It seems to me….
“The first trip I remember taking was on the train from Virginia up to New York City, watching the summertime countryside rolling past the window. They used white linen tablecloths in the dining car in those days, and real silver. I love trains to this day. Maybe that was the beginning of my fixation with leisurely modes of travel.” ~ Billy Campbell.
Passenger rail is admittedly only one type of population conveyance necessary in any modern transportation network. While not denying the obvious importance of personal vehicle, air, or water transportation, this consideration will be more restricted.
The only way to adequately describe traveling by passenger train in the U.S. today in comparison to comparable rail travel throughout much of the rest of the world is that most of it is terrible. The U.S. was once a leader in passenger rail but now lags far behind other developed nations. The Boston-New York-Washington, D.C., corridor might be a possible exception, but I have not recently traveled by train in that area so am unable to objectively comment on it.
While U.S. freight railroads operate some of the safest, most efficient, cost-effective, and environmentally sound freight transportation systems in the world, that, unfortunately, is not also true for U.S. passenger service even though passenger rail system improvement would provide numerous economic and environmental benefits.
The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) awarded the U.S. rail network a grade of “B”, its highest grade in its most recent Report Card (2021), which is released every four years.
The high marks for the U.S.’ privately funded freight rail system stand in stark contrast to the taxpayer-funded general transportation infrastructure. Bridges and roads, for example, continue to age and suffer from overuse. Reflecting their poor condition, ASCE gave these systems grades of C and D.
The first mechanical passenger train in the U.S. opened for service on Christmas Day in 1830. Over the next century, both passenger and freight rail exploded, laying the tracks for westward expansion and an economic boom. Passenger rail ridership began to decline following World War I due to competition with automobiles but rose again during World War II when gasoline and tires were rationed.
The U.S. has the largest rail transport network of any country in the world but passenger service in major cities is mainly mass transit and commuter rail. Intercity passenger service, once a large and vital part of the nation’s passenger transportation network, now only plays a limited role in comparison to transportation options in many other countries. There once was a time when the U.S. actually had relatively good passenger train service but rail transportation in the U.S. now consists primarily of freight shipments.
The National Interstate and Defense Highways Act enacted under President Dwight Eisenhower in 1956 initiated construction of our current Interstate Highway System. With the advent of automotive and air travel, ridership on the nation’s passenger services began to severely dwindle. By that time railroads were beginning to see the writing on the wall and reduced passenger services with most giving it up altogether following creation of the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak) in 1971.
I, like most people, have always enjoyed traveling by train. My first train trip was with my mom to visit her parents during World War II. It was a relatively short trip: from just outside Atlantic City, NJ, to West Hazelton, PA. I only remember the cars seemed fairly dark with the only light coming mainly from the windows which to a young child were fascinating to look out.
Many kids are interested in trains when young and I was one of them. When I discovered in 7th grade that I could ride a train without being questioned, I occasionally skipped school to take the train mostly to Camden, NJ, or Philadelphia, PA, about 60 miles from home but occasionally elsewhere as I became increasingly courageous and discovered what ticket transfer destinations were possible. The only time I was stopped and questioned was by someone working in the freight yards in Camden. He asked me what I was doing out there but when I asked him some questions about the train engines, he happily showed them to me and answered my questions. If my parents had ever found out I had skipped school to wandering around freight yards and distant cities, I’m sure I would have been in serious trouble.
Having apparently satisfied my curiosity, my train excursions essentially stopped in 8th grade and I never ventured out again once in high school.
My first “long” official solo trip was from Philadelphia to Deland, FL, when heading off to college in 1955. Though the Korean War had ended two years before, the train seemed crowded with servicemen, all of whom appeared to be in a celebratory mood.
I have had some extremely interesting experiences on trains. When traveling from Harlingen, TX, to Philadelphia on Christmas leave in 1958, I had to change trains in Chicago, IL; the station was extremely crowded and I was prevented from boarding my train. At the time, I was an Air Force aviation cadet in flight training, wearing my uniform; and being a cadet colonel, had multiple stripes which probably appeared somewhat impressive.
I marched into the station master’s office and complained. To my surprise, he apologized and arranged for me to be on the next train – in a roomette.
Shortly after leaving Chicago, I exited my compartment and sat in an empty lounge car reading a magazine. A gentleman in a full suit entered and sat down on the opposite side of the car. A minute or two later, two additional men entered. When passing me, one of the gentlemen stopped and asked if I was attending the Air Force Academy which was still quite new at the time. I instinctively immediately jumped to a full-brace attention and answered that and several other questions with mostly a “Yes, Sir” or “No, Sir”. Satisfied, the two of them continued on out the other end of the car.
