Trains, planes…. Oh, forget the planes!

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I have always loved trains.  I can recall my grandparent’s home, contiguous to the old Pennsylvania Railroad yards.  Which would keep me mesmerized for hours on end.  (My examination was accompanied by a slew of rainbow colored 45s I played on my RCA Victrola.  I was all of 2 or 3 when this fascination began.)   I toured the PATH (Port Authority Trans Hudson) lines,  the LIRR (Long Island Railroad- which Governor Nelson Rockefeller had the audacity to declare the finest commuter railroad in the nation, which would mean train travel in the US really had to be the pits).

My love continued through the decades.   Even as the Pennsylvania merged to become PennCentral, failed miserably only to be parceled out as ConRail and Amtrak (merging with other passenger train service across the US).  I still recall with immense pleasure the last private passenger service in the US (the Southern Crescent, which I took daily for a few years) and the AutoTrain, before they succumbed to Amtrak acquisition.

Oh, I flew, as well.   Stop your snickering, I’m talking about airplanes- not my automotive travels.  But, in the grand scheme of things, in spite of the (misguided) hub-and-spoke system the airlines tried for years, air travel is made for point-to-point travel and longer distances.  (Yes, I know that 35% of US flight are 700 miles or less- but that’s the problem.)

We need high speed rail to deliver the economical, rapid, and enjoyable shorter travel distances in the US. Of course, the Northeast Corridor comes to mind.  (I’ll discuss this aspect later.)  But, what about Houston to Dallas?  Minneapolis to Chicago?  LA to San Francisco, San Diego, and maybe even Las Vegas?  (Detroit to Chicago could also work if there is a Detroit in our future.)

You see, high speed rail works best for 200 to 600 mile journeys.  That means 60 minutes to 3 hours of travel.  Given the current state of air travel (with a 2 hour minimum add-on for each journey, due to “security” restraints), you can see why folks would jump at such alternative choices.

Those routes I outlined above also work because each city pair has reasonable transportation systems.  You can’t take a train to Charlottesville (VA), for example, because one needs a car to get around, or a viable mass transit system- which negates the benefits of train travel.   Trains need population and amenity density.

Acela Express
Acela Express (Photo credit: SignalPAD)

I know, China built their “bullet train” from Beijing to Guangzhou, but that 1200 mile route is a financial flop- at best.  No one wants to be on a train for 8 hours- unless the fare is free, since the plane can get you to your destination in about a quarter of the time.  (I once considered a train trip from LA to New Orleans, but given the 3 day journey and a fare more expensive than the air choice, plus the fact that my IQ exceeds 12 -by a factor of way more than a dozen- I never took it. And, therein lies the rub for new rail routes in the US.)

Laying tracks and acquiring land for a new train route runs some $ 10 million a mile.  And, using Europe as a guide, the annual costs for that line can run $ 50,000 per seat.  It shouldn’t take a math genius to discern that each route will need more than 5 million riders a year, maybe even 8 or 9 to cover the costs.  Acela, which handles the Northeast Corridor, only services 3.5 million passengers a year.  And, it only covers 88% of the annual operating expenses for the route.

That last problem is one easily solved, though.  But, only if someone shakes some sense into the collective brains of the Amtrak management. Why?  Because this 186 mile-an-hour train only averages 68 miles an hour.   Really!

You see, the Acela stops in NY, Newark, Metropark (Iselin), Philadelphia, Wilmington, Baltimore, and DC.  It even stops at BWI on occasion.  That makes no sense- all that stopping and starting is why the train takes forever to get from NY to DC or vice-versa.

Instead, that train should make no more than three stops.  Given the termini in DC and New York, that means one other stop.  So, the first train could stop in Philly, the second in Wilmington, the next in Newark, and the next in Baltimore (or any other combination).  With trains waiting at the chosen stop to go North and/or South. Getting passengers to those other intermediate stations.

This design would mean the trip from New York to DC could take only 90 minutes.  And, from New York to Baltimore (with a train change in Philly, for example, going to Wilmington and Baltimore), the trip would be under 2 hours- still faster than the current schedule. The same would apply to the other potential stops and trips.

And, then train ridership would greatly increase- and be well worth the Acela fare.

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