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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.

However ...

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.



I suspect the answer is it is not critical.

There are lines in the US which are up to a reasonable standard (The South Shore Line in Indiana/Illinois is one), but Amtrak is kept alive because killing it would create too many complaints by people who think it is necessary (most of whom would never dream of using it).

The US passenger rail network is not critical, not with the competition from road and air, and since being taken over by the federal government in the 70s its become worse and worse.


We, and I am complicit only as an American in general being much too young to be complicit in actuality, sold ourselves short. We let some smart people rob us blind (and now decry them as "Robber Barons" even as we still thank them for their more philanthropic legacies). We let fashions and fads cloud our forethought. We let business interests and industry take forefront over passengers and service. We simply forgot, or worse intentionally dismantled, old contracts and old promises that included robust passenger service as a requirement in exchange for large tracts of public right of way.

We've let the rail lines be the decaying veins of industries that were already dying or diseased.

I can tell you, as a person who has grown up in a city whose neighborhoods are very much shaped by train tracks, and yet very few seem to see these tracks as little more than vestigial organs of some long ago age. We've let our car and plane industries sell us a future, which today is the present, where trolleys and trains are for the most part indeed products of a "bygone era". It turns out that we lost more than most of us still don't understand, much less care to think about, in buying into that "ideal". I've seen photographs of old passenger train stations within my hometown and I've been torn between tears and anger.

I can only hope that wisdom is on its way. Certainly some plans being offered for public debate have merit. Maybe someday...


Good grief. Amtrak has actually gotten worse since I rode it back in the early 1990s.


Even without going to Japan, you get fast train service in Europe. Paris-Lyon, the venerable and oldest fast train line in France gets you 260 miles in just 2 hours. You can do London-Paris in 2h15 (300 miles), at which point travelling by plane doesn't make sense (sure, the plane takes less than an hour going. Think you can get to Heathrow and from Roissy in less than an hour overall?)

A 144 miles trip? That's Paris-Lille, 1h trip. Better be there at least 5mn before, or you might have to walk the entire train to get to your seat (which, of course, is always at the other end of the train)


That's weird. Travelling on the New York - Boston Amtrak was never that bad, but they may have changed it recently. It sounds closer to the Eurostar experience but a lot worse!


In my region, the rail mainly exists to move freights that are not time-critical to central distribution hubs, where said freight is then stored or sent out via truck.

As you mentioned, the United States population centers underwent rapid change in the last seventy years - while nothing much in the way of new rail tracks were laid. Too many areas are under-served or effectively unserved by rail, especially passenger rail.
A part of it is a "Not In My Back Yard" attitude. The light rail spur in Denver won't be coming my way, providing me a low-cost transit alternative where I can read while going to work - not recommended while driving.
This is thanks to NIMBY politics from the very well-off township ten miles south of me, which limits the number of public transit buses per day and objected to light rail for the same reasons, which consisted (in the words of a town council member) of "opening our beautiful neighborhoods to undesirable elements". Mention was also made of property value impacts, the ultimate threat to suburban housing associations.

Combine this with the post-Depression era surge in personal vehicles, insanely subsidized gasoline prices, the accompanying interstate highway and later interstate freeway systems, and a historically founded (as Max @ 2 mentioned) distrust of the railroads and we have dug ourselves a nice little hole.

Public transit, of all types, is sub-par in the United States with occasional spots of adequacy. Unfortunately I think the largest reason for wretched public transport in the United States is that it is considered, at the same time, as limited to those who cannot afford a vehicle (the poor) as well as an urban affectation (green hipsters). What this says about the social and cultural structure of the United States I needn't spell out.

That said, I still want a personal jet-pack with a minimum fifty mile radius. I mean, really.


There was an article in Slate Magazine a few days ago which discussed this. Basically, rail was underfunded for a long time. It started to pick up, but freight picked up before passenger rail. The USA is a major primary producer and the train system is designed to service it.

I don't know if you've seen freight trains in the USA - they can be much, much, much longer than anything I've seen in the UK or Australia. They take a long time to start and a long time to stop and they're not particularly fast but they do reach their destination - eventually. Freight isn't fussy about bumpy tracks or shabby equipment. In fact, it's only somewhat-fussy about speed: bulk goods are sometimes stored on railway cars because it's cheaper to unload them as they're needed than to store them elsewhere. So a system designed for freight is one in which things just have to work well enough; in which trains may sit on sidings for long periods; in which cost is more important than speed.

Anyway, the system is presently optimised for freight rather than passengers. Making things better for rail passengers wouldn't just require a whole lot of investment that's superfluous for freight: some of the changes necessary for fast passenger trains to maintain a schedule are actually inconsistent with a cheap-and-cheerful bulk freight system. So, I guess the reason why USA trains aren't like Japanese ones is that the USA isn't like Japan.


Oops, missed the fact that you linked to the same article.


In the U.S., you only really ride the train to see how well we can screw up a perfectly good system. Once I took a train from San Jose to Anaheim. The train was about 3 hours late arriving, and we got into the last station well after it was scheduled to arrive, at stupid o'clock in the morning. No taxis or other public transit, so we had to walk a few miles to our hotel.

I later had the chance to ride the train in England, and even though the trains were older and the distances much shorter, I saw what could be if people cared.

We'll see if they change their opinions once gas runs even shorter.


Joe @7

Thing is many of the elements described, the photoID, the paper seat allocations, the checking of bags, the boarding process, etc. could all be done away with. That wouldn't only save time, it would save money.

Hell, turning up 15mins before the train is due is too long - 10 is the most I'd bother with. You turn up, buy a ticket at an automated machine, allocating a seat if really needed. You wait on the platform, schlep your bags onto the train when it arrives, stuffing them into various holes around or above the seat, or at the end of the carriage if they are large. At the other end you do the reverse. Trains have electronic displays above each seat stating reserved status, updated from a centralised system.

Sure the lines are ancient and need upgrading, but by dealing with the things you can easily and quickly manage you could cut 40+mins out of the journey time and a fair chunk out of the cost - increasing usage and giving you working capital to do the line upgrades.


So the US rail system is worse than the UK?
Bloody hell, that takes dedication!


Part of the reason the NW Cascade line is slow is because Amtrak doesn't actually own the rails.

They only have the stations and a few yard lines. It's really a bad situation, because the Cascades line has these really expensive, nice Italian train cars that can go up to 124 mph (max speed) and can turn while in curves. The low quality of the tracks, however, means they only run at around 76 mph or so.

I've ridden the line many times to visit family down in Oregon, and have been delayed due to freight trains and various other problems. I'm hoping that Amtrak will consider getting their own lines so that they can improve the service up here since in the NE corridor (where Amtrak owns most of the tracks), people have a better experience with rail service.


ahhh the joy of the Shinkansen.... on time, fast, clean, safe, efficient, friendly, helpful, great service... why would you consider not using the public system... in Australia, late, slow, dirty, dangerous, confused, aggressive, unhelpful, bad service...why would you consider using the public service... some clues the social engineers and policy & makers dont get! it appears


Amtrak in the NE corridor where, as others have noted, they own the tracks, is at least as good as anything in the UK. I'd certainly rate the Acela Express as better than anything in the UK, especially Vermin's horrible Pendolinos.

We more usually take the Regional trains though (as the Acela doesn't stop at Kingston, RI, the nearest station to the m-i-l) and whilst they do seem to troll along quite slowly at times, they are much more comfy than UK stock. Of course, that's an advantage of not being first: like the continental Europeans, the Americans learned not to adopt our far too small loading guage (that's the maximum size of the car bodies, rather than the distance between the rails).

For the Regional trains you don't need a seat reservation - in fact I don't think you can reserve on them. However Amtrak don't sell more tickets than there are seats, so no-one has to stand. To make this work, you have to buy a ticket for a specific train, but you can do this after the train has left its origin, indeed right before it arrives at your boarding station, and you can usually change your booking at no penalty. You can't do any of that in the UK, and as far as I am aware the Amtrak "walk-up" fare is the same as buying in advance, and is quite reasonable compared to the utter price gouging UK rail charges for "walk-up" long-distance tickets nowadays.

Yes, Amtrak do have this stupid requirement for photo ID when purchasing tickets in person (and boarding at larger stations) and I would suggest that compared to UK trains they seem overmanned - there seems to be one conductor for every 2-3 cars on the Amtrak Regionals as opposed to one per train in the UK. However, this could be viewed as another plus point for the US trains, and I've always found the Amtrak train crews very helpful and courteous.


Vermin's horrible Pendolinos.

What's wrong with them? Czech railways has some Pendolino trains, and after some teething problems, they are quite good for those who can afford the tickets. Too bad they can't run them faster. 150 kph max, I think. Suspension is excellent, the ride is very smooth.

Well, here in (f)Czechoslovakia, they sometimes sell more tickets than there are seats.. as the tickets are for the route, not the train.


Schmidt@15: I find the Virgin Pendolinos to be very uncomfortable - cramped, claustrophobic and a poor ride. To be fair, neither of those things are the fault of the Pendolino design itself, just inevitable in the UK implementation given our restricted loading guage and poor track quality.

There is a story that when Siemens first won a contract to supply commuter trains to one of the UK operators, they had to build a special test track in Germany to simulate the poor UK track.


Oh well, it really does seem like the US stopped existing for most purposes after the 1970ies.

Oil Refineries are from the 70ies
Power lines from the 70ies
Bridges and Highways are that old
New Orleans levees were that old
I think even the WTC was from the 70ies
(8 years after 9/11 nothing was built there ...)
Apollo was in the 60ies-70ies, all the 80ies had was a bad joke called the shuttle

This really reminds me of the Soviet Union and Eastern Germany, were a similar lack of any investment let to equally decrepit infrastructure and industry. Just that there were no private companies to hide some of the effects and of course, there was much less infrastructure to start with.

