidential candidates have to say about rail service in this country... we clearly need to invest in our transportation infrastructure.

    To The One's point, I have often wondered the same thing about rail-to-trail conversions. It probably isn't an issue in most areas. On the other hand, there are still many rail lines that continue to be used for freight; with some improvements they could be used for passenger rail service (though I have heard that negotiating with the private rail companies can be difficult).

  12. #12
    Cyburbian Richi's avatar
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    In florida, at least some of the rails to trails were paid for from DOT $ with at least some understanding that they were "holding" facilities. Will any become tracks again? Maybe.

    Several decades ago I was traveling through Alabama on the long gone Amtrak "Floridian" and commented to the Conductor that we seemed to be rolling along at a rather fast clip. He said, we are limited to 70 mph and then checked the speed by having me call out the mileposts as he checked his watch. We were doing 70. He then said, "Back in steam engine days we used to run through here at 100".

    I traveled on trains a lot as a kid on passes (my dad worked for the Atlantic Coast Line) and I remember going across the "South Ga. Flats" ( arounnd Savanah) at 110 mph on The Champion, which was the ACL's crack streamliner between NYC and Tampa and Miami. So with some upgrading we could do it again.

    The real problem is capacity.
    The freight railroads are stretched so thin right not that they can not handle much more traffic. Many are double tracking. This will help, but if they hadn't been so egar to abandion so many secondary main lines (and not afew primary main lines when the merged, we would be much better off.

    Perhaps next year with a different president we will see a more rational transportation and energy policy. A gas tax holiday is not the answer. Thats like giving an addict free drugs.

  13. #13
    Cyburbian CJC's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Gotta Speakup View post
    Dont we as a country value choice? A dozen cell phone companies, pepsi/coke, mcdonalds/burger king. So why dont we set up a system with multiple ways of getting from point a to point b? IT would be safer and better in emergencies, and it would be better when there are problems in one system (the airlines).
    While I agree with your point, I think that most people would say that the massive road network (for cars or buses) is the choice. I'm not sure "safety" is the right buzzword to use for gaining support either, since opponents will jump on the fact that trains must use places with tracks (and thus don't have the option to "change routes on the fly" like a plane or bus or car).

    We need to get rid of the FRA regs that require passenger trains that share tracks with freight trains to be ridiculously heavy and slow (to Richi's post - these regs are the reason for the low speeds, there aren't any others). And right now, we need to focus entirely on regional routes, not cross-country or other extreme long distance routes (IMO). As soon as we get some decent, fast, and reliable regional routes then look on linking those together.
    Two wrongs don't necessarily make a right, but three lefts do.

  14. #14
    Cyburbian Brocktoon's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by CJC View post
    Isn't this just because we've chosen to make air travel a priority? Sure, right now the airline industry is handling a large volume of commerce - but is it responsible, or merely the only game in town? Airports will no doubt continue to be very important for the commerce of any large city, but I'd like to see a shift to something more like the roles that airports have in other first world countries - merely a part of the short to medium distance transportation system and almost all of the long distance transportation system, rather than being almost all of every distance.

    Also, not actually thinking this will happen, but I'd really like to see a nationalized system where the government owns and maintains the rails and stations - with rail companies (freight and passenger) paying user fees, much like the air travel system.
    Freight and commerce is moved by truck and rail as well as by air. In fact most of the rail in this country is for moving freight. Although the European model might be desirable this country has shifted to market driven solutions thus until such a model "pencils" its not going to happen. I also don't see many in Congress on either side of the aisle supporting billion of dollars in free money to BNSF, Union Pacific etc for them to improve their infrastructure.
    "If you don't like change, you're going to like irrelevance even less" General Eric Shinseki

  15. #15
    Cyburbian CJC's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Brocktoon View post
    Freight and commerce is moved by truck and rail as well as by air. In fact most of the rail in this country is for moving freight. Although the European model might be desirable this country has shifted to market driven solutions thus until such a model "pencils" its not going to happen. I also don't see many in Congress on either side of the aisle supporting billion of dollars in free money to BNSF, Union Pacific etc for them to improve their infrastructure.
    We can shape the market in whatever way that we want, and as long as there are no external forces forcing a change, everything is peachy. Long ago, we decided to prioritize public spending on roads ahead of rails. This gave trucking companies a huge competitive advantage, because they were paying a relatively small amount for upkeep of their necessary infrastructure (highways), because the funding mechanism (primarily gas taxes) pushed a disproportionate amount of cost (relative to wear and tear) onto private automobile users. This system worked great for years, because trucks are faster than trains - but they're vastly less efficient in terms of energy use. So, now that we have the external force of energy prices beginning to level the playing field (trucks are still much faster, but now are rising in price considerably, but trains are too slow to work well for everything - especailly with the "just-in-time" economy that we've built), I wouldn't be surprised at all to see Congress look for ways to "tweak" the market. It remains to be seen whether that will be spending billions on freight train tracks or subsidizing trucks, but I'd be shocked if one or the other doesn't happen within the next couple of years.

    In many places, it will likely be state governments that do some of the work as well - freight track improvements around the California ports and the Chicago area come to mind. Those areas mean a lot to the state (and national) economies, so at the very least I would expect to see some favorable state treatment (cheap loans, eminent domain usage, environmental waivers, etc)
    Two wrongs don't necessarily make a right, but three lefts do.

  16. #16
    Cyburbian Richi's avatar
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    CJC is correct - The FRA reg are IMHO far too strict as far as passenger trains go. However, railroads operated with a high level of safety w/o them for decades.

    It is truly shameful that not only did we pull up many 1,000's of mile of track, but we pull down a considerable amount of electric traction infrastructure. Now the chivkens are coming home to roost. Just think what a generally electrified main line system would mean to the Country now. The trains would not need oil to power them. Electric trains are significantly faster in acceleration, as well.

