On Friday I had occasion to travel by train in the United States. I caught an Amtrak train — the #513 from Seattle to Portland, business class. It was that, or fly (I don't drive in the US), and I'm fed up with security theatre.
You can get beer on that train. In fact, there's a choice of microbrews (as well as the usual horse piss) in the galley.
I was gobsmacked by how slow and inefficient the process of catching the train in America feels, compared to even the ghastly suboptimization of Virgin or National Express in the UK, never mind Japan Rail. First you book the ticket and a seat. You have to present photo ID to claim a boarding card —like airline travel in the 1950s — an intrusive and annoying but not actually effective security measure. Then you check your bags — all but the two carry-ons you're allowed— not less than an hour before departure. For boarding, there's a long queue while all those folks who didn't think to book a seat present their tickets at the gate and are issued with seat allocations. Only then do folks get to go on board the train — which makes boarding it a half-hour torment rather than a rapid, relatively painless rush.
(Comparison with JR, on a Shinkansen 700 Nozomi express: you roll up 15 minutes ahead of departure, buy your ticket and reserve a seat at the booking office, and you'd better be waiting on the platform when the bullet train slides in because it's only going to stop for 90 seconds. But that's okay, they've got marks on the platform to show you where the doors will open and where to queue ...)
Back to the journey experience: the seats were fine — wide and comfortable in business class, with seatback power. The tickets were cheap by railway standards (even with a business class upgrade: $56 per person, one way), the galley was as good as can be expected on a rail service, certainly on a par with non-US equivalents, and the staff were friendly and helpful. However, the ride was so bumpy we were wondering if they'd outsourced track maintenance to RailTrack (in the bad, pre-Hatfield days). And the train was so slow it was almost surreal. It took three and a half hours to cover just 144 miles. A good thing the scenery was picturesque ... I had a lot of time to stare at it.
Finally, at the end of our journey we had to wait another 20 minutes for our baggage to arrive at the baggage office so we could claim it. So the total travel time was roughly 5 hours — because of the need to check and reclaim bags — on a 144 mile route.
In the UK, with a rail network even older than the US one, three and a half hours will take you from London to Newcastle — 302 miles — and a full five hours will get you to Edinburgh if not Aberdeen. I have no idea how far that'd take you in Japan, except that a 350 mile journey on the aformentioned Nozomi express took just two hours and four minutes!
There are many reasons why passenger rail is the unwanted stepchild of transport policy in the USA; a lack of suitable track signaling, priority given to freight over passenger services, routes laid out in the 1930s and earlier rather than between current centres of population and commerce, and so on. But despite understanding why, I find it really strange that in this day and age, a critical chunk of the USA's infrastructure barely rises to the level of third world quality.