The difference between the two? In the east it was behind-the-scenes power mongering that let to bad allocations of resources and unqualified people in leading positions. In the west it were private companies threatening to cut jobs to make the government cut taxes (and cutting jobs anyway), leading to a situation in which the government simply doesn't have the means to fulfill its function. (Guess why people vote less and less since that time ...) Which then let to companies financing election campaigns and behind-the-scenes power mongering that let to bad allocations of resources and unqualified people in leading positions ...


If Amtrak can only solve this bu new high-speed lines, do it properly.

Broad Gauge.

Just meeting Brunel's standards would improve things.


Well, the rails in the US face another issue to passenger service as well: distance. You have to cross very large spaces with those rails which require a lot of maintenance, whereas planes can go as they please, throw the very well built American highway system and there just isn't the demand for rail travel that needs to be there for investment to flow.

But there is no excuse for a bad experience at a terminal. That's just poor policy and management. Unfortunately, it seems as is Americans have come to expect painfully bureaucratic transit systems where speed and efficiency are sacrificed for some false sense of security.


It is a shame how assbackwards our rail system is. Part of the problem is it's not been bombed to hell and back and then rebuilt like in Japan and France (but then why is British rail such an easy experience?). Another part is how it is strangled by the freight industry. And American's love their cars.

A yoga student of mine works for AMTRAK. He says they're upgrading equipment with some of the funds coming from the $8B the Obama administration. I hope they do something good with it. I rode the Acela and it was like riding a bus along the Khyber pass. Sad really, as I love trains. One of my favorite memories is getting lightly knackered on a train from London to Edinburgh.


Commuter rail systems are only economical in areas of high population density.

Outside of the NE Corridor, LA-SD, Frisco and the Pac NW, America is so empty that few Europeans outside the Russian Steppes can appreciate. For example, I just got back from a Superfund site in Kanas (an old contaminated lead mining area) and would drive for 10 miles and more without seeing a single building.

OTOH, Europe and Japan are crowded to an extreme few American ouside the NE corridor can understand. So it is no surprise that the only decent Amtrak service in America is along the DC-Boston axis.

Everyplace else in America, passenger trains simply can't compete with regional airlines or the personal automobile. While improved passenger service would be great (I loved the trains when I lived in Philly) it makes no economic sense to promote passenger train service in Flyover Country.


Sadly you hit the inverse of a "sweet spot" for Amtrak. Short runs (Orange County to LA or example) are wonderfully efficient with automated ticket machines and check-on on board (with an expensive buy on board option). The business class is fun, but a bit redundant. The cafe car is fine (high end convenience store food and reasonably good wine and beer) and window seats.

On the other hand long run sleepers are a joy as well, with lovely dining cars and reasonably nice accommodations.

One of the problems with Amtrak is that as a government program, the free market absolutists wish to kill, cutting funding enough to make it suboptimal but not enough to kill it. (but turning a blind eye to the immense subsidies to highways and automobiles).


Ian @ 13:

Shinkansen (or, actually, the operator JR lines) was privatized in the late 80s.


I discovered, after the Toronto Worldcon in 2003, that Canada is no better. I went to Union Station to get a ticket for Niagara, and was sternly instructed to turn up at the station at least one hour before the train was due to depart. Then we were made to wait in a line in the station concourse, the actual platform being off limits to unescorted passengers. When the train was ready to board, we were allowed on to the platform.

Railway lines modelling their operations on airlines. Madness.


Gasoline is not subsidized in the USA. In fact, it's heavily taxed, I believe the majority of the price is various taxes.

Whether the road system is subsidized is hard to determine; last time I was around a big argument about it, the outcome seemed to be that it was about a wash. There's lots of money flowing various direction, and it's hard to pin it all down, though. Excise taxes, license fees, tolls, and gas taxes seem to take in about as much money as road construction and maintenance spends.


The thing about Acela, however, is that it's a 125mph diesel-electric multiple unit that does a frequent, 100mph average speed express service that is corridorised with multiple stops to provide a commuter-like service over express distances, and it started a couple of years ago.

All of the features just stated were true of the first HST service down the Great Western. Indeed, the original HST operations on the Great Western basically defined the standard for this kind of service. And that was in 1976.

Of course, the HSTs are just coming up to their out of service date, and the planned replacement is this awful half-diesel-electric/half electric/but both halves underpowered horror from Hitachi. But there is a lesson here...the HST was a quick-and-dirty interim project that BREL and some of the BR execs came up with for the meantime before APT came in, and as an insurance policy. BREL set up a little skunkworks without telling too many people, set clear but ambitious incremental goals, and came up with a really excellent train. They called it the Intercity 125, but in reality they could go much faster than that...


DDB: Does that include the Interstates? ISTR that they were pretty much all built with Federal money.


I'm not familiar with West Coast Amtrak travel, but the Northeast Corridor (Washington to Boston) is nothing like that. It's very much like getting on a subway. You just get on, and the conductor comes by for your ticket once the train is underway. Of course, a lot of people use it for daily and business commutes in the Northeast. Rail is an important way to travel here. The New York area couldn't do without trains.


DDB --

Gasoline in the US is oddly less expensive than anywhere else, though.

This is a direct result of US policy, including foreign and military policy, what are presumably tacit understandings with large oil companies, and a direct and obvious side effect of the US hegemon being remarkably like a water empire only with oil instead of water as the monopolistic resource.

It's not enough to look at taxes and prices without looking at what sets the prices. (Anyone who wants to claim there's an unfettered market operating has to explain not just how the price is rigidly consistent across vendors ostensibly affiliated with different suppliers but why.)


Gasoline is not subsidized in the USA. In fact, it's heavily taxed, I believe the majority of the price is various taxes.

Heavily taxed. :D
It's very funny you call it that. So, what's the EU taxation level then? Ultra-extra-heavy taxation?
For the gasoline is three to four times more expensive in the 1€ ~ liter.


Yes, I would call the EU taxation level something like that. Per wiki, the tax in Germany, for example, is €1.22 per liter. I'm not sure what current gas prices are over there, it's been a few years, but that sounds like it's at least half of the cost.

In the US, per the same wiki article, the average tax in the US is around 47 cents a gallon. At the current two bucks or so we're seeing, that's around a quarter, and it hasn't been long since that was around a third of the price. In the US we think that's excessive, in Europe they think it's a good start.


Years ago, my wife and I thought it would be nice to take the train for a change when traveling from the San Francisco Bay area to our old home town of San Diego. It's about an eight hour drive in a car (around 450 miles), so we thought, hey, nice way to relax instead of stressing on I-5.

We were shocked to discover that what seems like it would be an obvious route required two days, and included a "bus bridge" in LA.

We drove.


Charles, the US has been trying to become a 3rd world country for years. Think about it. We've been voting for low taxes so we'll have a massive deficit, we owe every other country lots of money, we have no healthcare, and we have incredibly high levels of inequality and that's increasing. It's just that our train system got to 3rd world status first


FWIW I just took the train from Prague to Budapest. 7 hours for 644 km (according to the time table) = 400 miles more or less. Actually the train departed about 20 mins late in Prague and was a good 45 minutes late in Budapest. So it took me more like 8 hours to do the 400 mile journey (i.e. average 50mph/80kmh).

This is not _MUCH_ faster than Chalie's Seattle-Portland epic (40mph average). The track was definitely good though, the entire route was electrified and the trains were EuroCity expresses so allegedly this was good stuff. I travelled 2nd class so I cannot say how good first was - the 2nd class was OK for seats but lacked power outlets so I could only work for about 4 hours of the 7-8.

On the other hand I had no need to check in, no need to reserve or anything else. Oh and I crossed two international borders (Czech/Slovakia and Slovakia/Hungary) without even showing a passport thanks to Schengen.


Graydon at 29:
It's not enough to look at taxes and prices without looking at what sets the prices. (Anyone who wants to claim there's an unfettered market operating has to explain not just how the price is rigidly consistent across vendors ostensibly affiliated with different suppliers but why.)

If you are talking about the price of refined gasoline in a country or the price of crude oil then the reaosn why different oils sourced in different places and refined in different refineries costs more or less the same is that it is a commodity. Commodities are priced for most purchasers at the highest price a provider can get away with and since it is a market. It is worth noting that "light sweet" crude sells for more than "heavy sour" crude becazse the latter requires less effort to convert to saleable product.


Are you in Portland still? What are you here for? Did I miss it?



Doowop @21: on a long-range run, with a properly designed high speed rail network running on new-build track from city centre stations, rail loses out to planes only on journeys over about three hours (think: time to drive to airport, check in, clear security, board plane, fly for an hour, collect baggage, and drive into next town). When your trains run at 220mph, that's close to 700 miles. You can plausibly consider trains to be competitive with planes on runs of up to 4 hours (equivalent to spending time hanging around airport terminal, plus longer distance in flight), which gives you around 900 miles.

There are a lot of heavily populated corridors in the US that are under 1000 miles long, yes?

As for Seattle/Portland -- I flew it last year. 20 minutes in the air in a puddle-jumping turboprop. This isn't flyover country.


I'm curious if the baggage check is new security theatre, or older pointy-haired management "Make it like an airline!" We just don't have that on UK railways, and it isn't a problem at all; it makes things simpler.


Dan: I'm in Portland for R&R, and because it made more sense than flying Edinburgh-Seattle-Edinburgh, waiting five days, then flying Edinburgh-Baltimore-Edinburgh. (I'm doing Edinburgh-Seattle, pausing for some R&R in Portland, then going cross-country to Baltimore for Balticon next weekend, then home.)


Well, you picked a great time to be here. The weather has been beautiful. I hope you are enjoying the beer. I hope you are back on business sometime soon.


"...rail loses out to planes only on journeys over about three hours..."

For journeys less than three hours, neither beats the personal automobile for cost, flexibility and convenience.

Except in high population density areas where commuting by car on clogged freeways makes automobile travel too frustrating and time consuming.

Again, rail commuting only makes economic sense in areaas of high population density.


Well to me (living in Germany) the one point why I prefer my car to taking the train is the simple fact that I don't like people, most of all people I don't know who are nevertheless in close proximity to me. Which is why, for short-range trips, I also vastly prefer my bicycle to the Bus. Nevertheless, it has to be said, the train has some _huge_ advantages over the car, most of all that (usually) it doesn't get stuck in traffic jams. Doesn't make me like Deutsche Bahn, though. Even though they have fast trains.


