Monday, 26 September 2005


Stephen Karlson has some thoughts on the viability of intercity rail travel in response to Jeff Harrell’s skepticism over further Amtrak funding. My two cents:

Outside the Northeast Corridor and a few regional operations, Amtrak is a classic example of GNDN. I know exactly one person who has ever ridden the City of New Orleans, despite having lived in two cities that are served by the route. The only advantage of Amtrak over auto travel is that you don’t have to drive… and that one is largely negated if there’s hassle at either endpoint, such as inconvenient modal transfers, long layovers, etc. The only advantages over Amtrak over flying is that (a) you don’t have to deal with getting from the airport to the central business district (assuming the CBD is your destination) and (b) the security hassles are significantly reduced (but by no means nonexistent). And, the only advantages of Amtrak over riding Greyhound are (a) reduced travel times and (b) marginally better comfort.

It seems to me, then, that viable passenger rail needs to be designed to complement other modes of transportation. That means, for starters, more intermodal connections like at BWI and MKE airports, and direct connections to local mass transit (that means, when I get off the train in Chicago, I shouldn’t have to walk several blocks to get on the L). That also means making it easy for people to rent cars at train stations… many general aviation airports (in addition to every commercial airport in the country) have car rental counters, but good luck trying to find one at most Amtrak stations. While you’re at it, include safe, secure, long-term parking lots.

Amtrak probably hasn’t helped its case in “flyover country”—particularly with Republican politicians—by only operating its flagship Acela Express service in the Northeast Corridor. If other parts of the rail system had been upgraded to a similarly high standard (notwithstanding the problems Acela has had), the political case for continued Amtrak subsidies would probably be much better, even if the economic case for building high-speed rail in other areas is weak-to-nonexistent—the existence of Southwest Airlines, for example, makes a Houston–Dallas rail link a sure money-loser, even though tens of thousands of people make that trip daily. Ironically, because of Amtrak’s brief flirtation with economic rationality, Amtrak has virtually no constituency other than its employees outside the NEC states.