A new article that I stumbled on this week talks about America’s beleaguered national passenger rail provider, Amtrak. (This is not the typical article one reads about Amtrak, which almost always involves collisions with freight trains and automobile passenger deaths at rail crossings.) The shocking thing about the article is exactly how bad the finances for Amtrak are; they have not been in the black since the early 1970s and are heavily subsidized. I don’t know how this compares with the UK’s national rail, although I do note that it is interesting to me that the UK rail system is so much more heavily populated with regular riders. There are a few places in the US where public transport is common and there are well-developed networks of subways and trains. New York City, Boston, and Washington DC on the east coast are all part of this, and on my recent trip I used the systems in both Boston and DC. In Minneapolis, where I am from, there were only ever some pretty frightening buses until recently, when the hugely successful light rail line went in.
I am not against government subsidies for rail or light rail transit, and I wish that as America moves into the mid-sized cities from the rural areas that more and more of these types of train lines are considered as part of the urban infrastructure. The experience in Minneapolis would be that “if you build it, they will come”… ridership was about double the expectations almost immediately, and there is quite a bit of new development along the light rail corridor. Plans are moving ahead for a new section through the University and connecting Minneapolis to downtown St. Paul, and I think this is really exciting. I can make a real case for continued subsidies of light rail in cities.
I also believe one of the Amtrak success stories is the Acela high-speed connection between Boston and DC (that goes through NYC of course, as well as Philly), in which you’ve got short (Britain-like) distances to travel through densely populated areas. You’ve also got people in those cities that are used to riding the subways and local trains, so the interstate trains make sense. What makes less sense to me is a huge investment of continued subsidy dollars in the cross-country rail lines. The passenger rail system just might not be competitive on the 3-time zone hike from NYC to SF or LA. The people in the heartland are no longer much accustomed to transport that does not involve cars. There’s so much rail to maintain, so much rough terrain to cross, so much difficult weather, and such a large passenger time commitment to deal with.
So I’m not sure that I agree with the spirit of the Aussie quoted at the start of the article in terms of the general usefulness for trains in America, and thus I’m not sure I support a continuing full subsidy for Amtrak. I don’t think they will ever grab hold for cross-country sightseeing (except perhaps for visiting commonwealth types) but I do believe an investment in infrastructure in high population density regions like Chicago and the Northeast should be encouraged. So should Americans discover rail transport? Absolutely, if they live somewhere where it makes sense to do so. Otherwise, perhaps it’s better to drive or fly and stop supporting Amtrak’s bleeding dollars in the middle of nowhere.