Doowop: three hours in an automobile will get you a maximum of about 200 miles. Three hours in a train or plane will take you considerably further. You're making an apples/oranges comparison.

(Plus: I dislike driving. On the train, I can kick back, read a book, listen to music, or mess around on the internet. In a car, I'm on tenterhooks the whole time watching for Stupid Driver Tricks, unable to focus on much anything but driving and a little light background music. Boring!)


Michael@42: My main peeve regarding Deutsche Bahn concerns those new trains they have on regional routes. They don't have loos on board, and my main encounter with one was a late-night journey between Düsseldorf and Köln, taking over an hour. Now, what could a beer snob have *possibly* been doing in Düsseldorf that kept them there till late at night...


Charlie @37 and Doowop @41

For example: My wife and I travel from North Carolina to Pennsylvania several times a year to visit her parents. It's about 350 miles and the most direct route goes through Richmond, Washington DC, and Baltimore. We save a couple of hours flying instead of driving, but then we need to rent a car at the airport. A fast train from city center to city center might be even quicker, but it would still require long-term parking at one end and car rental at the other. I think we might well drive even if there was a regular express train.

My guess is that there is a fairly narrow window (~300-1000 miles) where train beats both personal automobile and aircraft, but even in the NE U.S., distances are great enough that a city center to city center rail link would still require 30-50 miles of driving at both ends for a great many people. That pushes the equation back in favor of the automobile.


Charlie@43 - I share your preference for trains. When I lived in Philly I loved being able to have a civilized commute consisting of a good cup of joe, a breakfast pastry and a good book. I went through a book a week riding those trains and haven't been able to read as much since. If I was riding the train today I could add video and internet to my activities.

However, even at a six hour drive the car makes more sense economically. I can drive 6 hours on a tank and a half of gas at a total cost of about $45. I have the freedom to drive where and when I want to without regard to anyone else's schedule and the flexiblity to go door to door on my journey without having to change my mode of transportation - like grabbing a taxi or renting a car.

Again, passenger trains only make economic sense in high population density areas like the NE USA, Western Europe and Japan.


I've ridden that line several times, from Los Angeles all the way to Seattle and then Canada. Once we were 18 hours late. I am not joking. If you think Seattle to Portland is bumpy, the line from Seattle to Vancouver, Canada has a stretch so bad they have to slow to a crawl, and it sways like riding a boat in choppy seas. As mentioned, the rail industry is getting a chunk of the bailout funds, and California voters passed a high speed rail initiative for a line between LA and SF, so someday I may see decent rail service in the US.


An interesting factoid from James Fallows article in the June 2001 Antlantic Monthly, "Freedom of the Skies" (see

Then, on the other end, more waits: for the bags, for the car or taxi from the airport to the home, office, meeting, or vacation site one is trying to reach. That final leg of the trip can be a minor factor for those traveling nonstop from one airline hub city to another—New York to Chicago, say, or Atlanta to Dallas. But it represents a large share of the total travel time for people either beginning or ending their journey somewhere other than in one of these hubs. For trips of 500 miles or less, which include the majority of air journeys, going by commercial airline is effectively no faster than traveling by car. "Think about it," the administrator of NASA, Daniel Goldin, said in a speech in 1998. "You are flying through the air at three hundred to five hundred miles per hour during the part of your trip that is in the commercial airplane. But your average speed from when you left your home to when you arrive at your destination is only fifty or sixty miles per hour."


Local commuter rail, at least around NYC area, is a lot worse. As my girlfriend puts it, "New Jersey Transit runs a train service that a third world country would be proud of". Part of the problem is that trains into NY Penn use tracks owned by Amtrak, so when the Amtrak train is late (never! Honest! *cough*) regular services get delayed. Every morning at Secaucus Transfer there's been a voice announcement telling me the 8:28 to NY Penn is running 10 minutes late. Well, duh, of course. And that's at 7:58 :-)

I've taken Amtrak once; NY to Baltimore, return, on a Saturday. About 190 miles between the stations, 2.5 hours each way, $173. No checked luggage, fortunately!

I brought Tori to England last year and we travelled on "The Misery Line" (Coast-2-Coast; aka London-Tilbury-Southend). For a commuter service the difference is amazing, and leaves NJTransit in the dust; proper announcements, displays at each station, reliability (on C2C?! Wow!) and so on.


Stephan @49: praise for London Commuter Rail. Wow!

Charlie @43 Doowop @various

Driving is better for a good deal more than 200 miles / 3 hours

Here in the S of France I figure I'll be covering about 350km in 3 hours (220 miles?). I regularly drive to Milan (3 hours for the 350km to the Tangenziale and then I park & ride). Total trip time is about 4 hours to almost any spot in reasonably central Milan. This is significantly quicker than I can get there by train (~5 hours from Ventimiglia on the border plus a good hour to get to Ventimiglia plus the requirement to change trains which means half an hour or more waiting for the connection). I have occasionally taken the train. I usually drive to Ventimiglia and park because it's under an hour to drive there.

I think that for this distance driving is almost certainly quicker than the train, slightly more expensiev but considerably more convenient (in that if I miss a train connection I'll be waiting hours for the next one). Air is much more expensive and not notably faster since it takes a while to get into Milan from the airport. Also much less convenient.

Going in other directions where Motorways/Tollways etc. exist it is much the same. It is quicker to fly to Barcelona than drive (c.640 km) but the 6 hour drive isn't really bad and, as noted above, you gain a lot on the flexibility and it is generally a good deal cheaper - at least it is when Man+Dog is converging on Barcelona for MWC. Until they build the improved TGV train tracks linking Nice to Aix and from Barcelona to whereever in France its always going to be quicker to drive than take the train. Right now I don't think I can do the journey in under about 12 hours by train.


@Feorag/44: really depends which of the local Deutsche Bahn services it is - even regional trains and "S-Bahn" kinds (not the urban lines, like in Berlin, but rural lines, connecting a city to the smaller cities and villages around it) are equipped with closed-circuit toilets.

And my only problem with Deutsche Bahn is that they are quite expensive - even for regular travelers and with the 50 % reduction you get with a "BahnCard". But speed and connections - that works well. E.g. Freiburg/Berlin (800 km) in 6.5 hours (~ 125 €/one way without reduction), or München/Hamburg (750 km) in 5.5 to 6 hours. The fastest ICE line (Frankfurt/Köln) even has speeds reaching 330 km/hour.

And the newer ICE trains have power outlets, relatively comfortable seats, and even in-train WLAN access. And with the new chief manager, maybe Deutsche Bahn acknowledges that it doesn't need to be an international freight corporation, but that it's main goal should be affordable transport in Europe.


Nick @45: "My guess is that there is a fairly narrow window (~300-1000 miles) where train beats both personal automobile and aircraft,"

That's 2.8 million square miles. You might think it's a narrow window but I wouldn't like to have clean it.


Dang Charlie, I was hoping you were here to do an event at Powell's or something similar. I'll eccho Dan's sentiment and say I look forward to seeing you here for something of that nature in the future.

Hope you enjoy your stay in Portland; the weather has been fantastic, so you're here at a perfect time.

(P.S. If you're a beer guy and haven't been to Higgin's Restaurant downtown, it's worth your time. They have a great selection of high-end beers, micro brews and Belgan's. I believe they were crowned as having the best beer menu in the states a few years back. They also have the best restaurant burger I've ever had!)


But, but... the whole point of going by train is surely that you don't have to check in, check your bags, all that stuff? You just turn up and get on. Otherwise there's no bloody point, you might as well fly.
I've been on train journeys in India that lasted two days and you didn't have to check bags.


Chris @54: you might think that, I'm sure the DHS couldn't possibly comment.


One of American passenger rail's problems is that it doesn't have a powerful supporting interest group or lobby. Congress is structured to hand out money and favors to interest groups who bring money to the table in the form of bribes^W campaign contributions. The road and airline economic ecosystems bring a huge amount of money to the table and are therefore able to write transportation policy in their own interests. Passenger rail is left to decay to third world standards because it doesn' have the lobbying power to outbid road and airline interests when congress auctions off transport policy legislation.


That's a very apt observation you've made that the US got stuck in the 1970s and started to go into decline about then. Some other telling indicators from the time period are that the balance of trade went permanently negative in 1972 and that this was the time when American elites decided that enriching government/military contractors was to be the top fiscal priority over and above productive public investment. Neither of these are signs of a healthy society.



Amtrak does "random" bag searches here and there to make the rail experience even more similar to flying. Some intercity bus operators also conduct routine searches of passengers and carried luggage. These procedure make the DHS very happy but also greatly please the airlines as they remove one of the major attractions of ground transport.

Only the deeply cynical would suggest that the airline industry lobbied the DHS to pressure surface transport outfits to bring passenger screening to buses and trains to reduce their scope for competition with air travel.


You should come to queensland and try the rail system here. Americas sounds futuristic by comparison.


It's just a (pretty bad) theory, but maybe the reason is just that some parts of the administration and the economy became so used to war, that this condition simply ran wild. Since companies first and foremost are interested in their continued existence (even though there are no physical people attached to it), an end of war (after WWI and WWII, the Korea War and Vietnam War) was unthinkable without at least some extremely large companies vanishing.

All I have is some very limit observations, but the German economy and government seems to have become severely corrupted in a similar way by the reunification. The largest corporation ever was founded then, it consisted of the whole of East German property (-> Treuhand). After 4 years or so, its value was a negative (!) 400 billion Deutschmarks. The industry of the most advanced country of the Warsaw pact was sold at a loss.(and later to at least 80% abandoned after recieving state money for investments that never happend) At the same time, business practices that can be summed up as outright fraud ran wild in the east. Politicians in the East were recruited from 3rd row western politicians, they were the least qualified politicians but received the highest salaries. At communal level the same applied. Sewage treatment facilities designed for 50000 people in an area with 40000 inhabitants (and declining, below 30000 these days) were build, billions were pumped into subsidies that vanished etc. etc. etc. Of course, there has never been a thorough investigation into the matter, maybe in a few decades when the perpetrators have died or at least left office.

