It is difficult to compare the US passenger train system to that of Europe. They have efficient, popular high-speed trains that run on tracks that cross the continent. The other not.
In fiscal year 2022, Amtrak served 22.9 million passengers. That figure was ten million lower than in 2019, when 33 million people rode Amtrak, a decrease of 30%. By contrast, some 736 million U.S. airline passengers will be screened by the TSA in 2022, as air traffic returns to pre-pandemic levels.
Green advocates want to replace airplanes with trains. But according to the data, one could argue that the opposite actually happens.
There are many reasons for that. There’s limited service between cities (Amtrak says it runs 300 trains carrying about 87,000 passengers a day), freight often takes precedence over passenger traffic in the US, and trains and facilities are often outdated. California’s Pacific Surfliner, for example, runs long stretches on a single track, requiring limited service switching.
But Amtrak doesn’t help matters with constant delays and service outages. I enjoyed the comfort and space of the Surfliner, but was frustrated by an extra hour delay on what should have been only an hour’s drive to Ventura. Many are familiar with Amtrak delays, especially in busy East Coast corridors where commuters and travelers depend on the trains.
In Southern California, since September 2022, passengers must exit Amtrak trains for a bus and then board another train to their destination. There seemed to be some movement in the hill and the tracks of the scenic Surfliner, so the hill had to be stabilized.
A media consultancy announced good news: that weekend, Pacific Surfliner service between San Diego and Orange County without bus connection will finally resume on Saturday and Sunday, February 4. The bad news: The tracks remain closed during the week for construction work, which is expected to be completed sometime in March.
If you don’t have a car, or just don’t want to drive, you will have to endure a long train and bus journey. The 215-mile journey from Van Nuys to San Diego takes about two and a half hours by car. Before the latest delays, it took three and a half hours on the train. Now, according to the Amtrak schedule website, a train departing Van Nuys at 9:09 a.m. on Thursday, Jan. 26, would arrive at 1:20 p.m., a 4-hour, 11-minute “3 segment Mixed Service” marathon.
A shame really, because the Pacific Surfliner offers travelers a spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean. It follows a 351-mile coastal route through San Diego, Orange, Los Angeles, Ventura, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo counties.
Meanwhile, due to recent storms, tracks north of Goleta (just north of Santa Barbara) are closed for repairs and construction, with bus services providing service to San Luis Obispo and the Bay Area. Service should be restored north of Los Angeles by mid-February.
Unfortunately, this appears to be the latest evidence that Amtrak is not a reliable alternative to the car, bus or plane for tourists, travelers and commuters.
If Amtrak service were fast, efficient and reliable, it has the potential to take thousands of cars off the road in the LA-San Diego corridor alone. It would also be an ideal way for US and international tourists to visit Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and San Diego without a car or guided tour bus.
In addition to problems with delays and service cancellations, there have been at least ten fatal accidents involving Amtrak trains since 2011, two of them in the past year and a half. On September 25, 2021, the Empire Builder derailed in Joplin, Montana, killing three passengers and injuring 50. .
As recently as January 19, 2023, a disabled vehicle was struck by an Amtrak train near Vacaville, CA, killing one person. Such incidents are all too common. According to the Federal Railroad Administration, more than 400 people are killed each year at railroad crossings or entering railroad yards.
Amtrak was allocated $66 billion dollars in the bipartisan infrastructure bill to address some of these issues. The $66 billion “represents the largest investment of its kind since Amtrak’s inception in 1971,” noted Amtrak CEO William Flynn. He said $44 billion would go to the Federal Railroad Administration for state grants and rail projects, with $22 billion for fleet purchases and various improvements.
But despite this and other federal generosity, one publication states that Amtrak is resigned to “constantly losing a billion dollars a year.”
Even $66 billion will barely meet demands for more trains, fewer planes from green activists. The 2019 Green New Deal called for the US to “build out high-speed rail on a scale where air travel is no longer necessary”.
Trains create less carbon per passenger than airplanes. And high-speed trains can get passengers door-to-door as quickly as planes over certain routes, such as Beijing/Shanghai, London/Brussels and the BosWash corridor (Boston/New York/DC) when it’s included to and from the airport.
This even applies to Amtrak’s anemic Acela, which averages 68 mph compared to European and Asian trains that can do 200 mph. Even the staunchest proponents of US rail will admit that US rail service hardly resembles that of France, Germany or Japan.
If the US is serious about building a true national high-speed rail network, many more billions of dollars have to be spent. But considering how the car and plane currently dominate American travel, if you build it, will they come?