    Congress was very happy to provide very high subsidy to airlines to serve small cities for quite a while. Tne entire trucking industry was and still is subsidized. The big railroads (BNSF, UP, CSX NS) have fiercely resisted any idea of acepting government money for fear of the "strings".. However, there has been some movement for railroads to accept $. The Florida East Coast (Miami -Jacksonville) now has some extended siding paid for wit government $.


    If we get good regional systems it will not be too difficult to fill in the gaps and end up with a real national system. But many "regional" systems need a high level of federal funding because sometimes a state in the middle just doesn't see any benefit in participating.

  17. #17
    Cyburbian Luca's avatar
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    Subsidies: in ascending order, the degree/level of subsidy and public-sector intervention 'necessary' for viable transportation by mode:
    > Boat
    >road
    >air
    >rail

    Rail transport is good in some specific applications but generally needs a lot of subsidy. To be even remotely practical, it needs to work in nearly monopolistic conditions on heavily trafficked routes or close enough heavily trafficked routes.

    Also, whatever rail service you have, you will STILL need pretty much all the same roads AS WELL (bar a few highways, arguably).

    Put differently, if some medium-sized country all of a sudden emerged as some sort of libertarian utopia/dystopia, you'd soon enough have roads/cars/waterborne on naturally navigable waterways and, arguably, air travel. Railroads and canals, I doubt.

    All that said, I think that along the eastern seaboards and within the SoCal and other large metro areas, a subsidized system of rail transport would be beneficial and worth a few bn in subsidies due to other benefits.
    Life and death of great pattern languages

  18. #18
    Cyburbian safege's avatar
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    More rail will be automated, for the reasons Luca mentioned. Light rail may suffer a repeat of their earlier fate, for the same reason, and no practical upgrade to automation.
    Psychotics are consistently inconsistent. The essence of sanity is to be inconsistently inconsistent.
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  19. #19
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by Luca View post

    Also, whatever rail service you have, you will STILL need pretty much all the same roads AS WELL (bar a few highways, arguably).

    Put differently, if some medium-sized country all of a sudden emerged as some sort of libertarian utopia/dystopia, you'd soon enough have roads/cars/waterborne on naturally navigable waterways and, arguably, air travel. Railroads and canals, I doubt.


    Maybe ... how long have we had the road network necessary for basic service levels? At least since the Eisenhower system was completed in about 1980 and arguably a lot longer than that - and look at all the expansion that's been needed in the meantime.

    As for libertarian economic theory, does it account for (currently externalized) costs like air and noise pollution, and risk to the life and limb of pedestrians? If not, it should, and that would obviously skew a completely private transportation system toward rail.

  20. #20
    Cyburbian Luca's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by 3 mph View post
    Maybe ... how long have we had the road network
    necessary for basic service levels.
    No, not "maybe" if you ask any transportation expert or economist. Railroads cannot go to every single address, every single hamlet, and every single factory gate. You need decent roads to all those, if only for redundancy purposes.

    Quote Originally posted by 3 mph View post
    As for libertarian economic theory, does it account for (currently externalized) costs like air and noise pollution, and risk to the life and limb of pedestrians? If not, it should, and that would obviously skew a completely private transportation system toward rail.
    I dunno to whose libertarian theories you are referring...

    I agree that there are situations where a good rail network is useful. I am merely pointing out that the amount of subsidy that will require, relative to simply building roads, etc. is large; very large.

    Because the good reasons do, indeed, create centralized costs and dispersed benefits, they have tended to be under-invested in.

    I suppose that if you have a transportation corridor along which the roads are very busy, it can make sense to build/re-build/improve railroad service, rather than expand road capacity. Certainly there are environmental and safety gains. If you start putting rail service everywhere, the efficiency drops very rapidly.
    Life and death of great pattern languages

  21. #21
    Cyburbian Richi's avatar
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    Re: Lucia's example - The entire US Interstate highway system was not necessary and is redundant as a line haul system. Also the vast network of 6-lane surface arterials in US cities as well as the 8 to over 10 lane freeways.

    The "experts" do not even aknowledge the impacts of "externalities" in their models. They are difficult to measure and therefore don't count in economic terms. There's a reason Economics is called the "Dark Science".

  22. #22
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by Luca View post
    No, not "maybe" if you ask any transportation expert or economist. Railroads cannot go to every single address, every single hamlet, and every single factory gate. You need decent roads to all those, if only for redundancy purposes.
    Duh. My point is that we have had exactly that for somewhere between 30 and 300 years, and still spending billions on road expansion that is "necessary" because we are increasingly using cars and trucks for everything, not just an occasional alternative or supplement to rail (and other modes). You don't need "all the same roads," if you have rail - you can get by with 2 lanes instead of 4, 4 instead of 8 or 12, leave out the new beltway, etc. I don't know how much time you've spent in the States, but it seems that you don't appreciate the monstrous scale of new road construction and expansion that continues in many parts of the country.

  23. #23
    Cyburbian Luca's avatar
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    I think we're talking past each other.

    I'm pro-rail, in congested areas. Certainly, long before one needs to considerr a highway of more than 3-4 lanes each way, it's time to put in an efficient rail service.

    I'm merely objecting to the naive idea that rail won't cost an absolute bundle, because it will and any opponent of rail will pick up on that omission. Still worthwhile, but not cheap.
    Life and death of great pattern languages

  24. #24
    Cyburbian Richi's avatar
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    Not cheap, for sure. But still far less expensive than providing equil capacity on a highway.

  25. #25
    Cyburbian Mud Princess's avatar
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    There was a very good article in the newspaper the other day about McCain's track record on rail (sorry ):

    McCain's agenda on Amtrak

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