Why Trains Don’t Work in America

I can imagine taking the train to New York on vacation, because I am a train nut and the trip would be fun in itself. But let’s think about this as a business trip: taking the train would not only cost about 1.5 times as much — or four times as much with a compartment, and I’m just sure I’d be all set to go right to work in New York after two full days in a coach seat — but it consumes four working days in travel time. I can manage a one-day business trip by plane, but a one-day trip to New York by train is a five-day trip. Subsidies won’t help: counting in the lost time, Amtrak would have to pay me $4,000 to make up for the time difference. The travel time difference is so large that Amtrak couldn’t compete if train tickets were free.

I’ve had the same experience. I love trains and a couple years ago I was planning on taking the train to Boston for a weekend, but Amtrak was more expensive than the train and would take three to four times as long. I have to go to Cleveland for a wedding right after Christmas this year and the train ride is three to four times as long as a plane flight and twice as long as driving would be. (Plus, we’d need to rent a car while in Cleveland to get around.)

When in Europe two years ago, I took the train between cities and loved it but trains just aren’t time-efficient for the distances we need to travel here in America. While over there I discussed with a friend of a friend that Europeans also had an advantage in building public transportation because we assumed much of the demolition costs for them during World War II. We paid to clear the space they needed to build their subways and light rail systems, but having to bear the costs of demolition and construction, it becomes economically infeasible to repeat that over here. Plus, as noted the distance and the fact our cities tend to cover a larger geographic area than theirs. Comparing our use of public transportation and Europe’s really is comparing apples and oranges.