It should not surprise you to find out, that institutionalized corruption is total corruption. Just as economic fraud has become the norm in Germany today, a constant state of War has become the norm for the USA. At first by chance during WWI, then getting out of the recession in WWII, finally forming the industrial-military-governmental complex in the Vietnam War.

Sorry about the verbosity, sometime I just can't help myself.


You know, the rigamarole you had to go through doesn't sound any worse than taking Horizon Air. They have a nice Canadian built Bombardier turboprop that that takes about 50 minutes with free Starbucks coffee if you get to the airport at the right time.


Hi charles
How come you dont drive int he states, I did seattle to portland a couple of years ago and its a beutiful drive withthe advantage that if you have the time you can detour halfway and drive up to Mt st Helens


i've taken that train, and the easy way to do it is to just show up 5 minutes before it leaves. the line is already gone, and they hustle you right on board and don't even ask to see ID. you'd think that wouldn't work if you had a carry-on, but the guy who got on after me had a *bicycle* and got to park it in the baggage car himself, but still made it on the train 10 seconds before it started moving.

mad props to the seattle cab driver who got me across town in 15 minutes. "can we get to the train station before 5?" "no." "for a 20 dollar tip can we get to the train station before 5?" "vroom!"

just a thought for next time, if you can skip the carry-on's.


Charlie, if you have a little more time in Portland, check out Esparza's in close-in southeast. (E 20th, if memory serves.) It's Tex-Mex cuisine, with buffalo and ostrich and the like as options, and the decor is like if someone slipped John Wayne some LSD. I love the place.


I've taken a very similar Amtrak train, on the West Coast, and had a similar experience, though I was forewarned about it, and had a mostly-mellow time once the train finally, finally left, although by that time night had fallen and we missed most of the scenery. Yeah, it's NOT as good as UK rail, which I've also taken. But our northeast Amtrak is tons better, as they said above, IMHO comparable. The difference is that that's one of the few regions with European kinds of density, that's been dense long enough to have built good trains through; good passenger rail in much of the West Coast is under plan.

Nornal-speed trains're slower than cars ouside the highest-density cities. That's because the car can usually take more direct routes, and more importantly, you spend decidedly less time getting to and from the train and waiting.

The US all downhill from the '70s? If you think the Internet's so useless, what're you doing hanging here? Or wasting time probably using an Intel- or AMD- designed chip in the computer you're using? Is the wider availability of Charlie's work just a potted plant?




R Lloyd @61: I'm left-handed, and have only half the visual field in my right eye. I only drive on the right side (that's the left) through sheer force of conditioned habit; trust me, you don't want to share the roads with me if I'm trying to grapple with the complexities of doing everything mirror-wise.

(That, and I hate driving anyway. See also "only half the visual field" -- it makes driving an exercise in paranoia.)

Jon @64: how fast is your home broadband? (Mine's 17mbps outgoing/3mbps incoming, because I like it that way -- bump to 50mbps due next year. There's a 50mbps carrier I could sign up with right now if I didn't hate their guts for other reasons.)

More seriously: large chunks of the USA's infrastructure are visibly decaying, and it's quite alarming to watch. Stuff which was originally much better than anywhere else in the world is now backwards and ramshackle. The money to keep it up to date got siphoned off into back pockets and diverted by special interests (notably the military industrial complex and the prison/penal complex). The results are ugly; and because infrastructure decay creeps up on you slowly most Americans don't even realize how bad it's got.


Sorry to have missed you in Portland, Charlie. It's rare I find myself within a couple thousand miles of you, as we apparently were on Saturday, but it may yet happen again.


Charlie @ 66

There was a story today on NPR in which a reporter spent a couple of months talking to air traffic controllers, and was even allowed into the tower on the shift of the ones she'd spent the most time with. Several of the controllers remarked how dilapidated their tower (at one of the New York airports) was. For instance, there was a red telephone with a big label on it saying "BLACK TELEPHONE" (not a joke), because they didn't have the money to buy a new black phone.

Here's the scary part: all the controllers said they much preferred their tower to the Long Island radar control office where they had spent time previously, because it was in much better shape.


#64: Public infrastructure != private R&D + tech progress.

#66: Any hostile DPI on that 50mbps? Around here the typical service is 5 to 25mbps (in) for HTTP and other approved protocols but between 320kbps and complete banning of BitTorrent, IPSEC, PPTP, VOIP, and other protocols the local TV distribution oligarchies/ISPs don't like. In the eyes of the government, this is how things should be as this is what the market has decided.

#68: The FAA has made several attempts to modernize its air traffic control infrastructure. All of them have been abject failures at improving ATC. Strangely, however, all of these attempts have succeeded in redistributing very large quantities of tax dollars into the pockets of government contractors.


This (the check-in delay problem) is about management and control not about efficiency.

When you trust people to get a ticket, move their luggage through the barrier (better yet no barrier, but never mind), and sort themselves out once they get on it, you can make the 'get on/off the train' system remarkably efficient. Because people do sort themselves out and self-organise (there's an increasing number of single queues for banks of cashpoints) - but they need a modicum of sociability and some small idea of what to do next in order to be able to do this.

Lifts and trolleys also help here, but if they are not there, hesitate at the top of the stairs with your luggage and pretty soon someone will offer to help. Hesitate with a kid in a buggy and you've got to fight the buggers off sometimes.

The alternative to trusting the passengers is to control them: check in their bags, monitor their position at all times with boarding passes and mandatory seat reservations. This gives the company more information, but it doesn't half take _ages_. Especially when you're schlepping down a narrow Pendolino looking for a seat but the reservations on each are a hard-to see scrolling ticker with the information at the end of the scroll. You bastard Branson.

If you want to see the bleeding edge limits of self-sorting human behaviour, spend an hour at Clapham Junction in the rush hour (about four times longer than any other passenger) and see how amazingly good people are at sorting themselves out. All the more to cheer given that we evolved on the pampas, where it's unlikely that half a million people crossed the water hole each day.

Don't look too smug about this, railfans: cars are also a very good way of exploiting the human ability to self-organise, and they lack the potential for command-and-control that badly-designed public transport systems contain. They're shit in other ways, mind.

ObLink: I have just discovered Dan Lockton's work on design and control, and he is a dude:


I've been living in Europe for 4 years now and take the train everywhere; it is just too easy and convenient. Yeah, it takes twice as long as the average series of commuter flights, but as others have noted, I can read, work, have a meal, et al, in relative comfort. If the trains were this nice and the system this well-run in the population corridors of the US, I believe many more people in the US would prefer it to cars or airplanes, especially with the incredibly stupid and worthless TSA-mandated harassment at airports.

When I tell family and friends how much better the average European train and train system is to the average Amtrak train, they literally don't believe me. A significant chunk of my extended family has worked the rails as a career since WW II; they like to believe that American exceptionalism extends to the trains. I commit heresy by implying otherwise, :-).

That said, the UK Trains: Of the four times I have taken the train from St. Pancras in London to Nottingham, THREE times they have stopped the train and made everyone get off short of the city, with no explanation (hell, with barely an apology). That includes one time late on a cold November night, where they stranded 200 or so of us at some small station 40 or 50 miles from Nottingham and told us the next train would along about 5:30am or so.

I managed to grab one of the three taxis available and negotiate a price the rest of the way into the city. 120 pounds - three times the cost of the train ticket.


The Deutsche Bahn also suffers from the "railway as an airline" syndrom. They brought in the former Lufthansa pricing team for their price system reform early this decade, and not understanding that travel per rail is a different product than travel per air they ruined some of the rail's advantages (i.e. instituded a general price rise coupled with discounts which come with so many conditions that you might as well book an air fare).

I drive a (for european stadards) rather large car with 4WD but since I've it's bivalent and can take LPG my total movement costs for my bimonthly "home" trip (ca. 740km) are less than a Deutsche Bahn ticket at 25% Bahncard discount and only slightly more than with a 50% discount. Coupled with the near Tokyo subway feel of even the Intercity express trains on Fridays (can't reserve a seat as I never know when I get off work far enough in advance) and the joys of downloadable audio content on the internet (radio reports, audiobooks etc.) as well as the other advantages of automobile travel mentioned above I've comt to prefer car travel. It also helps that most weekend traffic goes in the opposite direction as I'm that rare bird: working in the east and at home in the west.


how fast is your home broadband? (Mine's 17mbps outgoing/3mbps incoming, because I like it that way

If it's not a personal question: why? Most people would want more mbps incoming, so they could surf fast and download video or audio - do you produce and distribute a lot of media content?


Jessica, it looks like you got a very fuzzy lollipop that time. Last time a similar thing happened to me (massive delay at Ketting) the train's barkeep decided that everyone on board deserved one free drink from the bar. He probably cost the franchisee (whom I think had already realised they were going to lose it...) about £500 in sales that night, but he gave them the kind of goodwill that money can't buy.

And, for future reference, anyone who wants to bale out into a taxi (I've done that too) should know that most meters are going to be set at about two pounds a mile. So open your bidding at one pound fifty. Get a crowd together beforehand, and send the local in alone to haggle. Then all jump in once she's agreed the price.


#72: "The Deutsche Bahn also suffers from the 'railway as an airline' syndrome"

Wow, not that I could tell when I took it this past March and April (Koln-Amsterdam; then a few days later, Frankfurt-Basel). Quite the contrary, the whole experience was efficient to a practically unearthly degree.


As for Charlie's last line, "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", all I want to say to Charlie is, what on earth were you thinking when you wrote that? You've been here well over a dozen times; you know perfectly well that multiple "critical chunks" of our infrastructure "barely rise to the level of third world quality."


I am have to agree with you Charlie. The trail in the US suck. Period.

