Sircus: Get the trains back on track

Hope Springs Eternal

This past weekend, I fell victim to what can only be called “Murphy’s Law of Train Transportation.” With a 5:50 Friday evening departure time, my friend and I left Old Campus with 50 minutes to spare, hoping to catch a red line shuttle to Union Station. After 35 minutes of anxious waiting, we found out that the red line shuttle had been rerouted, thanks to record snowfall. In a last-ditch effort, we frantically cut across the New Haven Green, hoping to catch the final ride to the station before our train’s departure. Luckily, we got to the corner of Chapel and Temple just in time — that is, just in time to watch the shuttle speed by, splashing sleet all over our persons and luggage.

We hadn’t seen a cab for the past half-hour and the prospect of catching or calling one seemed fruitless. So we made a final, fateful decision: we’re going to run for it. After the one-and-a-half mile sprint through the icy New Haven streets, luggage in tow, we bolted through the doors of Union Station, seconds from the scheduled departure time. Above us on the schedule board shone the words “delayed” and “cancelled.” While the delay gave us an opportunity to catch our breath, it also got me thinking about the American rail system — and how it could be so much better.

Our railroads and train cars are stuck in the past. Founded in 1971, Amtrak (a portmanteau of “America” and “track”) is a federally-owned corporation that runs passenger trains along several routes across the entire country. Spanning over 21,000 miles of track, Amtrak travels to over 500 destinations in 46 different states. As the only major interstate train travel service, its annual 30 million riders have no other travel options short of flying or driving. With its monopoly power, the corporation can afford to continue running obsolete engines, show less than stellar on-time statistics, and run only one high-speed rail service. By employing such anachronistic technology, and refusing to push for new technologies, the Amtrak Corporation is squandering a prime opportunity to put millions of Americans back to work, usher in a new era of energy-efficient travel, and revolutionize the way that citizens travel, from sea to shining sea.

The only high-speed rail in the United States — the Acela Express — runs along the East Coast from Washington, D.C. to Boston. Though the federal government did, in 2009, appropriate $8 billion for railroad innovation, relative to the rest of the developed world, we still fall far short. The Acela has a top speed of 150 miles per hour, but averages only slightly more than 70. China, on the other hand, has the world’s longest high-speed rail line spanning over 4,600 miles (greater than the entire width of the United States from coast to coast). Its train engines can reach top speeds of 220 miles per hour, and all average around 120.

Furthermore, the Chinese government isn’t content with its already superlative high-speed rail service. They have been experimenting with magnetic levitation technology, which can reach ground speeds of up to 300 miles per hour. With trains of that efficiency running in the United States, passengers could get from New York City to Washington, D.C. in under an hour. The Chinese government has funded railroad research and innovations, creating countless jobs along the way, while simultaneously buttressing their economy. The trains run on time in China — and faster.

This past weekend in New Haven saw two delayed trains and a fully malfunctioning engine. While train travel on the East Coast is convenient enough, it should be better. With a more dedicated effort to innovate transportation technologies, our rail system could be expansive, efficient, economically fortifying and environmentally friendly. We should move modernizing our railroads higher up our national agenda; we have a lot of catch-up to do. Like Roosevelt during the Depression, the government can use the massive amounts of recently appropriated taxpayer money to create jobs through valuable public works. Our moribund train transportation system is broken, and it’s about time we get it back on the right track.

Joel Sircus is a freshman in Trumbull College.


  • ignatz

    All liberals love rail. Trains are so sleek and shiny, so fast and zoomy, and so much more fun than driving. But there’s a problem: Train travel costs more — a LOT more — than passengers are willing to pay. That’s why Amtrak, despite its monopoly, and despite its huge annual subsidy, manages to lose money — a LOT of money — on all but one of its many routes. The issue isn’t one of technology, it’s one of economics — government-run rail service is inevitably a huge money-burner.

