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Are US trains really that bad? It's complicated

With limited routes and low-speed diesel locomotives, train travel in the US seems far behind the rest of the world. That's not going to change anytime soon.

Geoffrey Morrison Contributor
Geoffrey Morrison is a writer/photographer about tech and travel for CNET, The New York Times, and other web and print publications. He's also the Editor-at-Large for The Wirecutter. He has written for Sound&Vision magazine, Home Theater magazine, and was the Editor-in-Chief of Home Entertainment magazine. He is NIST and ISF trained, and has a degree in Television/Radio from Ithaca College. His bestselling novel, Undersea, and its sequel, Undersea Atrophia, are available in paperback and digitally on Amazon. He spends most of the year as a digital nomad, living and working while traveling around the world. You can follow his travels at BaldNomad.com and on his YouTube channel.
Geoffrey Morrison
8 min read

Compared to other wealthy nations, passenger trains in the US seem to lag far behind. Recently I covered Amtrak and CalTrans' unveil of a next-generation locomotive called the Charger, and the comments surrounding the article on social media were surprisingly negative. Though they came from all sides, the common refrain was that train travel in the US is bad.

But is it? And if so, why? The answers to both those questions is frustratingly complex. Complex enough that those both sides of the argument are a little bit right, and a little bit wrong. That always makes for "fun" conversations on the internet, so let's dive in.

One engine vs. many

The trains themselves are probably the easiest place to start. A common comment about the Charger article was how it was laughable that the US uses diesel locomotives in the 21st century. This is only partly true. 

Yes, Amtrak uses a traditional single locomotive to drive their trains. Most countries often use either DMU or EMUs: diesel or electric multiple units. This type of train has engines and/or motors in every car, so that each car essentially powers itself. These types of trains look far more modern. 

See trains from all over the world

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There are pros and cons to each method, enough for an article all on its own. The broadest take is that with a DMU/EMU, the cars are more expensive and require more maintenance, but the trains are easier to extend, since each car brings its own power. If one car's motor/engine fails, usually the other cars can still drive the train. 

Over longer trains, it's usually more economical to have a locomotive. According to Siemens, who makes both, DMUs are more suited for the typically smaller trains on commuter lines, while larger, long-distance trains are better suited for locomotives:

"DMUs are more applicable for commuter lines with frequent service and smaller transport capacity. Once the transport demand exceeds the carrying capacity of a DMU, Loco-hauled [trains] are advantageous and less expensive to operate. Frequency and capacity demands in intercity travel result in Loco-hauled trainsets getting used on non-electrified lines." -Armin Kick, vice president of locomotives and high-speed trainsets, Siemens Mobility, Inc.

A closer look at trains all over the world reveals that it's indeed unfair to mock US trains for being diesel. No modern train uses a diesel engine to power their wheels directly. They're used as generators to power electric motors. So the only difference boils down to where the electricity comes from. 

And even in the most train-friendly countries like France and Japan, huge sections of the network are not electrified. In fact, the majority of tracks around the world are not electrified. Yep, even with those sleek and modern trains you see in photos of Europe and Asia, many have rumbling diesel engines underneath. In the case of DMUs, every car has its own, so each train potentially has several diesels running all the time.

Of course full electric is more efficient and better for the environment, but that requires the entire rail network to be electrified. This leads us to the real issue: the tracks.

No making tracks

With the exception of a few hundred miles in the Northeast, Amtrak doesn't own the tracks on which their trains run. The other ~97 percent of the tracks in the US are instead are owned by freight companies like BNSF, Norfolk Southern and Union Pacific. This is largely why Amtrak's on-time rate is so abysmal, compared to other countries. 

Amtrak pays to use these tracks, but if there's any sort of delay and an Amtrak train misses its "window," it will have to wait on a siding while the owner of the track (a freight company) gives priority to its own trains. These delays tend to have a pile-on effect, so a delay of a few minutes could lead to delays of 30 minutes or an hour not just for that train, but later trains as well. 

These companies are legally required to prioritize Amtrak trains over their own, and when they are held accountable (pdf), on-time performance improves significantly. According to Amtrak, in the northeast where they own the majority of the tracks, on-time performance is significantly better than elsewhere where they don't, despite far more trains and routes. It remains a contentious issue.

In most train-friendly countries, the government owns the rails and leases their use to train companies (when the train companies themselves aren't state owned). This is Amtrak's biggest problem by far, and it's not their fault. They can't force, say, Norfolk Southern, to improve or add additional tracks. That would require government intervention and, likely, assistance.

4,400hp from a 95-liter V-16: Here’s Amtrak’s Charger locomotive

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A prime example is in Southern California, where the Pacific Surfliner route is one of Amtrak's busiest, but also one that is often delayed due to sections where there's only one track in each direction. Even in a pro-train, pro-infrastructure environment like California, it's a challenge because of how expensive the land is along this route. Adding just a few miles of additional tracks could cost billions.

Even if Amtrak owned all the tracks, there'd be another, rather insurmountable issue: geography.