My wife and I decided to visit my parents in Georgia for Thanksgiving. We booked passage from Union Station in DC. We figured we'd splurge and get a sleeper cabin from DC to Atlanta. Boy were we in for a surprise. Just like Charlie said right before the departure there was a mass line of folks just sorta bum rushing the entry point. Our bags were not inspected, at all (although I believe they changed that recently). The train was dirty. I mean dirty. I am NOT a germaphobe (I eat food from street vendors in grubby 3rd world countries without pause - in fact they make some of the best food). But even I thought the cabin, and tiny shower room was filthy. Not to mention my wife - who is a germaphobe.
The temperature system did not work at all so it was freezing. To make matters worse when we got to Atlanta the station was in the middle of the city, with no transportation (besides taxis) to get anywhere. No rental car place, etc.

Having living in Japan for 3 years, traveled to the Korea, UK, Scotland, Belgium, Germany, and nearly all of Southeast Asia - as was totally embarrassed. I knew Amtrak was in a bad way, but I never knew it was that bad. its literally falling apart.

Patrick @ 76 I have to totally agree with you as well. The thing that bothers me the most though is that whenever the subject is brought up withing the congress, people object saying we can't do it, its too expensive, etc. In the same breath the laud the "can do" attitude of our nation as a whole. it just seems like anything that will help all the people as a whole are shot down out of hand. Its almost as if the people want to keep and artificial "class barrier" up, because it might mean the poor folks will get to pull themselves up the ladder a bit. Hmmm... I might be on to something here.



I mean their pricing/marketing department. Their "cheap" offers are on the same level as cheap airline tickets and come with as many strings attached, if I knew three weeks in advance that I was traveling from, say, Hamburg to München the fare by air would be cheaper or cost as much and would be less complicated as some of the "strings" force people to take odd/slow trains and mulltiple connections. The "full price" tickets that leave all the options to you have been elevated in price so often that their comparative advantage over travel by automobile has vanished.

The Deutsche Bahn used to have a fairly transparent pricing system but that's gone out through the window. Their pricing system is as intransparent as that of some rightly notorius cheap arlines and the strings they attach to their discounts are taking away many of the very advantages the product "rail" has over "air". For instance the fact that between cities an express train runs practically every hour, so if your appointment runs into overtime you simply catch the next. Binding your ticket to a particular train some weeks in advance destroys that advantage. Or the ability to work on your notebook. The "strings" mostly force you to take slower "non-intercity" or at least "non ICE" trains who not only take more time and force you to take multiple connections but also don't have the infrastructure (power socket, WLAN/UMTS connectivity) the Deutsche Bahn advertises in the very ads where they announce their "special" prices.

That said, in their organisation they are still rail-oriented, perhaps even too rigid and traditional. On any day but a friday travelling by Deutsche Bahn is likely to be pleasant and efficient, though some trains run late (not all of this the Bahn's fault).


I know my American cousins, about thirty years ago, were astonished by the speed of our trains.


The quality of major rail stations in the U.S. also varies widely. We've got some stations like Union Station in Chicago, Union Station in D.C. and 30th Street Station here in Philly that are rather pleasant. (I'm excluding Grand Central because it's more of a commuter rail station). There are others like Penn Station (Newark) and Penn Station (Baltimore) that are charming in a shabby sort of way, but don't offer the amenities of the nicer East Coast stations.

And then there's Penn Station (NY)-- plenty of amenities, but the building was clearly designed by someone who hates people and wants them to suffer. Low ceilings; restricted seating; difficult to tell which platform to use until the very last minute (at which point everyone rushes the train like a cattle call).

Seating is _not_ always guaranteed on the lower-price Northeast Corridor Amtrak trains. I've had to stand before.

For New York-to-Philly travel, the Dragon Bus is often an affordable alternative: Chinatown to Chinatown service, and they show wuxia movies.


Ray Bradbury loves trains, but I haven't aksed him lately.

I agree that the Northeast Corridor (BosWash megalopolis) has better service. I grew up with New York City being my Trantor, and famil in Philadelphia, friends in Boston and Wahington. My son did ride Los Angeles (lovely Union Station) to and from San Diego to see a girlfriend while early-teenager, with no complaints from him nor his parental units.

The American Empire has indeed collapsed, and my fellow citizens have had dust thrown in their eyes about it. Since they never directly voted for Empire (and didn't know that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Feith, et al had that in mind all along) they did not see the nature of the accelerated over-reach/crumble mechanism.

Funding the last gasp of Empire building took financial chicanery propped up by real estate bubble, and the whole world has known for 2 years otr so what that led to.

So there are many pockets of infrastructure dysfunction in FU2 (Former Empire #2, if USSR is FU1)? No surprise to me.

In an hour my son will drop me at Lincoln High School in Los Angeles to teach Algebra, Geometry, AP Statistics, and AP Calculus in a predominantly 2nd generation working class Latino neighborhood. The American public school system (I know Public and Private reverse meanings across the Atlantic) had also failed before end of empire. You, at least, got to your destination. Roughly half of American public school students do not make it to theirs. And they, too, have a bumpy ride.


David Dyer-Bennett@25:

Gasoline is not subsidized in the USA. In fact, it's heavily taxed, I believe the majority of the price is various taxes.

Leaving the question of subsidies aside, it's not true that the majority of the price is various taxes. I live in Los Angeles, where at the moment the cheapest gas is $2.35/gallon; however, the federal and state taxes on it are $0.639/gallon. And you can see from that taxes page that California has the highest gas taxes in the US.


ajay @73: I email large files to people, run a blog, want to eventually move this colo server in-house ... why wouldn't I want a fast outgoing connection?

(And 17mbps incoming over ADSL2 that is unthrottled and unmetered beats the living shit out of 50mbps over a cable loop with throttling and high contention ratios -- thank you Virgin -- as in, I get a significantly faster download rate 90% of the time.)

Patrick @76: I'm trying to be polite.


I was a little surprise recently to discover than Australia had built a rail link from Alice Springs to Darwin recently, and by recently I mean this decade. Construction started in 2001 and the line was finished in 2003. Freight and passenger services run on the line. Apparently there are still circumstances where it makes sense to build long distance trunk railway lines.


Doowop @21: Texas too. Don't forget that one of the major proposals for high speed rail in the last 20 years or so was the "Texas Triangle": Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Austin/San Antonio. Southwest Airlines got started here for a reason. Too bad it's Texas so it got killed off. Perry wanted to do something like that with the Trans-Texas Corridors, but managed to get everyone annoyed with it (big government=Republican hate; privatization=Democratic hate) Now that the Obama administration is funding high-speed rail projects they want to try the Triangle again.

Brett @84: Well, rail is really good for freight and Darwin seems to be an important port, so I'm just surprised they didn't build it sooner. (Though really, Australia is kinda late with rail. Until the 60s and 70s they don't seem to have had any continuous links anywhere)


truth is life@84:

Part of the problem the Aussies had was that each colonial (now state) government chose a different rail gauge from their neighbours back in the 19th century before they federated.

So the real story of recent rail development in Oz is that they've undertaken a massive regauging of their main lines over the last few decades. This included tearing up the original narrow-gauge "Ghan" from Adelaide to Alice and re-laying it at standard gauge on a somewhat different route, *before* they extended it up to Darwin.


Re Darwin / Alice - not all railways are the same. Long-distance Aussie ones are crazily slow, single track, with low traffic. Hence they can cope with really big signal blocks and a very small plate gang keeping the permanent way up to scratch. A TGV line, not so much - permanent way needs a lot of Frenchmen with power tools, a lot of power, a lot of cable runs, and a lot of mips.

The lesson of high-speed rail in the C20th (and the GWR in the C19th) is 'It's the permanent way, stupid.' If you have ten billion quid to spare, you can upgrade old wavy track with Pendolinos and a whole new signalling system, and you'll knock its top speed up from 110mph to 125. But there you stall: you've topped out and in order to go faster, you'd need to build a new line. But you can't afford this, because you just spent all the money on the upgrade. You bastard Branson.


"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."

It's not critical. Gas is cheap, so we ship everything by truck instead of by rail.

Amtrak service in the northeast (New York and environs) is much better, because Amtrak owns the tracks, unlike in the West, where the freight companies own the tracks, and frequently delay passenger trains.


@87: The Japanese shinkansen stops running between midnight and 06:00 every day. That's when repair works are carried out (absent earthquakes and other accidental damage to the permanent way). The track carries no freight traffic, just passengers but it still requires a lot of maintenance as it doesn't carry any slow traffic at all.

Next up for Japan, while they continue to extend the shinkansen network north to Sapporo and south to Nagasaki, is to replace the at-capacity section of shinkansen between Tokyo and Osaka with high-speed maglev with the first-generation services running at 500km/hr. They apparently have plans to eventually develop supersonic maglev trains.


@87: Damage to tracks goes up with the 4th power of speed.

@89: And train track is fabulously expensive, especially with the dramatic rise in the cost of cement and steel in the past half decade.

BART was looking to expand their service to Silicon Valley, using "high speed rail" (average speed 90-120mph). A decade ago, it was going to cost them 120 megadollars per mile of track to lay that line, and with the rise in construction costs, it would be at least a quarter gigabuck per mile.

High speed lines cannot have grade crossings. All crossings must be by bridges: either for the road or the rail line. When trains are going at speeds where they're going to take 10 or so miles to stop, any vehicle stuck on the rail lines becomes a death trap for everyone involved. Presuming the train operators eyes are 12 feet above the ground, the horizon is about 4 miles away - if you see it, you can't stop in time to avoid collision.

Freight lines run about 1-5 megadollars per mile of track. Urban light rail runs around 20-40 megabucks/mile and that's electrified (go to the higher end of the scale if you're including land acquisition costs).

I stood for election last year for a position that's related to transportation (I lost), and the costs involved in rail are breathtakingly huge. I love rail, and I'd love to see a lot more of it. Sadly, that's not going to happen because it just isn't economical. It wasn't economical back in the 19th Century either, because they could only succeed with massive government subsidies and scandals like Credit Mobilier.


Commuter rail can be better than Amtrak, mostly because it's at the local/regional level, where people can complain to the management much more easily. Also, at that level, the commuter system may actually own the tracks, and get priority over freight.

