Eye on Amtrak

When I was a kid in New Jersey there were always abandoned railroad tracks somewhere. You could be playing baseball or soccer and the ball would roll away from the field and toward some tree line or old factory and there would inevitably be tracks that were out of service, usually with bits of garbage strewn around them for good measure. It was the 80’s and 90’s, the era in the US where people just assumed rail had no future and it was more important to widen the highways and sell more cars.

Almost 20 years later more and more people in the US realize this outlook is what has no future, and railroads are needed now more than ever.? The problem is when they look to those old lines, they find they’re unusable or, in many cases, they’ve been removed and replaced with condo’s and parking lots. Occasionally they’ve managed to salvage an old line.

Meanwhile on the existing rail lines still in use, national rail service is a pitiful shell of what it could have been compared to Europe or Japan. Years of under funding and mis-management have left AMTRAK with an outdated fleet of trains that can’t travel more than an average of 80mph/128kph, and that is when they’re not being delayed by freight trains. Recent studies have revealed that indeed freight trains are the leading cause of the national rail carrier’s infamous delays.? Crazily enough, the freight companies actually own much of the track that AMTRAK uses.. again making it expensive and irratic in terms of costs and service as they illegally take priority.

The US congress has now approved a bill that must face the ignorant pen of the president, which provides funds and invesment to keep AMTRAK going and make a few strides towards mordernizing national passenger rail in America.

I suppose to many in the US, this is not interesting, as the belief that “rail isn’t practical” still somehow dominates.? Few have experienced High Speed Rail in other countries and even fewer could ever afford to ride the few ACELA – high speed trains that exist in the US.? Whereas regular people with modest incomes can afford to take a TGV in France or the Alfa Pendular in Portugal, most of the people you find on high speed American trains are executives who’s companies cover the high cost.

Whether the bill will be passed by GW Bush is still not clear.? Whether beyond some symbolic language, these funds will really make rail more accessible and efficient in the US, is also still not clear.? But the absolute need for such investment for both the present and future of the country – that part should be clear by now.


  1. keith
    October 2, 2008

    “the ignorant pen of the president” or “the pen of the ignorant president” typo? =)

    • Starster
      October 4, 2008

      Don’t get started on bicyclemark’s typos. You’ll never get around to doing anything else!

      • bicyclemark
        October 6, 2008

        yes. i make no secret of it. I enjoy exercising my right to misspell.

  2. DRock
    October 2, 2008

    I have such a love/hate relationship with Amtrak. Generally, I’m in love with the concept but have been pissed at the service and mismanagement over the past decade as a frequent passenger. First things first. While NATIONAL train service is awesome and makes sense in Europe and Japan it doesn’t in the US. The US is just too big for it to work and with air travel is too cheap for trains to compete. The problem is that AMTRAK is mandated by a 1970 law that they have to provide passenger rail service to the country. So right now there’s a train that runs from Dallas to Boise with 3 passengers on it burning 100 gallons of diesel fuel per hour 5 times a week not because it makes sense but they’re required to do it. AMTRAK should focus on REGIONAL rail service or simply be broken into regional corridors and governed separately. Boston to Richmond is the most used line in the country and we’re the passengers that get fucked with ticket prices, and the money pit that is the Acela, it’s frequently cheaper to fly from DC to NYC than take AMTRAK.

    I’m all for more regional rail and better service it just seems AMTRAK is using an out of date plan and needs to be completely reorganized and broken up. If state run trains VRI, MARC, NJTransit, METRO North, can run and not burn billions of dollars why can’t Amtrak

    • October 2, 2008

      I have a hate/hate relationship with amtrak. or maybe a hate/i wish could love it but I can’t relationship. they have just always fucked up, every single fucking time I’ve used them. The difficulties of traveling between New York City and Albany – which should be the easiest thing on earth to do – last year prompted me to rent a car for the trip. between the absurdly high ticket prices, the shit schedule, the delays, the cancellations – I would absolutely always choose a bus or driving over amtrak. always.

      anyway, this comment has nothing constructive to say, I just get pissed off at all the money and time I’ve wasted in my life with amtrak and need to vent.

