Amtrak's Incredible Shrinking Service

These historical maps of Amtrak service show the slow death of America's passenger trains. The only cure: high-speed rail.

Amtrak train

America's passenger rail is the sad, neglected stepchild of passenger transportation in America. In recent years, there has been growing support to reinvest in trains, especially high-speed ones, as a cheaper and less polluting mode of intercity transportation than driving or flying. The constant argument against more investment is simple: no one takes the train, so why pour more money into it? But perhaps no one takes the train because there are no trains to take? Look at this little animation (from Greater Greater Washington, via Grist), that shows the creeping death that budget cuts have brought to Amtrak service:

Amtrak usage timeline

As you can see, service is robust in the '60s, covering nearly the entire country—that's before Amtrak even started. In 1971, with many of those lines going bankrupt, Amtrak took over with a much more limited portfolio of routes. Even those limited routes have been cut ever since, except for a little recent uptick. It's like watching a sick person slowly wasting away.

The economics of riding the train are different now than they were when the advent of the passenger car—and then short-haul flights between cities—started eating away at rail travel's market share. It's now grossly inconvenient and annoying to board an airplane; you can walk on a train with no hassle (though the discovery of Al Qaeda plans to target American passenger trains might change that). And driving no longer has quite the same open-road sense of freedom; there are no traffic jams on rail lines. Though technically, that's not quite true. In many parts of the country, passenger trains lose the right of way to freight trains, which can cause them to wait interminably. But that's just another example of how we've diminished rail travel through a death of a thousand cuts, and if we devoted money and resources to it, it could be a viable form of travel.

If rail travel was cheap, and convenient and fast, there is no telling what the market might be. In the Northeast corridor, where the trains run fast and frequently and between closely situated cities, ridership and profits are up. Now imagine if the trains went 300 miles per hour. Then you might see crowded trains everywhere.

[Homepage image: Flickr user Slideshow Bruce. Above image: Flickr user The Holy Hand Grenade!]

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  • Lobo Solo

    And this highlights the debate ... Spend a lot of money on HSR that will serve fewer people or get more bang for the buck by spreading the money around and upgrading the service over more lines to rebuild a true network?

  • Alan Earnshaw

    Not a valid comparison. If airlines had to pay to build airports, run the FAA, staff the TSA, etc., etc., there would be no private investments in airlines. Period. As it is, the airlines purchase the planes and pay modest gate rental fees, and we, the taxpayers, pick up the rest of the tab through taxes, landing fees, and other surcharges. If I could start a railroad simply by buying a few trains and renting counter space at a few train stations, it would be a highly compelling investment.

  • Chuck Blakeman

    Seriously?  You make it sound like some horrible creature has conspired to kill our poor trains and that they would do just fine if the monster would stop sitting on them.  In 1903 trains owned 97% of ALL traffic between one city and another in the entire U.S.  WE HAD TRAINS EVERYWHERE!  Then people decide they wanted to travel a different way.  If the train industry thinks they can offer a better alternative, then why in the world do we need the government to fund it for them? 

    Almost all mail went by Pony Express until they invented trains.  I think we need to have the government fund the re-emergence of horses carry mail from town to town.  Fax machines used to be the way people send quick messages.  Email and texting are evil - let's have the government fund faxing.  Do we need more examples?

    Let's let market decide what we need, not a few elitists who think they know what I need and want to impose it on me by taking my money and spending it through the government to fund their pet projects.  The lack of logic coming from writers like this is simply befuddling. 

  • Peter Rives

     Trains being cheaper than cars or planes?  You are dreaming, right?  Lets hear about all the data to support this.

    Last I remember a study from the 1970's (remember the oil crises!) a train ride was calculated 10 times more expensive per mile than a subcompact hatchback!

    That doesn't mean trains shouldn't exist, especially in the crazy megalopolis we call "desirable living" on the East and West coasts where traffic and congestion are ridiculous and wasteful.  Time and comfort is valuable too.

    But another factor against trains was, lets see, the idea that inner city thugs are connected to suburban hamlets through simple train rides.  It was a major reason, crime, that trains went away.

    Love trains.  But get ready for hefty subsidies like they have everywhere they are used for passenger service.  Just get your figures and facts straight.  And be ready for beefed up security measures.

  • Mark Seidenfeld

    I have spent almost 20 years Eastern and Western Europe, Russia and China and can say that high speed rail in these countries is a serious advantage. Even taking into account 'only' 200 MPH trains which have been around for years the system is great.

    As a rule, you leave and arrive in the center of the city close to existing transit. No traveling to and from airports and then having to check in an hour or two before. Arriving at the train station 20 minutes prior to departer is usually fine.

    On the trip you can be productive, sleep, eat, work, phone call, walk around stretch your legs etc. You are not behind the wheel choosing being productivity and safety nor cut off from communication, going through air turbulence. Even terrorist dangers are inherently lower than with air travel.

    Roads are less congested, they require less repair and are safer.

    A 1.5 hour flight usualy means 4-5 hours of lost time and frayed nerves: 30-60 minutes both to and from the airport, minimum 1 hour prior check in and 20 minutes deplaning and making your way out (assuming you have no luggage) of which littel of that time is productive (remember to switch off your computer and smartphone during takeoff and landing)

    A trains cost to move 1 pound over the same distance as an airplane is a fraction of the cost and the pollution is much lower

    It is simply a matter of remaining competitive with the rest of the world

  • Andrew Krause

    IF the government ponied up funding, and IF the trains went 300 miles per hour, and IF rail security can be faster than airport security and IF we provided service to enough people, rail COULD be a viable alternative to flying or driving. But it won't. A national high speed rail network is not in the cards for the United States; it's only feasible in areas of high population density where TCO of motor vehicles is on par with vacation homes.

  • Dan Brantley

    In 1996 we rode the train to see my parents in Meridian, TX. This is normally a 1.5 hour trip by car. And the train did not actually stop in Meridian, even though the tracks went through it, but in Cleburne, 30 minutes north, or in McGregor, thirty minutes south. But we had a pass and thought it would be fun for our two young sons. The train was four hours late getting into Dallas because the toilets stopped up in El Paso. And we were further delayed when we hit a cow. As we passed through Meridian, I asked the conductor if they could just stop and let us out, his reply, "No, we have to keep on schedule." In McGregor, we were the only passengers getting off, they stopped for less than a minute and practically threw us off the train. I hope that helped them "...stay on schedule" and make up the five and a half hours they were behind.

    As to Bin Laden's plot to attack the railways? Little chance of success, since the only thing that is certain about Amtrack is that it will never be on time. How could they set the timer?

  • medbob

    OK. Pull out your pocketbook and pay for it. If it's a good investment, then develop a project, get funding, and make it profitable. I get the sneaking suspicion that the reason why Amtrak is shrinking is because it's not profitable. BTW... That's the way our "Market Driven" economy works. The days of Uncle Sugar taking out his pocketbook to pay for unprofitable ventures just because somebody thinks it's a good idea are over.