Amtrak, being run partly by politicians, seems to get the short end of everything. They (and the USPS) are expected to make money without having income enough to keep equipment running, or having enough people to do the work, and they have to explain every decision to those same politicians who refuse to fund them.

(Amtrak's on-time record is sometimes more like 'if it's on time, it's a record'. I've heard unflattering stories about Amtrak from my commuter-line conductors, who used to work for it.)


"Gas is cheap, so we ship everything by truck instead of by rail."

Yeah, because that attitude's not going to come back to bite anybody on the ass a few years down the line.


I wrote a long, furious para about Bush broadband fail and had to delete it it was so long and furious. Let's just say I concede your point, until Obama has leisure to get around to it after so many bigger broken things. But my personal broadband's comparable to yours.

You saw Unscrubbed America, Charlie. The NE's also different on this point. Not so many rich people travel by rail outside the NE, so not so many businesses make an effort to wash on the rail side; some look on the tracks themselves as even being the wrong side of the tracks, as we say. Nor do Amtrak budgets and employee enthusiasm stretch to much cleaning outside S. CA, where there's a fetish for it. And the tracks mostly see freight crossing them, so why bother? Standards for rust are much looser. Is it really any better than the Tube? At least we don't have to break modern labor standards to rebuild our rails if they break!

Why should we spend so much money on a system that's wrong for us outside dense bits? Rail only makes sense in dense spots. Our Texas politicians like to talk about high-speed passenger rail, and I'm sure they don't mind the idea of more money going to Texas, but I tend to feel the state's not really dense enough yet for it to make sense in reality. The biggest cities are already dense enough to have rapid transit rail, and Austin's starting to, but the state's still mostly nothing like the coasts, density-wise.

And, no, war and prison-building haven't displaced everything. You've been lucky in the UK that no party's managed to buy part of the electorate by financing half the budget on debt and cutting taxes. So, we do everything, whether or not we can afford it. Fiscal failure'll only happen after the Boomers're mostly dead, not now. Instead, you have less privacy, lucky us both....


Tangurena: the 19thC/early 20thC economic model for railway development was for large corporations, later governments, to build a rail line to "somewhere" and then speculate in urban development at the end of the line to recoup the cost. In the mid-20thC there was a strong ideological push away from government speculating in real estate, which is why Auckland (where I now live) has only half a rail network, plus a paper loop through the other side of town that dates from the 1950s.

Speaking of Australian rail, there's an interesting example in that. Sydney to Melbourne is the 3rd or 4th(?) busiest domestic air route in the world -- some millions of passenger movements per year. Both airports are irritating to get to. It takes 10 hours to drive (110 km/h speed limits, enforced within 30km/h on pain of loosing your licence and criminal convictions). A standard TGV-style train could do that route in 3 hours, between stations that are both smack dab in the middle of town. It would slaughter the air service if they ever built it. And that's between two basically isolated urban areas -- I laughed out loud at the comment above about not seeing a building for ten miles. On the Hay plains, equidistant between Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide and in the most populated corner of Oz, there's a stretch of 100 miles with no buildings.


Chris L: Just to add something to your point -

Melbourne's main airport is indeed a pain to get to and it used to be worse. The freeway (motorway) was too narrow and the city end was a bit of a mess. Now, one solution would have been to put a rail line in - I mean, you've already got the land to do it, running all the way along the freeway. For some reason they decided to expand the freeway instead, fair enough, but they did so by privatising the damn thing and one of the conditions of the sale was that the government would not allow a competing rail link. So now you have to pay to drive on a freeway built (mostly) with public funds and park near the (privatised) airport at really quite extravagant rates. But at least there's none of this nonsense about public goods being in public hands.


Charlie, I'm surprised that you were surprised by how bad the US rail system is. Was the rail trip part of some research for a story, like Miriam crossing the US in Merchants IV? As others have noted, rail in the US is primarily for freight. Amtrack has been consistently starved of funds by Congress. For most of the US, passenger rail travel makes no sense compared to air travel, given the distances. Most tracks are single lines, requiring sidings for passing. If you want to travel shortish distances in the US, and you don't want to drive, take a coach. We've progressed beyond Greyhound. Even in the UK, the coach service is quite good, slower than the train, but much, much cheaper.
If you don't drive, how did you get to see the sights near Portland - Mt. Hood, Columbia Gorge?


"Both airports are irritating to get to."
No way - Sydney Kingsford Smith is easy and fun to get to - as easy as anywhere else in Sydney, that is. It's living under the flight path which is irritating, which is a shame, because that's essentially central Sydney.

UK coaches are not always slower than trains - it depends where you're going. They are consistently less pleasant, though.


A public good is a technical term in economics. Rail transport is actually a private good as you can be required to pay the track owner for each use.


Robert Sneddon @89 >

It's good to see the Japanese haven't given up on the 21st century, even if most of the West has. You'll notice that the mantra that greets anything in the public sphere here that is innovative, ambitious or audacious is it can't done. It will cost to much. We used to be inspired by such things.


PJ @91, here in NoVA, the commuter rail runs on the same tracks Amtrak does, and the tracks are owned by CSX. Freight frequently gets priority. I live two blocks from the tracks and a small rail yard and I like hearing the trains, but a lot of people don't.


You had no way to know this, because Amtrak gives out infrmation to passengers on a strict need-to-know basis, but all the hullabaloo about reserved seating is inflicted ONLY on those who upgrade to business or first class.

Coach class on Amtrak is more like you describe: Show up, buy a ticket (from plentiful kiosks) walk to the appropriate track, choose your seat, and go.

That's right: Upgraded classes are LESS convenient for the traveler. For the $56 bucks, you were required to get a reserved seat, they caught you in the maws of the baggage monster (I don't think anyone would have stopped a coach class passenger from rolling in a 3rd or 4th piece of luggage), and if you had decided to change seats because that seat three rows up across the aisle looked more comfortable and convenient, you'd be out of luck, most likely, because on most Amtrak trains, a snarly conductor would come by and bark at you to get back in your seat.

Oh, and they'd probably go fetch you lunch in first class, but wouldn't you rather do that yourself?


I ride the Amtrak Cascades route between Portland (well, Albany, really) and Seattle a couple of times a month, and I feel compelled to add two points in its defense:

1. As others have pointed out, the fact that the freight companies own the rails can be blamed for virtually all of the pokeyness on this route.

2. As slow as it can be, it still beats the heck out of sitting stalled in bumper-to-bumper traffic somewhere around Tacoma for hours, a situation I find myself in virtually every time I think, "Oh, heck, I'll just drive it this time." Traffic on Interstate 5 has become so congested that what ought to be a four-hour trip can take six, eight or (in one nightmarish case) 11 hours. At least when the train is stopped, you can still enjoy a frosty adult beverage, read a good book, catch a nap or use the toilet.


Chris@97: Kingsford Smith is accessible via either: congested motorways (the M5 comes to a near-halt several times a day, the Eastern distributor isn't much better, both are tolled), the maze of 19th-century backstreets in the Inner West, or a train line with an airport-stops gate charge of $14 per person. There's no bus service, and no long-term parking that costs less than buying a new car.

The only place in Sydney worse to get to is, um, let me think... maybe the northern beaches. But they're not exactly a major hub, are they?


#84 re Deutsche Bahn pricing: sounds like yield management, same as airlines, it's about making money not transporting people. (I wrote some code when I worked for Eurostar to get pricing out of DB. It never went live because the French were unhappy the data was being retrieved by the British. Fun times).

Australia built the 1420km Darwin to Alice Springs line for AUD 1.3 billion... which was LESS than the AUD 2.4 billion it cost to build the 13km of new track in Sydney opened this year with a whole 3 new stations (and 2 reworked ones at either end. This is the Epping to Chatswood link).


Er, Steve, you realise the Epping to Chatswood line was almost exclusively drilled through solid rock, right?


#105 you want me to spoil a good story with *facts*?

The reason it was drilled through rock was because the govt didn't have the gumption to build a bridge across the river and through the national park and upset a few people. Instead they built a tunnel that's very expensive, too steep for the Tangaras, isn't very useful because they couldn't afford to extend it to Paramatta, oh... and if a train breaks down in there they don't know what they're going to do. Seriously.


Having lived beside that national park, I glad there isn't a bridge through it. And the same for all other green spaces in cities.

The failure to add an extra 500m to the end of the Carlingford line to complete the loop was, I agree, pathetic.


Amtrak also runs from Seattle to Vancouver, British Columbia, once a day. Plans to run a second trip per day have run afoul of the Canadian government's reluctance to pay $1500 for customs inspections:

I initially learned to drive on the left in Ireland, but have spent the last 20 years driving on the right in the States. I personally never had any difficulty switching from one side to the other—except when extremely jetlagged—but I know several people who find it enormously stressful. If I had only half the visual field in one eye, like Charlie, I'd be reluctant to switch sides. I find it easy enough to orient myself so that the lane divider is at the correct position.

When I was a kid, my father often brought his Irish car over to mainland Europe on the car ferries. A right-hand drive car driving on the right is doubly tricky. It didn't seem to bother him too much, but I don't think my mother ever tried it.


UK Comparison of Croydon to Edinburgh if Charlie invites me over for the weekend:

By car ( is 438 miles/7h42m at approx 30mpg and £4.50 per gallon fuel = approx £65. Add an hour or two for traffic and loo breaks. Total £70/10h

By train ( is £110 one way or, £180 return and 5h30m journey time with 2 changes. Total £110/6h

By plane ( £249 1h30m from London City Airport to Edinburgh - plus estimated 2 hours and £20 to get to and from the airports. Total £270/3h30m


#107 Chris, I think green space is lovely, but at some point in a city of 4 million spread across a very large area people you need to make some tough calls and bulldoze a bunch of it so those people can move around in a more environmentally sustainable fashion. Very few places lose value because they have accessible public transport.

Somewhat back on topic, but not much: I always found public transport in the UK (specifically London) to be quite good, far better than most of the locals were whinging about, but I hadn't had a lifetime of it, only 3 years.