    Now I suppose it’s possible to make a case for throwing yet more federal money at the trains. But seeing as how we’re already running a $1.5 trillion (yes, trillion) budget deficit this year, the case would have to be much better than anything in this column. In particular, Sircus’s passing comment about creating jobs “like Roosevelt did” is pure bunk. Does the world really need more ticket clerks? Moreover, Amtrak is heavily unionized, and (therefore?) its employees are, on the whole, about as arrogant and customer-unfriendly a group as you’ll find anywhere. I’m just not sure how many more Amtrak employees our country can take!

    So instead of complaining that our trains aren’t perfect, and demanding that the government improve them immediately (with someone else’s money, of course), it might be wiser to reflect on the many, many ways in which our country remains the best place on earth.

  • jendicott

    I agree with Mr. Sircus. We should be able to travel early and often on reliable and speedy trains. OK, so call me a liberal. Personally, I’m not into name calling. But the more we can use public transportation, the better. Amtrak loses money because it has no incentive to be competitive or efficient. It needs to do both. If Amtrak did a better job, more people would use it. More people in trains means more people out of cars, which is better for the environment. Ask anyone who has ever taken a course from Vincent Scully and how he feels about I-95’s destruction of New Haven. Moreover, it isn’t just about the money. This country burns money. It’s about doing what’s best.

  • ignatz

    Jendicott, you are correct that Amtrak “has no incentive to be competitive or efficient,” but you fail to acknowledge the source of that problem. Amtrak is effectively an arm of the government. NO large-scale government project is EVER going to be competitive or efficient — period. It’s fine for you to say that Amtrak “needs to” become something it isn’t, but wishing doesn’t make it so. Even if trains are environmentally superior to cars for certain high-volume routes — an argument that applies to only a tiny fraction of America’s rail routes — that doesn’t mean we can alter human nature and create a competitive, efficient government-run rail service. Can’t we ever learn from history?

  • jnewsham

    Why not? We already subsidize car transport; the Interstate Highway System cost over $430 billion (in 2006 dollars) and is the largest public works project in history. I say we stop subsidizing car transport and move that money to rail.

  • River Tam

    Arguing with Mr. Newsham is like arguing with a smug seven year old who listened to his dad talk about politics for a half an hour last Wednesday.

  • Undergrad

    Taking away the federal subsidy wouldn’t make Amtrak more efficient–it would get rid of American intercity rail entirely, except in the northeast. Is that really what we want? And the major problems with Amtrak aren’t due to mismanagement and unionization–they’re because Amtrak shares most of its track with freight railroads, who frequently cause delays for Amtrak trains because there’s no real penalty for doing so. Governmental investments to improve infrastructure–eliminating bottlenecks, adding double-track and sidings, getting rid of grade crossings, replacing bridges–can increase the use of Amtrak trains by allowing faster, more on-time performance and more frequent service. This kind of investment, as well as development of compeltely new, high-speed lines, is sorely needed to bring our rail system up to par with the rest of the industrialized world. And the jobs created aren’t just Amtrak employees, or temporary construction jobs–they come from increased economic development, since people want to live or work in places with good public transportation.

  • ignatz

    Undergrad, you should spend more time at Amtrak stations, starting with Newark and Trenton. In the real world, most Amtrak stations are dirty and smelly, and the neighborhoods around them are not exactly the places where one “wants to live or work” — heck, no one even wants to WALK there after dark.

    Your economic argument is even weaker — Amtrak isn’t profitable because it shares track with freight lines that sometimes delay its passenger trains? Are you serious? Amtrak isn’t profitable because NO government-run railroad is profitable. We’re spending billions each year on a railroad that provides about 1/10 of 1 percent of all passenger travel in America. Not exactly a wise investment.

    Finally, Jnewsham’s argument based on alleged subsidies for automobile transportation is also contradicted by the facts. Economic studies done by U.S. DOT and others show that car drivers largely pay their own way through federal and state taxes on gasoline, whereas rail transport is typically the most heavily subsidized form of transportation in America.

    In short, the liberals’ love affair with trains is economic insanity.

  • River Tam

    > Is that really what we want?