After they left, the first gentleman who had been sitting somewhat opposite from me, got up, walked over asked if I knew to whom I had been speaking? “No, Sir” (again at full attention). He informed me prior to leaving that it was ex-President Harry Truman.
That evening while waiting to be seated in the dining car, the same gentleman approached me and inquired if I would be interested in joining the President and his wife, Beth, for dinner. “Yes, Sir”.
Somewhat surprisingly, since my end of any conversation must have once again consisted primarily of “Yes, Sir” and “No, Sir”, I was once again asked to join them for breakfast the following morning. I never was able to remember one word of either conversation.
Perhaps my most classic trip by train was in 1959 on the California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco (actually Oakland, CA). The so-called “Silver Lady” was considered “The most talked-about train in America” as it traveled 2,532 miles through the heart of the Rockies and further west through the snow-capped Sierra Nevadas. I have never met anyone who had ridden the California Zephyr who did not rave about it.
Passenger rail is dependent upon government investment but has been plagued by a lack of adequate federal support. Heavy government subsidies are provided to roadways and airports; little, however, is given to passenger railroads which has resulted in a current repair backlog of an estimated $45.2 billion.
A primary reason for high ticket prices is use of privately owned freight rail tracks which Amtrak must pay a fee to operate over. Amtrak operates almost exclusively over such private freight railroads other than in the Northeast where it owns the Pennsylvania Railroad’s former Northeast Corridor (NEC), a four-track main line operating between Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. The most culturally notable and physically evident exception to the general lack of significant passenger rail ridership in the U.S. is in that same Northeast Corridor.
At one time, Amtrak serviced all major cities and many small towns across the U.S. Today service is much more limited serving only about 500 destinations in 46 states and three Canadian provinces. Even where available, service can be extremely limited. E.g., the Amtrak “Coast Starlight” stops in my town only once each day heading both north and south at around 03:00am in the morning with the station, which is located in a less than desirable part of town, open only during the day. It also is not unusual for it to arrive several hours late.
Though relatively expensive, rail travel has benefits unavailable in other modes of travel. Unlike an airplane, trains do not restrict travelers to their seats. All long-distance trains offer a dining car and lounge car, and many provide second-floor observation decks. Sleeper cars are available for an additional fee. The atmosphere on a train is laid-back and relaxed, and many riders make lasting friendships. U.S. railroads provide spectacular views of the nation’s abundant scenery – but also its slums and the back of automotive junkyards.
Amtrak’s ambitious “Amtrak Connects Us” proposal, lays out a plan to expand its services to 47 of the top 50 metropolitan areas and connect up to 160 communities with new or improved rail corridors in over 25 states throughout the U.S. While Amtrak ridership has slightly increased – primarily in the Northeast Corridor, it remains more dependent on subsidies than other modes of transportation.
Today, older passenger rail service elsewhere throughout the world is rapidly being replaced by high-speed rail (HSR) systems travelling in excess of 250 km/h (160 mph). Over 15 countries now have operational HSR lines including some locations where it might not be expected such as Morocco or Malaysia – but not in the U.S. where most trains are limited to a top speed of only 95 km/h (59 mph). China alone has built more than 40,200 km (25,000 miles) of HSR in the last two decades.
The primary reason why the U.S. has not completed any HSR systems is the unlimited cost of privatizing land in the U.S. and resistance from the airline industry. Privatization of land has made it impossible for the government to compulsorily acquire the land in question making it difficult to execute almost any type of public works projects in the U.S.
California has a HSR project but it has encountered difficulty due to rising costs, lawsuits, and political infighting. Such projects are an important way to cut emissions from gas-powered vehicles and air travel but the U.S. has deep-seated structural issues that make building any large infrastructure projects extremely difficult. Additionally, the federal government is always hesitant to fund massive infrastructure programs that disproportionately benefit only one state.
While it usually is passenger rail travel that comes to mind when travel by train is mentioned, other types of rail travel such as local rapid and mass transit systems also are available in many areas.
Many cities developed horse-drawn streetcar systems in the 19th century. Most U.S. cities at that time were “walking” cities; most residents worked and shopped close to where they lived.
Around the beginning of the 1900s, electric streetcar (trolley) systems were built allowing cities to expand. Streetcars made it easy to travel greater distances to work, shop, and socialize in town. Real estate developers built streetcar lines to promote new suburban communities and many city dwellers (primarily White) moved to those new trolley suburbs.
Buses, which many commuters at the time considered to be a modern, comfortable, even luxurious replacement for rickety, uncomfortable trolleys soon began replacing streetcars. Buses were more flexible and less expensive to operate than streetcars. It also was a time when the personal automobile became commuters’ preferred mode of transportation. Most cities had completely eliminated their trolley systems by the 1960s.
