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Dear President-Elect Obama, We Need Trains, Too!

Non-Fiction Reviews

Dear President-Elect Obama, We Need Trains, Too!

President-elect Obama said in his radio address on Saturday, January 10, that “We’ll put nearly 400,000 people to work by repairing our infrastructure–our crumbling roads, bridges and schools.” What about our passenger train system, that lags sadly behind other developed countries–and is far worse than what Americans enjoyed decades ago?

Amtrak Acela 30th st station philadelphia

Amtrak’s Acela pulls into 30th Street Station, Philadelphia, PA

Americans are waiting anxiously to know just what the forthcoming Administration will include in its Recovery and Reinvestment Plan. President-elect Obama said in his radio address on Saturday, January 10, that “We’ll put nearly 400,000 people to work by repairing our infrastructure—our crumbling roads, bridges and schools.”

What about our passenger train system, that lags sadly behind other developed countries—and is far worse than what Americans enjoyed decades ago?

The fact is that Barack Obama and the senior members of his team are too young to remember what good trains we once had—all the senior members, that is, except Vice President-elect Joseph Biden.

Joe Biden no doubt remembers that when he was a boy in Scranton after World War II, the city was served by passenger trains—twelve of them each weekday—on the old Lackawanna line that ran between Buffalo and New York. There are no trains to Scranton today, but Biden as U.S. Senator has for years commuted by train between Washington and his home in Wilmington, along Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, the only U.S. passenger rail line that approaches European lines in speed and service…or does it? Amtrak’s Acela Express averages just over eighty miles an hour between Washington and New York. Fast trains in Europe, Japan, Korea and Taiwan now run at average speeds, start-to-finish, of over twice that.

Perhaps, though, before we plan totally new lines like those the TGVs run on in France and the bullet trains in Japan, we can just try to get back to the halcyon days after World War II, when for a dozen years our passenger trains were modernized, schedules were shortened, and traffic boomed.

bullet train japan

Japan’s Bullet Train races toward Tokyo Station

In 1958 the Broadway Limited, with dining, lounge, and sleeping cars, ran overnight from Chicago to New York in just fifteen and a half hours, and busy people found it more pleasant and convenient to take the train than to get out to O’Hare, fly to La Guardia, and then make their way into Manhattan. Amtrak’s only overnight Chicago-New York train now takes over nineteen hours—if it is on time, a problem to be discussed.

But the best train in the country, I always thought, was the elegant, all-sleeping-car Panama Limited that ran overnight between Chicago and New Orleans, arriving in either city in time—and it almost invariably ran on time—for well-rested passengers to get to ten a.m. meetings.

There were lots of fast trains like the Broadway Limited and Panama Limited. Few still exist. Who remembers the Zephyr-Rocket that used to run overnight between St. Louis and Minneapolis, or the Southern Belle between Kansas City and New Orleans, or the daytime Powhatan Arrow between Norfolk and Cincinnati? Today there is no train service at all between those major cities, and no trains serving the smaller cities and towns along the way for which the railroad provided easy access to a metropolis. Fifty years ago, one could take a fast morning train from a small Iowa town like Manchester straight to Chicago, spend the day, and return home that evening. Today, if you live in Manchester, you can fly to Chicago—but first you have to drive 45 miles to the Dubuque airport, in winter there may well be delays, and after you land at O’Hare you are still 45 minutes from downtown Chicago.

Some of the best trains in the 1940s and 1950s were those on short routes. The Rock Island Rockets linked Peoria and Chicago in two and a half hours, a start-to-finish speed of over a mile a minute. Today there is no train to Peoria. One may be able to drive that distance in three hours; the Greyhound bus takes almost five hours; how many people really like to fly 150 miles?

Or take New England. People are pleased at the success of the Downeasters, the Amtrak trains that have successfully restored train service between Boston and Portland. The trip takes two hours and a half. Before World War II, the Flying Yankee did it in two hours.

At least three major problems lie in the way of better train service for America.

The first is political. A number of Republicans—John McCain, for one—have continued, at least until recently, to claim that Federal subsidies for passenger trains are socialistic. They ignore, curiously, the immense and long-standing Federal subsidies for highways and air travel. Perhaps they can be won over by the argument that a decent train system is good for national security. This is the argument that helped lead Congress to fund the Interstate highway system, and the argument is yet more applicable in the case of trains. If we ever get into a prolonged major conflict and our access to overseas oil is cut, will we not need to have a means of transporting millions of people around the country with less use of energy? If so, that means trains. It is interesting, by the way, that some relatively Republican states like California and Utah have stepped in where the Feds have not, and have been creating impressive instate train services.