    • bicyclemark
      October 3, 2008

      my concern is that if they break it up.. you’ll only have regional rail between neighboring cities that can afford it.. in other words.. NY to Philly to DC and all that.. that continues. But the idea of a Chicago to NY rail line.. I could see that being abandoned in the name of cost effectiveness. I look at New Jersey transit.. the only place you can go is NYC, Hoboken and Newark… there should be some obligation or.. I don’t know.. some way to connect as many places as possible.. not just the areas where there is money.

  3. October 2, 2008

    Even ignoring price, comparing Amtrak’s Acela Express to European highspeed rail is sort of disingenuous. Highspeed rail in Europe actually goes at high speeds. Acela Express doesn’t really. (It goes at top speed for a mere 29km of the 730km journey between Boston and Washington, and even this top speed of 240km/h pales in comparison to many European lines.)

    • bicyclemark
      October 3, 2008

      I was speaking in best case scenario ;). Fun fact — high speed rail in the Netherlands has never travelled at actual high speeds since the rail wasn’t up to scratch. That is supposed to have changed by now, haven’t heard the latest on that, but its been delayed for some time.

  4. DRock
    October 3, 2008

    Simply, there is a finite amount of money for Amtrak (or at least there should be) Does that money get invested in rail service were it’s despritly needed or roll the dice and hope if you built it they will come (NY to LA train)

    There was one huge change to Amtrak about 3 years ago and no one said a freaking thing, but it rocked my world. Amtrak used to sell “unreserved” tickets say from DC to NYC. If you bought one of these you could hop on any Amtrak “unreserved” train that was heading your way. Then out or nowhere they dropped it. Now if you have a 1pm ticket you have to take that 1pm train. And if you can’t make that 1pm train and want to take the same train at 1:30pm you have to go buy an new ticket for often twice the price of your original ticket. WTF!!! When this happened to me I nearly lost it at the ticket window, they kept saying “it’s just like buy air plane tickets now” I said no it’s not like buy fucking plane tickets…you know why? Becuase it’s a fucking train ticket! Now I’m all pissed off…need to breath, damn you Amtrak…damn you!!!

  5. DRock
    October 3, 2008

    Regarding NJTranist. Those are commuter trains and that?s generally for NJ to figure out. It would be awesome if NJ could come up with a rail line that could connect more of NJ without having to go to NYC first. Shit maybe all that $ that congress spends to keep Amtrak trains running with 4 people on it could be redetected to states to improve commuter rails.

  6. Tybeck
    October 4, 2008

    This is a hard issue for the US. Back in the day when there were weren’t any other alternatives private rail was quite profitable for moving or people and goods. Today I fear that this is a money losing proposition and tax support would be needed. Take for example the transit authority in the Boston metro are, MBTA. The ridership for bus, subway, lightrail, and commuter rail is very strong with something like 30-40% of commuters using it everyday. It’s the fastest growing public transit network in the country. Even with recent fare increases it’s losing money.

    At the top speeds we have in the US only regional train service is reasonable give modern transit time expectations. High speed service on par with Europe or Japan could work inter-region in some areas, but it would be crazy expensive to impliment. The Boston-Washington DC corridor might be the best example. We have the technology to build higher speed trains. The trains used for the Acela Express service are rated for a maximum speed of around 150 mph, but they can’t because of the tracks. The TGV in France and ICE in Germany (can’t speak for Japan) can run on any standard gauge rail. However, they have dedicated rails and rightaways designed specifically for high speed travel.

    Final point, if you want higher speed in the US you have to lay new track and that costs big money. Which equals government (most likely Federal) assistance. You also can’t practically do it for the whole country, we’re just too big and our major population population centers are clustered into regions. With the way things have worked historically in the USA I don’t think you can do this with one company.

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