America Today: Will High-Speed Trains Bring Passengers Back to Amtrak?

When did Americans start to abandon inter-city train travel? Well, the decline started much earlier than most people think.

The romantic 20th Century, immortalised in Hitchcock's North by North-West

By the late 1930’s passenger numbers on inter-city routes were already down 30% from a peak some twenty years earlier. In 1910, nearly everyone who wanted to travel from city-to-city used the railroad.  As motor vehicles became more affordable in the post WW2 era and the network of inter-state highways developed, the decline in rail travel quickened. The 1950’s saw the rise of cheap coast-to-coast air travel and the decline became a plummet…

By 1965, only 10,000 rail passenger cars were in operation, 85% fewer than in 1929 and in 1969 the legendary Pullman Company became insolvent, followed in 1970 by the dominant railroad in the Northeastern United States, Penn Central.

Dining car in the 1950's

In 1971, Amtrak was set up by the US government to stave off the final collapse of the American rail industry and it has been bumping along the bottom ever since. According to Wikipedia, Amtrak today employs nearly 19,000 people, it operates passenger service on 21,000 miles of track primarily owned by freight railroads, connecting 500 destinations in 46 states and three Canadian provinces.

In 2008, Amtrak served 28.7 million passengers, representing six straight years of record passenger numbers. Despite this recent growth however, the United States still has one of the lowest inter-city rail usages in the developed world.

Only Cary Grant got this sort of treatment in his "roomette"!

If you want to travel from New York to San Francisco today, a standard one-way airfare will cost you $250. By comparison, a one-way train ticket costs only $200 but if you want a “roomette” for the five-day journey, the fare supplement will add another $500-$900 to your bill. Who other than an old romantic [like me] or someone with an acute fear of flying [and Greyhound buses] would go for the train option?

Unlike Europe, the United States has not up to now invested heavily in high-speed trains and at present there is only one so-called “high-speed” service in operation, the Acela Express. The service operates between Boston and Washington but even so, the trains [capable of traveling at 150mph] average less than 75mph. Now things are about to change.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 proposes among other things the allocation of $8 billion for the development of several intercity rail projects, with “priority to projects that support the development of intercity high-speed rail service.” 

As you would expect, the Republican party is against the proposal. Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana has criticized the proposed investment as “wasteful spending” and the Cato Institute [named after the Roman “cynic” politician and philosopher Cato the Younger]  claim that many people will pay for a service only a few will use.

Artist's rendering of the California High-Speed train

Ironically, the US government has received a bid from Chinese contractors to provide the technology that lies behind the proposed high-speed rail system. A consortium comprising the Shanghai Railway Bureau, China Railway Construction Corporation (Hong Kong- and Shanghai-listed CRCC), CSR Corporation (also listed in Hong Kong and Shanghai) and the Third Railway Survey and Design Institute (majority-owned by the Railways Ministry) submitted an expression of interest in March 2011 to bid for California’s high-speed rail project.

This is a far cry from the days of the first coast-to-coast railway built between 1863 and 1869, that used a substantial amount of Chinese labour in the construction.

The nine-hundred mile line from north to south California will cost US$45 billion, of which $12 billion is expected to come from private-public partnerships.

The railway has received $3.4 billion in US federal government funding, the biggest allocation for a high-speed rail project and the trains on the line are expected to run at two-hundred miles per hour.

Trains are the "greenest" travel option

Unfortunately, we aren’t likely to see coast to coast high-speed trains running very soon, as on December 10 2010, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced $1.2 billion in grants for Wisconsin and Ohio will be removed and redirected to other states. This is due to opposition from governors-elect of both states, Republicans Scott Walker of Wisconsin and John Kasich of Ohio. From the redirected funds, California will receive $624 million, Washington $161 million and Illinois $42 million.

China's high-speed train

On February 16 2011, Florida Governor Rick Scott [Republican] formally announced that he would be rejecting federal funds to construct a high-speed railway project in the state, thereby killing the Florida High Speed Rail project. Governor Scott’s reasoning behind cancelling the project was that it would be “too costly to taxpayers” and that “the risk far outweigh[ed] the benefits”. Those funds were once again redistributed to other states.


Given that the high-speed links would have provided much-needed jobs, improved the National infrastructure and created a genuine [greener] alternative to plane and car travel, one wonders how some of these guys were elected. But then again, in a country where free, universal health care is considered a communist conspiracy, anything is possible…



About stevehollier

Steve Hollier is the editor of AZ Magazine, an English language lifestyle magazine based in Baku, Azerbaijan. He began his career working for a firm of stockbrokers in the City of London then went on to attend the University of Essex where he was awarded an MA in Sociology in 1984. After a career in arts and cultural development work, he became a freelance arts consultant, writer and photographer.
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2 Responses to America Today: Will High-Speed Trains Bring Passengers Back to Amtrak?

  1. It’s simple as to who’s killing High-Speed Rail and why.

    High-Speed Rail uses Electricity.

    Using Electricity means no need for Big Oil/Big Refineries.

    Less need for Refineries and Big Oil angers folks like the Koch Brothers.

    So the Koch Brothers must find a way to kill High-Speed Rail.

    So they fund the election of radical Governors in key states where High-Speed Rail is strongly favored.

    They bribe their new Lapdog Governors into rejecting High-Speed Rail.

    Then they use right-wing media outlets to whip up low-information voters to join the Tea Party that the Koch brothers largely finance, to plant some ’supporters’ of killing High-Speed Rail in front of the camera.

    And voila, just like that, the Koch Brothers have killed High-Speed Rail, and therefore, Big Oil keeps ahold of its energy monopoly in the States.

    While the rest of the world laughs and calls us stupid cowboys, and moves on with their own High-Speed Rail improvements.

    • stevehollier says:

      I think you have hit the nail on the head, Sacha…
      I was amused when I recently watched a CNN report on the comparative time and cost to get from Shanghai to Beijing by air or high-speed train. It was obvious to anyone watching, that the time between was comparable but the comfort level and convenience was far greater on the high-speed train. The reporters however, still said that plane was the better option… Crazy!

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