Can I Rail Against American Rail?

Logic and American public policy all too often have zero connection to one other. The distance between what government ought to be doing, especially about infrastructure–and what government is, or more accurately, isn’t doing–is especially obvious when it comes to rail.


Anyone who has ventured onto the nation’s highways can appreciate the benefits of shifting freight delivery to rail from the huge number of long-haul trucks that clog those highways. But those benefits aren’t limited to safer and easier driving for motorists, or even to less wear and tear on roadways that taxpayers must maintain at significant cost. Trains pose far less threat to the environment:

In absolute terms, the picture is clear. Worldwide, road users account for about 71% of transport CO2 emissions, with railway companies making up less than 1.8%, next to 12.3% for aviation and 14.3% for shipping, according to the International Energy Agency and International Union of Railways.

When it comes to passenger travel, the picture is cloudier because the United States simply does not prioritize travel by rail, and a traveler’s ability to make an informed choice–to decide how to get from point A to point B–is thwarted by the fact that all too often, no trains run between those points. Even when passenger trains are available, they are often old and the tracks poorly maintained, thanks to years of underfunding Amtrak. (To the extent that there is an exception, it is in the heavily populated Northeast Corridor, where the Acela is extremely popular.)

My husband is a train buff who follows news about Amtrack; he recently shared an item that illustrates America’s neglect of the country’s rail infrastructure.

When Amtrak was last reauthorized by Congress, the criteria for the board of directors was changed to bring a broader swath of members to the board from outside of the Northeast Corridor.

Today’s board members, all appointees from the Obama administration, are all continuing service after the expiration of their appointed terms. Amtrak’s by-laws allows board members to continue to serve until a new board member has been nominated by the White House and confirmed by the United States Senate.

At this moment, every board position from the chairman down to the most recent appointee are all out-of-term and waiting to leave when their successor has been confirmed by the senate.

As of now, the Biden White House has not nominated any new members to the board after being in office for 15 months.

Given Joe Biden’s long support for– and personal use of– train travel, this is especially annoying.

My husband and I have traveled extensively on trains in Europe and Asia. They are plentiful and up-to-date (bathroom facilities in each sleeper car, excellent dining options. wifi, etc.). In Europe, destinations are closer to each other, but in China, we were on trains that took days transversing lengthy, often unpopulated, landscapes.

Our last train trip in the U.S. was from San Francisco to Chicago (Indiana has refused to participate financially in rail, so options from Chicago to Indianapolis are scant. That leg required MegaBus…)

We had booked the best sleeper on the train. To say it was a disappointment would be a distinct understatement. The cars were at least 40 years old, and tired. When the seats in the compartment were turned down to make beds, you couldn’t open the door to the bathroom. Needless to say, there was no Wifi. Thanks to delayed maintenance of tracks, we hit a place where they’d washed out (I no longer remember where). We sat for several hours while Amtrak figured out how to re-route us onto tracks owned by carriers operating freight trains. Ultimately, we were 19 hours late getting into Chicago.

That trip was a nightmare, but we were on vacation–we didn’t have to be anywhere at any particular time, so we were annoyed, but not terribly inconvenienced. Obviously, however, “service” like that will never generate the sort of robust business and personal travel we routinely saw in  Europe, where businesspeople filled one train–with Wifi, and various other amenities–that ran every twenty minutes from Madrid to a city in southern Spain, roughly the distance between Indianapolis and Pittsburgh.

Multiple studies show that rail travel is environmentally superior to both air and automobile travel. It is indisputably more pleasant–and frequently takes less time than air travel when going through security and travel to and from the airport is factored in.

We won’t have the benefits that rail travel can provide so long as Amtrak is underfunded and its board consists entirely of holdovers. Rail needs to be a much higher priority.


  1. Truckers can afford better lobbyists than Amtrak can. Perhaps the current run-up in fuel prices will motivate the drivers of the monster SUVs to consider efficiency and maybe the good of the earth and how the big rigs fit into the picture.

  2. The knuckle dragging Republicans do not like rail because they get so much campaign funding from the road builders. Right wing idiot Scott Walker refused the Obama era funding for high speed rail in WI. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity to build something modern and good. So the R’s hated it. AND it was coming from that scary black dude …so NO.

  3. The knee-jerk reaction from Pat is anticipated in the USA where the political parties play spoilers for their oligarchic owners.

    The problem with rail travel is it would eat into the profits of several industries controlling the media and government. The culprits are in the article above but you have to go beyond the knee-jerk stage to see it. In other words, use critical thinking skills versus emotions.