Second, Amtrak trains run almost entirely—the Northeast Corridor is an exception—along privately-owned freight lines. These companies are legally required to give priority to passenger trains, but often they have not done so. Washington is tightening up; railroads will incur greater penalties if they do not let Amtrak run through on time; but there is some question whether, with the best of will, they can do a much better job of this. The California Zephyr, for example, is often several hours late into Denver on its run westward from Chicago. It runs through Nebraska into Colorado along the single-track main line of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe, and too often freights get in the way despite a modern traffic control system. (Even the nearby Union Pacific main line, which carries 135 freight trains a day, is overloaded, despite triple tracks and state-of-the art traffic control. We have perhaps gone too far in allowing the amalgamation of our major railroads. Today there are only two major U.S. systems in the West, the Union Pacific and BNSF, and fewer transcontinental lines than we used to have.)

France TGV train

France’s TGV

Third, even if we agree on the need to modernize our trains, how do we do so in these hard times? That is part of the overall question of our infrastructure. If the will is there, we can do it. The Europeans are not being deterred by their own economic woes from planning further improvements to their already impressive rail systems. If we do undertake large-scale rail modernization, we should do all possible to ensure that American and not foreign firms will do a major share of the work—and end up in a more competitive position abroad, in what will remain a major business sector.

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Peter Bridges is a former ambassador to Somalia and cofounder of the Elk Mountains Hikers Club in Colorado. He was born in New Orleans, grew up in Chicago, and studied at Dartmouth College and Columbia University. Aside from CLR, his articles, essays, and reviews have appeared in the "Christian Science Monitor," "Foreign Service Journal," "Los Angeles Times," "Michigan Quarterly Review," "Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London," "Virginia Quarterly Review," "Washington Times," and elsewhere. Beyonce Net Worth



  1. Larry Davis

    February 7, 2009 at 7:55 am

    Since I returned from three years as a teacher in South Korea, I’ve been bemoaning the lack of decent train and bus service in the US. How incredibly ill-advised it was to allow our mass transit systems to decay to such an extent, market or none. I’ve had great experiences on such lines as the California Zephyr, the Silver Meteor and the Montrealer in the 80s and 90s. Three years ago, I rode the train from Houston to Atlanta and was forced to get a hotel room in New Orleans for an overnight layover, then the train was seven hours late into Atlanta the next day because every time a freight train was met, it was the Amtrak train which was shunted onto a side track to sit and wait. It is a national embarrassment. The problem is, Americans are impervious to embarrassment, it sometimes seems.

    Travel by Greyhound and you will see how the poorest Americans and European students on holiday get around. It is arduous, I’ll tell you. When I think of all the ways the hundreds of billions of dollars spent in Iraq could have benefitted this country… Lord help us.

  2. Eric Spiritfeather-Gibson

    January 20, 2009 at 1:04 am

    i have bacpacked throughout central america and just dont understand why the public transportation in a 3rd world is astronomically better than here. you can get to any little village on or off the map through public transit systems. thats where i want my taxes to go. if i could depend on a transit system like that here i would save a fortune. i want to yell “People Wake the %[email protected] up already. the technology has been around for 70 years or more. like the old story of sliced bread. didnt invent the bread or the slicer, but put them together. jobs ect…

  3. Judith Harris

    January 18, 2009 at 3:10 pm

    I could not agree more – thank you, Peter Bridges. Even benighted Italy has its new fast train connecting the city centers of Milan and Rome in only 3-1/2 hours, much faster than air transport.
    The U.S. has suffered from a development model that was deeply flawed, with ever more outlying suburbs at the expense of the city center and of the community that is both reflected and fostered by the city. To cite economist Schumpeter speaking of “creative destruction,” this economic crisis is our chance to carve out a new way.

  4. PEMAN

    January 16, 2009 at 1:47 pm

    Mr. Hansbrough has an interesting idea, that of the “Slip Coach”.
    But the idea has already been tried. In the British Isles
    a special car at the end of the train was manned by an engineer or a specially trained conductor.
    Approaching a station where the train would not have a scheduled stop, the employee would man a special cab in the last car, effect an uncoupling and through an application of the air brake bring the “Slipped” car to a stop at the intermediate station platform.
    Of course, another locomotive would have to be ready to remove the car from the platform after the stop was completed.

  5. Jon Esty

    January 16, 2009 at 12:33 pm

    Peter makes an excellent statement of the current problems faced by Amtrak in its attempts to deliver intercity passenger rail service in the US. Unfortunately, the US has chosen to invest in highways and airports in preference to passenger rail in marked comparison to Europe and Pacific Rim countries who seem to better understand the efficiencies, reliability, and conveniences of rail.

