Thank You for Flying Amtrak

No, Amtrak did not have an airborne derailment as far as I know. The subject is actually referring to the increasing number of travelers bypassing airplanes for trains. Unfortunately, that is VERY rare in the world of Amtrak, but in Europe it’s happening all the time.

Why is it happening more in Europe than in the US? It’s all about speed. You may have seen the news that a train in France last week broke the speed record by going just more than 357 mph. Sweet! But that’s not realistic for every day travel.

What is realistic is this. Let’s take a look at two popular routes supposedly on “high speed” trains:

  Boston – New York Paris – Lyon
Miles 187 244
Elapsed Time 3h30m 1h55m
One Way Price (USD) $87 $58

Now can you see why European trains are taking off? The Acela Express route between Boston, New York, and Washington is the only “high speed” train in the US. Well, when your high speed train takes twice as long to go 50 fewer miles for 50% more cost, you’re in trouble.

Meanwhile, things keep getting better in Europe for train travelers. When London moves the Eurostar to its newly redone St Pancras station, the travel time between London and Paris will shrink to just over 2 hours. Apparently, according to this article, new rail lines will allow you go the 709 miles (as the crow flies) between London and Barcelona in a mere 6 hours! That’s astounding to those of us in the US who couldn’t even hop a slow train from LA to Vegas if we wanted to.

As you can imagine, ridership over there is certainly going through the roof as well. This release says that in the London-Paris market, the Eurostar train has captured 70% of the total travel market. It’s been such a poor air market that bmi recently dropped flights between the two cities entirely. The same is happening in many short haul markets throughout Europe. Does this mean airlines are screwed?

Nah. It just means that they’re going to require fewer resources to serve short haul markets. In London – Paris, only Air France and British Airways are flying the route. You think they’re flying it for the local traffic? I’d bet not.  Those flights have to be there to connect those cities into their respective networks. If this were to happen in the US, you’d see a lot fewer flights in short haul markets that would be timed to feed into the big connecting banks.

So will we see it in the US? I wish, but probably not. First of all, in the west I’d imagine these big ole’ mountains would be problematic for creating straight, flat track. Sure we could run a train straight up the San Joaquin Valley for 500 miles here in California, but getting into San Francisco or LA is another thing. Oh, and it’s not like buying land is cheap or easy for a project like this. Just imagine how expensive it would be to get enough land to run your high speed train between two major cities. It’s definitely no small feat.  Besides, the US government has made sure that Amtrak stays busy maintaining the transcontinental lines that have very little value instead of focusing on high speed corridors.

And of course, don’t forget the airline and oil lobbies. (Not that anyone has ever underestimated the oil lobby.) Airlines want to keep flying those short haul routes and oil companies want to keep filling those planes with liquid gold. They aren’t big fans of electric-powered trains.

So while the Europeans can ride in style, we’ll still be stuck in security lines waiting for our flight to leave when the weather finally clears out.

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3 Comments on "Thank You for Flying Amtrak"

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Tyler
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The trains in Europe are fantastic. They’re more convenient, cheaper, and more comfortable than America’s airline network. Every city, town, and village is connected, and the major rail lines even connect with local public transportation. There’s no question that a vast rail network would have been the better way to go in the U.S., especially with how sprawling it is. But it ever took off- some blame Henry Ford and the auto industry for lobbying congress away from supporting the rails in light of cars. Whether that’s true or not, Amtrak doesn’t connect to a lot of the country. They’re… Read more »
Jason Darling
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Excellent write up. Additionally, trains are far less of a contributor to global warming than planes. Look at this site- http://www.seat61.com/Pop-up-flights.htm I’m headed to Europe this summer and will us trains throughout my travels to various countries.

Steve
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While I love European trains and support the development of similar high-speed services in the USA, I want to step up and defend Amtrak as a great alternative to air travel even on long distance routes. If you have the time, Amtrak offers comfortable long-distance overnight (and multi-night) trains with nice sleeping accomodations and real dining cars. The scenery and on-board company of fellow passengers and Amtrak staff is always part of the fun. Also on many routes, the National Parks Service does a play-by-play enroute. the train is no alternative on a three-day business trip, but if you’ve got… Read more »
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