Suburban population increases, along with creation of the modern interstate highway system, resulted in significant corresponding increases in single-occupancy personal transportation vehicles which began to create gridlocks strangling most large urban centers. Many cities began seeking ways to mitigate vehicle congestion. A common remedy was to essentially reconstruct the rail-based streetcars they previously had scrapped. Such systems are commonly called metros, subways, elevated railways, heavy rail, rapid rail, or underground railways.
U.S. public transportation is generally considered infamously underdeveloped compared to most other developed countries.
Washington, DC, began construction of the Washington Metro (or simply Metro) in 1969. It is a rapid transit system serving the Washington metropolitan area with six lines stretching over 188 km (117 mi) serving 91 stations (with 7 more currently under construction).
The New York City subway is one of the busiest rail systems in the world. Having opened in 1904, it is one of the world’s oldest public transit systems, one of the most used, and the one having the most stations with 472 stations in operation. The system has 28 routes or “services” (some of which share track or “lines” with other services) operating over 399 km (248 miles) of routes.
Seattle is both expanding its rail system and improving its bus system at the same time while linking the two systems together to make a much more useful system overall. It is one of the few U.S. cities where transit ridership is growing. Seattle is also somewhat unique due to the variety of transportation options it accommodates including King County Metro buses, Link Light Rail, and Sound Transit, which is a larger regional bus system connecting to other nearby cities, along with an extensive ferry system to numerous other locations including Sidney, British Columbia.
Shortly after taking office as mayor (1971-1975) of San Jose, CA, Norman Mineta created a Santa Clara County transportation committee, of which I was a member, to recommend policies to resolve the county’s deteriorating traffic-related problems. We ran simulations for a wide range of scenarios. It clearly showed that widening existing freeways or building additional ones would only move problems elsewhere in a perpetual whack-a-mole manner rather than ever being able to resolve them. It quickly became apparent that the optimum strategy would be to connect to the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system under construction at the time completing the loop around San Francisco Bay and to build a county-wide mass transit feeder system connecting to BART.
Our proposal was approved as a ballot issue but we were dependent on donations to publicize it. The auto industry ran a massive disinformation campaign discrediting the proposal and it was defeated. Now, over 50 years later, BART still remains incomplete, considerably more has been spent than the funding necessary for our proposal, and, in spite of nearly constant road construction, traffic and gridlock has constantly gotten worse. A minimal light rail system has recently been built and BART is being slowly extended into Santa Clara County (the so-called “Silicon Valley”) but not expected to fully connect into San Jose until 2034 at the earliest. There still isn’t any projected date to complete the BART loop around the SF Bay. The entire SF Bay Area has experienced higher than anticipated growth leading to auto congestion that now will be very difficult to relieve.
Numerous other urban centers are experiencing similar, or even worse, vehicle congestion and are either in the planning or development stage of regional transit systems. All of them are experiencing problems similar to those attempting to build either HSR or regional light rail systems in other areas of the country. Many such centers in the past developed bus-based systems due to their substantially lower cost than comparable rail systems. Most now realized they must move beyond buses to meet environmental goals and substantially increase distances and number of passengers served.
An initial step should be to immediately terminate all highway expansion beyond three lanes in either direction without first adding mass rail transit in the road separator area as is being done on the Washington, DC, Metro so as to preclude even further congestion deterioration.
There is no easy or even affordable solution in most areas. Major population centers are not able to totally tear down existing development and start over. City and regional planners are in the politically untenable position of experiencing increasing voter dissatisfaction but also knowing essentially any recommendation sufficient to result in even minor improvement will not be approved if submitted as a voter ballot measure.
The only viable long-term solutions will be costly and result in urban centers much different than what currently exist. At some point, it will have to done, there is no other answer.
That’s what I think, what about you?
 William Oliver Campbell is a U.S. film and television actor.
 Report Card For America’s Infrastructure: Overview Of Rail, American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), https://infrastructurereportcard.org/cat-item/rail/, 2022
 Passenger trains without a block signal system are federally limited to 95 km/h (59 mph). Trains without an automatic cab signal, automatic train stop, or automatic train control system may not exceed 130 km/h (79 mph). Since freight has priority on rail lines over passenger service, it now can take twice as long to travel on some routes as in the 1930s.
 Jones, Ryan Christopher. California’s Ambitious High-Speed Rail At A Crossroads, The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/13/us/california-high-speed-rail-newsom.html, 13 March 2022.
 Norman Yoshio Mineta was a U.S. politician who served as Mayor of San Jose, CA, and Secretary of Transportation as the only Democrat in President George W. Bush’s Cabinet.
 Kukura, Joe. BART To San Jose ‘Likely’ Delayed Until 2034, If We Should Even Live That Long, SFist, https://sfist.com/2022/02/18/bart-to-san-jose-likely-delayed-until-2034-if-we-should-even-live-that-long/, February 2022.