America’s love affair with rail

By | Category: Travel destinations, Travel news

Bob Stewart

America’s love affair with the automobile is being replaced by rail writes CD-Traveller’s managing editor, Adrian Lawes

You’d be forgiven for thinking that there is a typo in the headline. Don’t we mean America’s love affair with the car? But times are changing in the US and trains are becoming more popular.

Over 33 states are investing in train options. to try and relieve congestion.This nugget came from Bob Stewart who is chairman of the National Association of Railroad Passengers.

We haven’t got a similar body in the UK. NARP, founded in 1967, is a charitable body that lobbies and educates about the advantages of rail travel. Some states like South Dakota don’t even have a passenger rail system. While many of us think of the US as just a country of cars and freeways, at one stage rail travel was the main way travellers crossed the vast expanses. But after WWII, the car became dominant.

Today rail is having a resurgance. Why? Are Americans wearying of the delays, the petrol costs and the accidents that interrupt car journeys? The answer, according to Stewart, is yes. But they aren’t turning to airlines either. Security issues, increasing add-on costs to base fares, delays at airports and the sheer time it takes to get through airports before you even get on a plane are putting Americans off.

When I first went to the US 30 years ago, not many cities had their own rail systems. Boston, Chicago, New York and San Francisco did, but it didn’t always link to airports. To get to New York’s JFK you took a bus or the train to Howard Beach and caught the bus from the long term car park.

LA Light rail

So much has changed, as Bob Stewart explained. Los Angeles has installed a light railway system, Portland in Oregon has integrated the airport with bus and train systems. In the central part of Portland, the light railway system is free. Denver has 39 miles of railway. In Miami in Florida, a new rail system links the airport to the Tri-State railway system. Rail is the flavour of the month!

So how does the NARP operate? Each week of each month some of its 25,000 members write and submit rail reports on their journeys. Any issues raised are taken up with rail companies be it the national company AMTRAK or the smaller locally run networks. But it isn’t reaaly like our Consumer Focus that represents rail passengers to the railway companies. NARP does take ups individual cases sometimes if it is a serious issue, in which case they will contact their sources at Amtrak. As Stewart says: “we are Amtrak’s cheerleader and critic depending on the issue.”

When Mr Obama announced support for high speed rail links and found most of the money to go ahead, it looked as though a new renaissance in rail travel might occur. But three states, Florida, Wisconsin and Ohio actually turned down the money! Can you imagine a county doing that in the UK? We might argue over the route of HS2 as it plans to link London and Birmingham and then splitting to go to Leeds and Manchester but a route would be found.

Modern Amtrak

But, just as in the UK, Stewart says it is politics that determines some the rail services. AMTRAK doesn’t even have the luxury of being able to plan years ahead because it receives its $1.5 billion subsidy each year. Until it gets that voted, it doesn’t even know whether it will be in business next year! And this is a company that moved over 32 million people last year on sold out trains.

Infuriating as this must be to AMTRAK, it grieves Stewart too. “Give me $15 billion,” he says, “and I could construct a reasonable, truly national rail network.” Given how much money is wasted federally and how much has been spent on quantitative easing, this is a tiny sum. In the UK, we subsdise our railway network three times over the US figure.

When we visit the USA, many of us use public transport because we are used to it and the thought of driving through places like New York or Chicago makes us wary. So rail is a real option for the visitor. Jokes made about the rail network 30 years ago, are no longer valid. Every sort of person uses rail. Trains are clean, well maintained and as punctual as most trains are in the world. What hasn’t happened is frequency unless you are visiting the north east of the US where trains running from Boston through New York to Washington DC run many times a day.

As airlines have faced changing consumer demands and higher costs, many have stopped services to cities with populations of 25-30,000 or so. Can railways step in and fill this breach? There is a route from Chicago to Los Angeles but only eight per cent of passengers travel the whole route. All others just use it for linking city visits. And, as Stewart says, what will happen in 2050 when the population of the US is expected to have grown by another 100 million people? Freeways won’t be able to cope. Rail may be the answer. And some of it will be high-speed rail.


California, which likes to espouse its green credentials, is probably going to be the first state to implement a high speed rail system. Oddly enough the second state is Texas – the state we most associate with the oil industry especially since the late JR Ewing used to try to corner the market in those old episodes of Dallas. And it is from the city of Dallas to the other large city in Texas -Houston – that the first high speed line, after California, will probably run. North Carolina and Illinois are just two states implementing increased use of rail.

Stewart, not surprisingly, is all for this but he is more concerned by new legislation which comes into force in October 2013. From that date, individual states will have to fund any railway system up to 750 miles long. They will have control. For those states that moaned about federal parsimony for years, now they and they alone will take the responsibilty and the blame for establishing and keeping those lines going. They will have to come up with the funds to run the trains. And that is his concern. Will they find the money? Will the network continue to exist as it does now? Or will it expand and states jump at the opportunities that a bigger railway system might bring to their economies

Going through the Cascades on Amtrak

For the visitor there must be endless possibilities if new railways come to pass. In cities we’ll be able to get around more easily. New rail links will offer tourism potential. I have written of the AMTRAK service between Los Angeles and Portland Oregon and the wonderful combination of sunshine on Californian beaches contrasting with the snows of the Cascade Mountains in the north of the state and in Oregon. My train had not only visitors on it, but those who were travelling because rail is relatively inexpensive.

Stewart pointed out to me that there are many freight lines. Could passenger services be brought back there? Could the freight line that goes part of the way through the Mojave Desert be opened so that visitors can see what the desert is really like? And could there be stopovers so we can be taken to see the old mning towns and the old Western heritage in places like Ridgecrest? Since AMTRAK provides holidays as well as rail travel is this something we could look forward to? Stewart thinks that’s for the future. At the moment he just wants more services, more routes and more members to strengthen his hands in twisting the arms of politicians that hold a tight rein on the money coffers.

And for us visitors, it would give us a chance to see more of this huge country without the hassle and tiredness caused by driving or flying.


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