Excuse me - I take the National Express East Anglia all the time from Wivenhoe to London Liverpool street and I find the service prompt and efficient.

The only downside is that they charge way too much. Honestly, the price is so disgustingly expensive I cringe everytime I hand over my debit card. We're talking 30 pounds (sorry, I can't get my laptop to do the pounds symbol) - anyway, 30 pounds for an uncapped return ticket. That means you can use the return bit for a whole month, but you aren't allowed to travel at peak hours.

The funny thing is that there are no barriers at my tiny local station, and they never check your tickets at LLS. I have been so tempted on numerous occasions to just travel without a ticket. But you always know that the one time you do it, will be the one time you're caught by the transport police. And I already have a criminal record which I don't want to add too... so meh, just have to grimace and bare it.


TBR: The Deutsche Bahn also suffers from the "railway as an airline" syndrom. They brought in the former Lufthansa pricing team for their price system reform early this decade

That's one of my biggest beefs with the Deutsche Bahn. I like to go by train, and probably the best thing about it when I used the trains a lot in the 80s and 90s was that you showed up at the train station, got a ticket, and took the next train available. Anything interesting on route, get off the train, explore, then take the next one to your original destination.

Trains are still going every hour, and in theory you can still do it, and it was already pretty expensive back then (far less expensive than owning a car, though), but they are using the whole power of marketing to make it seem like the gold-plated luxury option that no marginally sane person would take. E.g., they don't advertise, "Nuremberg-Berlin, 81 Euros (but ask us for up to 66% discount on selected trains)", but instead "Nuremberg-Berlin, 29 Euros, now isn't that great (unless you cannot book four weeks ahead or don't care if you are going Saturday or Tuesday, or any other arbitrary thing, in which case you are a loser who has to pay triple fare)".

In addition to this, they push online ticket buying as the best thing since sliced bread, but there doesn't seem to be a way to buy a ticket unless you have a credit card in your own name.

If you are short on money, lack a credit card and need to be flexible, you better rent a car.


It may be a first, but I find myself agreeing with Patrick Nielsen Hayden and against Charles Stross, in PNH writing: "that multiple 'critical chunks' of our infrastructure 'barely rise to the level of third world quality.'"

I'm acutely aware of one subsystem, namely the public education infrastructure. Here in California, we have roughly 6,000,000 students in the K-12 system (Kindergarten through 12th grade, i.e. primary and secondary school). I've mentioned here before that I consider the urban public education infrastructure to be barely third world quality.

Tuesday 19 May 2009 the voters of California soundly defeated emergency measures to reduce the state deficit from $21,300,000,000 to a mere $15,000,000,000. Today's headline on p.A13 of the Los Angeles Times: "Schools may lose $5.3 billion." Subhead: "Districts across the state brace for massive cuts likely to force further layoffs, bigger classes, longer summer."

I am 3 weeks away from completing my requirements for a California Secondary School Single Subject Mathematics Teaching Credential. This follows 4 years of substitute teaching and 2 years in a College of Education. These 3 weeks are at the predominantly 2nd generation Latino working class Abraham Lincoln High School in Los Angeles, where I'm teaching Algebra, Geometry, AP Statistics, and AP Calculus. Sep-Dec 2008 I taught Chemistry, Biology, Anatomy & PHysiology at the predominatly African-American Nia Charter School in Altadena. There are no summer teaching jobs to be had. I am hoping to teach Math at some high school somewhere in September 2009, and get a paycheck Oct 2009. But is that feasible now? Will I be paid in IOUs? Scrip? Monopoly money? Second Life money? Dungeons & Dragons gold?

By the way, yay Hubble Space Telescope. But the USA will soon need the Russians to get people to the International Space Station. "If we can put a man on the Moon, why can't we put a man on the Moon?"

China and India have their own problems, but intend to colonize the Moon. So who's 3rd world here?

Okay, got to go teach "Area and Volume of Spheres" now in Geometry. I have a golf ball, tennis ball, baseball, softball, volleyball, and Soccer ball for them to play with and measure. If this were the 3rd world, I might also have a jai lai ball, a cricket ball, and an Olympic basketball. But the formulae are the same...


The Federal Railroad Administration's idiosyncratic standards and the Buy America act are two showstopper obstacles preventing the US from having a decent passenger rail service where it would normally be economical to do so. The former requires trains that are 40% heavier than standard, which means the American train operators are the only customer for a compliant model. The latter prevents Amtrak from just buying a (mostly) off-the-rack consist from Hitachi and slapping it on the rails.

Furthermore, whenever a transit provider completes a procurement action subject to the BAA, the loser almost invariably sues. (I'm not going to name names here, but one does come to mind in front of all others.)

On the UK side, I don't find UK trains all that bad when you're actually on them -- my primary complaint is the arcane pricing. (I've mostly taken Virgin and GNER in the north and Worst Great Western in the southwest.)


It takes two to three hours to make a public-transit journey from south San Jose to San Francisco. That's more or less sixty miles.

Public Transportation in California, at least, is an absolute joke.


Robin @109: those figures are out of whack. Last time I flew LCY-EDI, the tickets cost £110 per adult; flight time was 80 minutes, checkin at LCY closes 15 minutes before departure, taxi fare and time into Edinburgh city centre is 30 minutes/£18. So we're looking at £ 130 and call it 3 hours, not £270/3:30.

Driving Croydon/EDI ... been there, done that (at least: Heathrow to Edinburgh, don't ask why). It took roughly 10 hours (with three drivers alternating). Unless you do it at night a good chunk of that is going to be over rush hour (rush hour on the A1(M) around Newcastle is especially yummy) and single carriageway roads (you can do Croydon to EDI via motorway, but only if you add in a 80 mile diversion up the M6/M72/M8 which will actually add an hour to your journey time.

Train: you shouldn't be making two changes -- you're taking into account getting from Croydon into central London (which you just exempted from the airline fare). The real rail schedule from central London to Edinburgh is 4:30 hours and zero stops, up the East Coast Main Line; price will vary between £30 and £200 depending on how and when you book the ticket(s).


Back to 'how to get to Botany Bay' [no, not that way]:

"maze of 19th-century backstreets in the Inner West"

That's the way that I know. Works for me.


Chris W: You must be a native Sydneysider then. "Oh noes, a main road, I must immediately turn down this narrow side street. That's sure to be quicker". I used to work for a guy who wouldn't drive down Paramata Rd to find an address on Paramata Rd. Seriously.

Southern Hemisphere thread-jack FTW :)


Having been to Parramatta Rd, I think that's entirely understandable and more than rational.


This was an interesting thread.

I'm in Terminal 5 at JFK right now. Got to the airport 45 minutes before a Jetblue flight that will take about 90 minutes. (The airline budgets 70; 90 has been my worst-case experience.) Security theater is what it is, but the newly-designed terminal here makes it fast, even on the first morning of a long holiday weekend. And I paid $75 for the ticket ... yesterday. That's much cheaper than the Acela, or any equivalent European rail trip that I've taken.

Transport on this end not an issue: when you're going from Queens to Cambridge, Penn and South stations are not much more convenient than Logan and JFK, even if you take public transport on both ends.

My point? Simply that were I conducting a cost-benefit analysis, there is a lot to be said for improving the capacity of the air system. Now, that doesn't take carbon emission into account, and it should. Nor is it to dispute that much U.S. infrastructure is quite rickety --- although, strangely, Canada and Mexico suffer from the same problem, even adjusting for the two countries' income level. (Compare Mexico to China or Turkey. Is there a North American disease?) And it certainly isn't to say that air transport in the U.S. doesn't need more public investment --- I stopped flying to Philly in '06 when the air traffic system suffered a complete nervous breakdown and the Bush Administration let U.S. Airways grab a monopoly on the Boston route.

It is simply to say that high-speed rail is not the no-brainer that this thread makes it out to be, even in a densely-populated area for a 210-mile haul. Would a 70-minute HST between Manhattan and downtown Boston be all that much better than a 115-minute air run (including airport time) between JFK and Logan given the difference in public investment needed to accomplish each goal? I don't know. But neither does anyone here, unless you've run a detailed analysis that I wish you'd make public already.

(I won't talk driving. I really like to drive long distances. I find it very Zen, when it isn't like an adrenalin-filled video game in which you really can die. But that's an idiosyncratic issue, a matter of taste, like Charlie's equivalent dislike of security checks.)


Noel: you may also have missed that I quite dislike driving. (Having a detached retina that's misdiagnosed over a period of a month, leading to your blind spot expanding slowly, and a number of near-misses, really shakes your confidence in your own situational awareness; for me, driving is a perpetual exercise in paranoid vigilance.)


Noel @120: the difference in public investment may not be as big as you make out, if you think about the hidden subsidies that airports get: dedicated road and rail routes to and from, shite real estate values in the flight path, unregulated air pollution from planes (that last is a massive elephant in the room for all sorts of emissions scenarios).

Anyway, you say "public investment" like it's a bad thing...


Chris@122: you make two points, one of which I agree with, one of which is a head-scratcher.

You point out that air travel is subsidized. Of course it is. That won't change. The question is whether more money spent on getting air up to snuff would get the country more transport bang for the buck than building high speed rail lines. In other words, what's the marginal social return? That I do not know; if you do, I'd love to see the data.

You also said that I alluded that "public investment" was a bad thing. Chris, I have a relatively large internet footnote, so you can pretty easily find out my priors on public spending. Re-read the comment --- there's nothing even approaching skepticism towards public spending, let alone hostility. You're reading into my tone what you expect to read, not what's there.

I've done that myself; it seems to be a hazard of internet communication.

Anyway, if you want to see me expressing real skepticism about a rail project, and not just a desire for more data, see this, this, this, this, this, this, and this.


I'm not a Syndeysider, but the guy who usually picks me up from / drops me off at the airport is.