    I strongly agree with his point about the connectivity trains once provided for towns and small cities around the country. This level of service has never been able to be duplicated by air or bus travel to most locations, a fact which has helped lead to isolation of large portions of the country for those who may not have access to an automobile or may not wish to drive.

    I would hope that the new administration’s Recovery and Reinvestment Plan would include significant funding for intercity rail. It’s true that expanding rail capacity for both freight and passenger trains would be a very expensive proposition but there are significant modest improvements that can be made starting with investments in new passenger cars and locomotives, station renovations, double tracking in places where significant congestion exists, expanding passenger train frequencies in existing corridors, and initiating new long distance trains.

  6. Interurbans

    January 15, 2009 at 8:43 pm

    Great article, thanks. I travel by train in other parts of the world and trains are as much a part of the thinking as freeways are here. The trains are fast, frequent, on time and dependable. I can go on and on the advantages of traveling by train instead of driving or flying but one word seams to cover it ant is everything they “work”.

    When taking American business associates on a subway or train overseas they are awed by the positive experience and ask why we do not have such systems at home. At first they want to take a taxi or fly because they do not know better, but after their experience it is the subway or train every time.

    One of the things the high speed railroads do to reduce dwell time at stations is have each car marked on the platform where the riders “queue-up” so when the train arrives every one is ready to board and a stop can be 30 seconds and the train is off again. There are local and express tracks so express trains go through station at full speed on inner tracks away from the platforms.

    Passenger trains can and do work well and will be used when they are rebuilt. They can be faster, more convenient and less expensive than driving or flying. The idea of reclaiming abandoned rail lines especially in urban areas is a must to start with. Then capacity can be rebuilt to allow for high speed and dependable passenger rail service and at the same time rail fright traffic capacity can be increased so that much of the contain traffic now on the highways can return to the rails freeing up the highways so the money that would be spent to improve them would be spent to rebuild our lost rail networks instead.

    Rail is a much more efficient and faster way to move goods and people that uses less imported energy and causes less pollution.

  7. Peter Bridges

    January 15, 2009 at 3:42 pm

    I am grateful to Robert Ramsay for pointing out my mistake about the route of the California Zephyr–a mistake all the more embarrassing since I have on occasion watched the Zephyr running on the BNSF in Colorado. In any case, the editor has kindly let me correct the mistake; I trust no one will see that as Orwellian.

  8. Ron DeGray

    January 15, 2009 at 3:06 pm

    Great and important article and comments. Lash asks, “How do we get more people to ride trains?”. My thought is to make them fast, frequent, comfortable and Inter-modal.

    Glastonbury, Connecticut; [email protected]

  9. Lash Hansborough

    January 15, 2009 at 1:53 pm

    Dear Peter,
    This is an excellent and timely article, one that I wish I had written. I have a couple of suggestions for you to consider.
    One immediate thing to do is that all “abandoned” rail lines be reclaimed by the U.S. government as federal property. One line that comes to mind is from Canon City through Leadville and under Tennessee Pass. If we need multiple links, we should ensure existing links do not disappear.
    I am as frustrated as you are with passenger delays by freight traffic. One (expensive) way around this might be determine were the most delys take place and lay track for passenger train use only. Surely that would not be difficult in Nebraska, but other choke points may be more challenging.
    How do we get more people to ride trains? Hand out some free federal passes so that more people will get to enjoy (hopefully) the experience of train travel at least once. It’s a classic “come on.”
    While in graduate school, I and some other students looked into ways to improve short-haul commuter train service. I came up with the idea of a “transfer car” attached to the rear of the train so that it would not have to stop at stations.
    This transfer car is detached after being loaded with people who want to get off at the next station. It slows down, and pulls off onto a siding with the station. As the train goes by the station on the main line, another transfer car already at the station leaves, catches up with and attaches to the train. Those passengers move to the main train, and the cycle can be repeated. Thus no time is lost by the train itself, and the commute time can be substantially shortened.
    I have more thoughts on train travel and how to make it more attractive. Perhaps we can continue this discussion in the future. I hope so.


  10. Robert A. Ramsay

    January 15, 2009 at 1:49 pm

    Peter Bridges is correct in saying that we need a modern passenger railroad system for America. I agree completely!

    One minor correction, however. He says the California Zephyr runs on the Union Pacific through Nebraska from Chicago to Denver. In actual fact, the CZ runs entirely over the former Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad (BNSF today) but over the UP (foprmer D&RGW) west of Denver to Salta Lake City. The Burlington is entirely single-track through Nebraska and thus the many delays.

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