Thursday, January 27, 2011

I feel the need...the need for high speed rail

Amtrak's overpriced Acela Express is all that passes for high-speed rail in the United States.

In his state of the union speech the other night, President Obama spoke about the importance of high-speed rail in America.

It probably caught some people off guard since the speech was primarily about cutting the government's spending, and building a high-speed rail network would cost hundreds of billions of dollars, but Obama laid out a 25-year plan that would give 80% of Americans access to high-speed rail.

And I am glad he brought it up, since the state of America's passenger rail service is a sad state of affairs. In Europe, the train is the number one mode of inter-city transportation. It's cheap, the trains are clean, and they run on time. Meanwhile, Amtrak -- the government-aided company which currently is the only major passenger service in the country -- overcharges for tickets and offers slow service.

For example, I just went to Expedia and punched up a flight from Washington DC to New York City on March 1, 2011 and returning on March 3, 2011. Tickets start at $140 and the flight time is 1 hour and 11 minutes. Yet on the same dates, Amtrak charges $98 for a round trip ticket and it takes 3 hours and 39 minutes to get there. Is $40 worth 2 and a half extra hours to you? Probably not. The Acela Express train trims off 50 minutes but the tickets are $280 for round trip service.

Why anyone traveling on their own dime takes trains these days is beyond me. Sure, flying can be a hassle with security and waiting to board, take off, etc...but saving money and time are the two biggest factors when traveling and Amtrak fails in both areas. I'm willing to bet that most passengers on Amtrak are businessmen, traveling at the expense of their company, since working on a train is easier to do than on an airplane.

Trains still have that romantic nostalgia to them, and they could be an effective way to travel close distances if overhauled. Hopefully Obama's high-speed plan is able to depart from the station. It would create tons of jobs and make America more connected, with potential for living in one city, say Philadelphia and commuting to another, say New York, Baltimore or Washington, DC.

In the end, it's probably a pipe dream, since America has not relied on the train for over 50 years and airline companies and their lobbyists will try their hardest to kill any progress. But I am glad Obama put a light on rail service in America, because right now, it's pretty much a joke.

When is the last time you even considered taking the train anywhere?

1 comment:

Meghan said...

When I lived in Philly, I got rid of my car. I took the train all the time to Baltimore. It took a a little over an hour, faster than driving. The bus was cheaper but if it made it in 2 hours it was a miracle and 3 hours was standard. The earlier you buy a ticket, the cheaper you can get it and if you have a Triple A card you can also get a 10% discount if you book 3 days ahead of time. I wouldn't use it to cross the country, but for short trips, the train is ideal.