13 Jul 2021 19:32 IST

Why the US passenger train project seems to go off the rails

Biden hopes to put more trains on the tracks, but the rail network is worse than in the developing world

Life in America is slowly returning to normal. Summer travel is an attractive way out for millions of families stuck in homes for months. Planes are flying full. Car rental companies are often out of inventory in the big cities. Never mind the high fuel prices. Americans are hitting the road in their personal cars like never before.

But believe it or not, America offers another way to travel overland. Amtrak, a passenger rail network, has been in operation since 1971. President Biden has been one of its staunchest supporters. When he served in the United States Senate from the state of Delaware, he would ride Amtrak each day to return home to Wilmington, near Philadelphia.

Amtrak’s North-east Corridor, from Boston to New York to Philadelphia to Washington, has been a reliable alternative to air and road travel. Connecting downtown to downtown, Amtrak saves travelers the hassle of commuting to an airport, spending hours navigating passenger security, and again commuting from the airport to the downtown area on arriving at their destination. Studies have shown that it is faster to commute between two North-east corridor cities by train rather than by plane.

Abysmal performance

There are other advantages. Trains are frequent and mostly on time. On Acela trains, which offer airline-style business class seats, speeds can reach up to 100 miles an hour. WiFi is standard and passengers can work peacefully in designated “Quiet” cars. In Acela First Class, travelers can conduct meetings around conference tables, with seating for two or four. Lounges at train stations mimic first-class lounges at airports — with snacks, WiFi, meeting rooms, and relaxed seating as passengers await their next train.

But outside of the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak’s train service is decidedly worse than in the developing world. For a wealthy country, America's passenger rail network is pathetically weak. In Europe and Japan, a map of the national rail system resembles a human body with arteries touching every point. In America, Amtrak doesn’t serve most of the entire country. In fact, hundreds of thousands of square miles in area, have no passenger railroad tracks at all. For the few destinations that Amtrak serves, connecting services are provided by bus, van, taxi, or ferry — and not by Amtrak.

And the trains are almost always late. Not by minutes, but by hours. Contrast this with passenger rail in the UK, Europe, and Japan. When I lived in Bern during the late 1990s, I once crowed over the punctuality of the Swiss Federal Railways during a dinner conversation with Swiss clients. Most of them were polite but remained unimpressed. One finally said that they were happy years ago but not any more. “These days, SBB trains are usually 2-3 minutes late.”

The frequency of Amtrak trains is also abysmal. Atlanta, the capital of Georgia and the gateway to the Southeastern U.S is served only twice a day — by a train arriving from Washington on its way to New Orleans and the same train on the return. Many cities — Cincinnati, Dallas, Jacksonville, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, and San Diego — suffer Atlanta’s fate and are on a single line connecting the endpoints of a route.

On long-distance routes, Amtrak fares can be quite expensive compared to airfares. Roomettes, or private compartments for two passengers, are often more expensive than first-class airline tickets. Still, the the railroad is chronically sick and always in the red, relying on handouts from the government to keep it afloat. It received about $2 billion from Congress in the year before the pandemic and was awarded $3.7 billion in emergency funding after the pandemic hit in March 2020.

Falling short of standards

So with all these problems, why would anyone travel on Amtrak trains at all?

When trains do run on time, the experience can be pleasant and unparalleled. Because what Amtrak sells is a window seat to gorgeous American vistas and landscapes, something that one can never experience from 35,000 feet up in the air. Nearly all long-distance trains have a lounge car with large bay windows and comfortable seats in which to relax, look out, mingle, and make friends. The journey is as much a vacation as the destination.

Amtrak brochures make it a point to sell these panoramic views. One goes thus: A grand west coast train adventure, en route daily between Los Angeles and Seattle, the Coast Starlight train passes through Santa Barbara, the San Francisco Bay Area, Sacramento, and Portland. The scenery along the Coast Starlight route is unsurpassed. The dramatic snow-covered peaks of the Cascade Range and Mount Shasta, lush forests, fertile valleys, and long stretches of the Pacific Ocean shoreline provide a stunning backdrop.

Another says this: If you want to experience the rugged splendour of the American West, the Empire Builder train, connecting Chicago to Seattle is a worthy 46 hours to spend. From Chicago, you'll have magnificent views of the Mississippi River and see the glowing night skyline of Minneapolis. Awake the next morning, you will cross the North Dakota plains, skirt the Missouri river, cross into the Big Sky country in Montana, passing by the Glacier National Park. From Spokane, you can continue on to Seattle or head down the Columbia River Gorge toward Portland for spectacular views of Mt. Hood and Beacon Rock.

In his $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, President Biden managed to slip in over $45 billion for improvements to Amtrak. If you’re hoping that Biden’s cash injection will allow you to travel soon in a Shinkansen-like superfast train between American city pairs, think again. A proposal to build a high-speed rail link between Los Angeles and San Francisco was publicly funded by a $9 billion bond in 2008. Today, the project’s cost has reached $80 billion. Only a part of the system, about 171 miles of service through the California Central Valley, connecting the fast-growing cities of Merced and Bakersfield, is likely to be operational. By 2029.