As for the Parrammatta Road, I love it - it's like the retail / wholesale spectrum as laid out in one dimension for human consumption. The anarchist bookshop, for example, is past the block of boho furniture, opposite the block of bridegrooms dresses, but a couple of thing-categories in from the drum kits. If you get to the row of 6-cylinder car franchisees, you've gone waaay too far and should go back.


Chris, don't you realise only poofters and woman drive 6-cylinders, maaaate? Real men drive V8 utes with nothing in the load tray except a slab of horrible beer. Mate.

I agree with you about Parramatta Rd. The section on either side of Johnson St must have the highest concentration of guitar shops in Australia.


There's a stack of army-surplus shops as well, several of which are Nazi hangouts.


Gasoline is not subsidized in the USA. In fact, it's heavily taxed, I believe the majority of the price is various taxes.

Whether the road system is subsidized is hard to determine; last time I was around a big argument about it, the outcome seemed to be that it was about a wash.

The Texas Dept of Transportation estimates that the gas tax would need to be raised to $2.22 a gallon to make roads pay for themselves that way. See


Say, Charlie, what happened to my response to Chris L.? It disappeared into "held for moderation" purgatory.

Chris@122: substantive point in purgatory. Non-substantive point is that you really can't tell me that I even remotely implied that public investment is a bad thing. You're seeing what you expect to see, not what's there.

Look up my internet footprint if you have doubts. My priors ain't hard to find.


Hmm - I wonder if we can chart the apogee of rail development according to a simple Micawberesque formale. When it raised the land values near to the permanent way, result = happiness. When it depressed them, result = misery. Before you've even thought about the concrete, you have to buy a strip of land about 100m wide, between point A and point. Sometimes it's cheaper to tunnel, which tells you how expensive it is.

OK, yr TGV station becomes a bright spot of property bubble, but there's an awful lot of suburb to speed through to get to it and by definition, a TGV is not a stopping service. In fact, I strongly suspect that Stratford and Ashford have been given stopping services on HS1 primarily to meet a property value driven cost-benefit analysis.

Conventional railways went from A to Z but stopped along the way. TGVs are essentially airports in economic terms, but need stuff to be built on the intervening line, which sees no benefit.

Nevertheless, given land values, and the near-total absence of people along the way, Sydney/Melbourne is a no-brainer: the US east coast may have to await a catastrophic rise in the price of avgas. Which would also involve a concommitant rise in the price of diesel, making it unattainable ever. Nuclear-powered boring machines are the way to go, obviously.


PS - the Paramata Road (locals give it about two and and half syllables, but I have no idea how to do this) contains the coolest shop in the Southern Hemisphere, perhaps the world - Deus Ex Machina:


The real problem is impending peak oil. That's going to make us wish (many times over) that Ike had built out a massive rail transit system in the 1950s rather than highways. Ah well.

And I would argue that a lot of the distances in the U.S. are ideal for really high-speed rail (save for the coast-to-coast hauls). Though what I'd really like to see is a maglev to make us feel all sci-fi. . . .

hope you enjoyed Balticon, Charlie--!


Chris@130: You mean Parrmaddr? Dunno if I count as a local, I lived on Johnston St in Annandale for six months. But I'm a kiwi so I get bonus points on syllable removal.


Chris L - it's a small world (though I wouldn't want to have to paint it). When in Oz I stay on Annandale St, one road along.

We now return you to Charlie's blog comments.


Noel: this may be a classic case of irony-detection failure. Pretty common when people from the US communicate with those of us more influenced by the British Isles, in my experience... pretend I'm from New York and re-read my response to you :)


I'd consider the use of rail, myself, if it weren't so far to get to the station in the first place. I'm in the NE USA, and it's approximately 280 miles ( 466km ) to the nearest passenger rail station! And I'm not even as far back in the woods as some people in this area, who could be as much as another 60 miles (100km). We do have bus service, once per day, but the cost of a bus ticket is comparable to the price of driving your car the same distance, and in the car you're still freer to stop and visit sites of interest.

Until that changes, for nearly anywhere in the NE USA, and the eastern half of Canada, the automobile is unbeatable.


A little late posting, but couldn't resist. First, the "heavy" gasoline tax. For the US it averaged 20% of the price in May 2009 -- in May 2008 it was 10.5%. The federal tax han't been increased since 1972; mean while the cost of road construction greatly increased. The tax funds tghe Highway Trust Fund, that typically finances 80% of state highway projects -- AS WELL AS SIGNIFICANT FUNDING FOR MASS TRANSIT PROJECTS. Today the Trust Fund is insolvent; Congress approrriated a few billion last year to the Fund to help out

Second, Misunderstanding of the US rail system.

Gotta go -- maybe later


Anthony: I live a ten minute walk from the nearest major inter-city railway station. Fifteen minutes walk gets me to a bus stop where there is a service running every ten minutes to the nearest international airport (half an hour away): a return bus ticket costs less than one day of airport parking. As for the local transport services, I'm less than five minutes walk from stops handing ten different bus services with frequencies in the 5-15 minute range.

This is what I consider to be minimum acceptable public transport provision.


A month ago I considered taking Amtrack from Pittsburgh to Montreal. So I go to their website to see what options there are. After going through all the steps, no matter what I tried their system wound giving me a cryptic error message. However I could find info on PGH->NYC and NYC->MTR.

I emailed to their site and received a reply that I got an error message because I would have to spend a night in NYC to get the MTR connection. (Why couldn't the message mention that?)

Basically their website sucks but they don't care because it is only for people on well traveled routes.

The Greyhound Bus site is 10 times easier to use.


Having used transit systems around the globe, I find most are well tailored to their local economic ecosystem and user preferences including most all rail service in the US other than long distance (more than a daily commute) outside of the NEC. The grand flaw I see today is not that the trains are to slow, but that they do not let you bring what you need at both ends of your journey to cover the last two to 200 miles, The Family Car.

Visiting someone in the suburbs of Atlanta coming from the suburbs of Minneapolis would in todays system involves a day of transport to the airport, plane tickets, security piece theater, car rental in Atlanta, etc, or two long days jammed into a mini-van, foraging interstate exits for food, motels, etc. Much more civilized to put the car on/in a wagon or destination specific container, go to your cabin, entertain the clan how you see fit, and drive off a day later unconcerned with portaging luggage on busses, subways, or taxis.


Generally speaking, when visiting a third world country one expects to fine third world amenities. Thus I am never surprised when I travel in the US and encounter nothing but crumbling infrastructure, poor service, bad food.


A small quibble: Seattle to Portland is 175 miles by car, and the railroad runs fairly close to the highway.

It would be nice to have the Dutch tracks on that route: two tracks each for local and express. Instead, as has been pointed out, the Cascade Express defers to freight trains and sits on the sidings two or three times on the trip. Moreover it makes multiple local stops: sometimes Tukwila, then Tacoma, Olympia, Centralia and Longview-Kelso, before reaching Portland.


A small quibble: Seattle to Portland is 175 miles by car, and the railroad runs fairly close to the highway.

It would be nice to have the Dutch tracks on that route: two tracks each for local and express. Instead, as has been pointed out, the Cascade Express defers to freight trains and sits on the sidings two or three times on the trip. Moreover it makes multiple local stops: sometimes Tukwila, then Tacoma, Olympia, Centralia and Longview-Kelso, before reaching Portland.


There is a plan to eliminate most of the 'bottlenecks' on the Cascades route -- to separate freight from passengers in the single-track Tacoma area, and to have a passenger bypass track at the major freight yards and junctions.

The whole mess costs less than a hundred million dollars and would increase reliabilty massively (and speed moderately). But the WA state government has decided not to fund it all, and also to dig a giant road tunnel on the Seattle Waterfront for multibillions, one which was *voted down* once already. Sigh.


Latest lines and train sets (Siemens' Valero and Alstom'S AGV) in Europe are made for efficient 250mph (400 kmh) travel, with a tiny carbon footprint. That would beat the plane even on LA to NYC (downtown, door to door).
The top speeds ever reached by maglev on experimental track(Japan, 581kmh) and French TGV on the TGV Est line(575 kmh) are roughly the same, because the French engineers found air resistance to be the problem (that's why planes fly as high as possible). They found they had underestimated it. Otherwise, with present technology (using, as it does, adaptative electronics on catenaries, etc.), they feel 650kmh (400mph) is achievable. So the rails are not the problem (Europeans use elastic supports of stone beds, whereas Japanese use concrete beds, which cracks, an expensive problem, and why fastest Shinkansen runs slower than top Valero and TGV speeds)

Patrice Ayme


Dwoop @ 21
"Commuter rail systems are only economical in areas of high population density. "


So that's why there is in FLORIDA, a commuter-rail "servicew" so-called, that is equivalent to London-Brighton in distance.
The LAST TRAIN runs at about 19.30.

As for Mr Maurer - forget it, mate.
You are wrong, and I can't be bothered to go into the details ....
I remember "COnspiracy" @ Brighton, in (I think) 1987.
On the Sunday a US citizen came and asked... "When does THE TRAIN go to London?
It took a LOT of explaining that there were AT LEAST THREE of them, every hour: A fast, a semi-fast, and an every-third-lampost......



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.

Tristan @ 1:

I suspect the answer is it is not critical.

Er, are you sure it's not because we're turning third world?


For what it's worth I just traveled on four Amtrak trains from Portland to Albany NY and back and never had to show ID or get a boarding card.

I'd been thinking of taking the Cascades for a while, however, and this piece makes me hesitate a little to do it. I should also add that the horrible Union Pacific was creating a good deal more deliberate trouble for Amtrak a few years ago when my Eugene OR train to LA was eighteen hours late. So things are actually improving?!


You were quite lucky. It took us 16 hours to travel from Oakland (CA) to Los Angeles. On the way back we had to switch to buses for part of the trip, and we missed our destination station - I was so ignorant to go to the bathroom 20 minutes before our scheduled arrival time. The next minute the train stopped in Emeryville, leaving it 18 minutes early. At the next station several people were left behind on a windy desolated railway station, some without money for a taxi to travel back to Emeryville. Sure, the train crew had to be home early ...



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This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on May 18, 2009 5:53 AM.

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