The US is a big country

If you look at all the countries with extensive high-speed rail networks, with only one exception they have two things in common. They're all wealthy and small. France and Japan are at the top of that list, but Germany and Spain, also have a lot.

A general rule is that if a train journey takes around four hours or less, it's faster to take the train than to fly. This is because trains get you directly to a city center, whereas flying takes time to get to the airport, time at the airport, the flight itself and time from the airport, all that have to be included when considering total travel time.

In Europe and Japan, this is easy. Multiple high-population cites are within a few hours of each other. High-speed rail was born in Japan to connect the massive metropolises of Tokyo and Osaka. The routes that followed, like Paris-Lyon, Florence-Rome, Madrid-Seville and others, all follow the same pattern of size and distance.

America is just too big. Trains, even high-speed trains, only work in a few places. The region most conducive to trains already has high-speed rail, with the Northeast Corridor's Acela. If you look at a map, other parts of the country don't fit this 4-hour-rule nearly as well. Only a few regions have the population to justify an expensive high-speed route, like the Texas Triangle and a few others, which we'll discuss later. Generally, though, we're a nation perfect for low-cost air travel, which is why we have so many low-cost airlines and routes.

No high-speed rail line makes sense between New York and Los Angeles, for example. At 2,445 miles (3,936km) even the fastest modern trains would take over 11 hours, double that of a flight, and that's if they didn't stop. This would certainly cost many times what a flight would. Sure trains could get faster in the future, but we're already pushing the upper limit of what's economically feasible. Maybe something like the Hyperloop, but good luck making that cost effective over that distance. 

Because they only work in a few select areas, there's no economy of scale so trains get even more expensive, making them even more cost-prohibitive on long inter-city routes. Local commuter rail, which Amtrak occasionally co-runs with local governments, doesn't have the need for high speed trains. You don't need a 200mph top speed when you're stopping every few miles. 

That exception mentioned before is China, and it's a big exception. China is roughly the same size as the continental US and in the last decade alone has expanded their high-speed rail network from almost nothing to over 16,696 miles (26,869 km), 65 percent of the total amount in the world. This is because they have something most countries, especially the US, don't have: political will.

Blame politicians

Trains are political. They require lots of land, and in nearly every case, public money for some amount of subsidy. With very few exceptions, high-speed rail is subsidized by the government to keep ticket prices affordable.

Building the rail network, which requires upgrading or replacing older tracks, requires substantial money as well. When new tracks are required, this land generally must be purchased at even more cost. Maintenance, crucial for any sort of travel infrastructure, is also costly. Amtrak claims a backlog of $38 billion in needed infrastructure improvements, and that's just in the Northeast Corridor. Even the much-needed Gateway Program to repair and replace the 100-plus-year-old tunnel and bridge connecting New York and New Jersey, one of the highest trafficked and pro-train routes in the country, is not without its funding issues.

Spending this kind of money in a democracy is always a challenge. Even when there's substantial public support, such as in France and Japan, there are still large vocal minorities against such expenditures. The Chinese government wants, for numerous reasons, more high-speed rail. It is certainly not unique in that regard. However, they are unique in that they have the political ability to do so, plus the money in hand to fund it.

Future train travel

I'm a big fan of trains and train travel, but the US will never have the high-speed rail network found in most other countries. Since only a handful of our cities are four hours apart by train, and the rest possibly days away even by high-speed rail, it's just not feasible. That's not to say we should scrap trains in general, or that we're decades behind. The new Chargers, for example, are largely the same as what's found throughout the world in areas without electrified tracks, which is the majority. All our trains were required to be significantly heavier than their European/Asian counterparts, but that arguably archaic buff strength requirement is due to be reduced, potentially leading to lower up-front rolling stock costs in the future (i.e. more options and lower prices).

Certain areas will always be better served by planes, but those able to be served by trains will likely see improvement. California's high-speed rail project, which hopefully will get a much-needed re-tooling with the new state government, is progressing (mostly). Other areas like Florida, Texas and maybe even Nevada, are seeing new lines planned. In a new twist, these are private companies. But the fact is, private train companies are incredibly rare worldwide, and many have failed trying to make non-subsidized train travel profitable. Even in very pro-train Britain, private companies have significant difficulty even on well-traveled routes.

So the struggle will always be a political one. Trains are not an easy sell in the US, for the reasons we've discussed. Since they almost always require public money, they'll always be a non-starter for fiscal conservatives, despite the jobs they create directly and indirectly. Amtrak has always been controversial, but continues to post record earnings and revenue, even if still costing the tax payers money, like nearly all passenger railroads do everywhere.

Passenger trains continue to serve a vital role in many states. And despite their looks, our trains aren't that different from other country's non-high-speed trains. Our high-speed train deficit is largely due to geography, but in regions where it's possible, we will likely see more... albeit slowly. 

So like I said, it's a complex issue.

Watch this: This concept train flies

As well as covering TV and other display tech, Geoff does these tours of cool museums and locations around the world including nuclear submarinesmassive aircraft carriersmedieval castlesairplane graveyards and more. 

You can follow his exploits on TwitterInstagram and on his travel blog BaldNomad. He also wrote a bestselling sci-fi novel