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America Aspires to One Day in the Far Future Build Rail Service Worse Than It Was in the 1940s

In the months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, someone traveling from Nashville to Atlanta likely would have taken the train. One option, the Dixie Flagler, ran from Chicago through the southeast to Miami. The 289-mile trip would have taken 6 hours and 10 minutes. Nowadays, there are no passenger trains from Nashville to Atlanta. But by 2035, Amtrak hopes to relaunch that service. It will take, by Amtrak’s own estimate, six hours and 34 minutes, or 24 minutes longer than it did 81 years ago.

Hayden Clarkin, a transit planner who tweets under the handle @thetransitguy, shared this finding on Twitter on July 14. As of this writing, it has been retweeted more than 2,500 times. 

Politicians love to talk about American exceptionalism—that America is the greatest country in the world—as well as the growing need to be increasingly competitive with other economic powers, most especially China. But no topic humbles both concepts quite as much as trains, where America is neither great nor competitive. 

The degree to which the U.S. cannot hold a candle to high speed passenger rail networks in Europe, China, Japan, and even Morocco is well-documented. What is less well-documented is how the U.S. struggles to compete with a different type of foreign country: The United States about 80 years ago. 

“The richest country in the world has to do better,” Clarkin said in his tweet.

Inspired by Clarkin’s tweet and an ensuing email exchange, Motherboard compared the anticipated travel times of Amtrak’s 2021 Corridor Vision plan, set to go into effect in 2035, with historical timetables for the same routes posted on American-Rails.com, a rail enthusiast website. Most timetables were either from 1941 or 1952. While there are nuances, for the most part Clarkin wasn’t cherrypicking an outlier case. There are several routes where trains were faster in the 1940s and 1950s than Amtrak hopes to achieve in 2035. 

Among the routes:

  • San Diego to Los Angeles took 2 hours 45 minutes on the San Diegan in 1952 making normal stops. An express train ran once a day in each direction in just 2 hours 15 minutes. Today, the Amtrak train makes the same trip in 2 hours 55 minutes. For some reason, Amtrak expects this trip to take 10 minutes longer in 2035, for a total travel time of 3 hours 5 minutes.
  • Amtrak wants to launch a Houston to Dallas service in 2035 in 4 hours 30 minutes. In 1952, the same trip could be made in five minutes less on the Sunbeam.
  • Chicago to Milwaukee was once a major passenger route taking just 82 minutes in style with reclining lounge seats, a parlor car, and various levels of meal service. Today, the trip takes 90 minutes. In 2035, an Amtrak expects it to take the same amount of time it does now.
  • Milwaukee to St. Paul is another route that doesn’t hold up so well to its 1952 counterpart, taking more than a half hour longer between the two midwest cities.
  • Atlanta used to be a major rail hub and Amtrak wants to revive that tradition. It also wants a train to Chattanooga taking more than three hours. In 1941, it took two hours and 58 minutes.

When presented with these findings, Amtrak spokesperson Jason Abrams said there are two main reasons for the slower travel times. First, Amtrak trains often have to make more stops than their pre-Amtrak counterparts. (Abrams didn’t go into detail why, but as a quasi-government corporation, Amtrak sometimes makes more stops along a route to please Congressional representatives who need to authorize its funding, unlike the private railroads that existed before Amtrak’s formation in the early 1970s.) As an example of the added stops Amtrak now makes, Abrams pointed out the 1959 New York Central’s New York-Chicago route took 16 hours and made eight stops, whereas Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited along the same route takes 19 hours 10 minutes making 18 stops, including a lengthy pause in Albany where train cars coming from Boston are linked up. 

The second reason has to do with track priority. Passenger trains generally travel on the same tracks as freight trains. When the passenger and freight trains were owned by the same company, they typically prioritized passengers. Now, in the Amtrak era, freight rail companies no longer operate passenger train service but still own, operate, and maintain the tracks, which Amtrak uses. Although the law requires them to prioritize Amtrak trains, in practice they rarely do, resulting in an escalating beef between the freight companies and Amtrak

“Amtrak’s host railroads often do not prioritize Amtrak trains over their freight trains, even though that is required by law,” Abrams said. “As a result, Amtrak has to build additional time into schedules.” (Seasoned Amtrak travelers will know even these schedules rarely bear a resemblance to reality as trains can be held up for hours waiting for freight rail to pass. So even Amtrak’s schedules typically understate how much slower train travel has in practice become.)

One of the few places Amtrak does not have to contend with freight rail is along the Northeast Corridor from Washington, D.C. to Boston via New York. Either Amtrak or regional commuter rail systems own those tracks. And it is one of the few routes with noticeable time improvements since the Eisenhower Era and the only stretch with anything approaching high speed rail service, saving riders some 45 minutes between New York and Washington when compared to Ye Olden Times. And New York to Boston on Acela—until recently the only stretch of track in the U.S. with true “high speed rail”—is 21 minutes faster than the fastest train in 1952. 

Yes, our trains here in the northeast are looking mighty fine these days, so long as you compare them to the ones our grandparents rode. Mighty fine indeed. Unfortunately, the rest of the country doesn‘t hold up so well. One day, our children may ride on trains almost, but not quite, as fast as their great-grandparents did. 

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