    China has incredible rail systems with bullet trains traveling at speeds of 400 mph. As Jack Ma (owner of Alibaba) would say, the US government spends its money on the military versus investing it in the people and have for decades.

    The profiteers drive the decision-making and investments. If it doesn’t serve their interests, it’s not a priority. Rail travel was actually designed for the medians on our major highways. Look how far we haven’t come and then guess why…

  4. Rail traffic is also a hodge podge of varying track ownership, a hidden logistical nightmare that allows different trains to be prioritized on different sections of track, all on the same trips.

    A massive investment in both passenger and freight rail would pay for itself, if you look at whole budgets rather than just passenger tickets. Highways would last effectively forever if you took big rigs off them, so that’s a huge transportation savings. Fees for freight would make money, and local infrastructure for local delivery is more easily managed at the local level.

  5. The idea of returning to the rail service era for me brought back memories of, no matter where I was going or what time of day or night, we had to allow extra travel time to allow for stops while mile long, slow moving trains held up all traffic in both directions. My granddaughter Jennifer was almost born on New York Street downtown while waiting for trains to pass in both directions during rush hour. The cost of repairing millions of miles of tracks to safe conditions, not to mention the condition of the rail cars such as Sheila experienced, is a deterrent. Building overhead tracks through cities, think of the Indianapolis spaghetti bowl downtown, over interstates and housing developments makes returning to rail service such as we see in an occasional movies, a fantasy. The major cities with overhead elevated public transportation and subways cannot be duplicated elsewhere at this late stage.

    Rail transit and travel SHOULD HAVE BEEN a much higher priority decades ago when it was a feasible possibility.

  6. Does anyone recognize Dr. Barry Commoner? He campaigned for president in the 1970’s and made restoration of railroads the centerpiece of his campaign, espousing the environmental and other benefits. I wonder what impact his ideas would have had on our current climate an transportation crises. Just another missed opportunity.

  7. I love trains. But the sad fact is that, except in areas where the population is dense, they are not economically feasible. Trains work better in Europe because they have population density. We have a population, particularly out west, that is widely spaced out with hundreds of miles of nothing in between population centers. I remember seeing the cost of running some of those western Amtrak lines. It was costing like 10 times to run those lines than they were earning from passenger fees. I wish the reality were true regarding trains, particularly with regard to freight transportation. I’d like to get those huge semis off the road. But that freight gets transported by semis because they’re more flexible in how they operate and they are a much cheaper alternative.

    On a very sad and unreported note, it appears to me that the Indy Megabus is no more. I was on the Megabus website looking at possibly booking some travel (I would often ride the bus from Indy to Atlanta) and found Indianapolis is no longer listed as a city it services. Chicago, Cincinnati, and Columbus, OH have also been eliminated. The Megabus was so much better than Greyhound. This is a tragedy.

  8. The week I spent in southern England enabled me to learn a lot about the value of well functioned rail. It was wonderful! I live in Macomb, Il, where Amtrak is an asset. We are a college town and Rails enable young people to get from Chicago to Macomb and back without delay. Our town works to make sure an excellent resource is not neglected. Dufus people in power who don’t back public transport can’t think far into the world need to be informed with forceful information.

  9. There is another obstacle stunting the growth of high-speed rail in the US as well as many other needed infrastructure investments: exorbitant costs and delays. I cannot cite the source but an article I read in the last year or so quoted research that showed that high-speed rail projects in the US cost 3-4 TIMES what similar projects cost in other advanced countries with democratic governments.

    This was attributed to primarily two reasons: First, the USA’s very unique and terribly wasteful 3+ tiers of government that have to review and approve everything….at least two (Fed and state) and often large cities or Native American nations.

    But the real killer in the US is the legal system. There are consultants that will work on behalf of opponents to any project and will work to find some obscure little bug that MIGHT become extinct as a result of the project. Lawsuits are filed on behalf of opponents or their proxy’s and these have to wind their way through years of litigation and appeals, often resulting in a decree or settlement that requires $ millions in modifications that provide little if any value.

    I’m not saying that we should abandon due process and transparent review of such projects, but our national infrastructure capabilities remind me a lot of our health care system. And our military-industrial complex, and our food-complex, and on and on and on. Democracy in the US has to figure out how to rid itself, or at least lessen the impact, of crony-capitalist oligarchs and the elected officials they own.

    Eliminating gerrymandering and getting money out of elections would be a good start. Maybe term limits as well. If we only had the will.

  10. I agree with most of the opinions about trucks and moving freight. What we fail to address is the number of truckers who would be out of work and if there would be alternatives for them. The US currently has a shortage of certified truckers of approximately 80,000. Yes, the freight would still need to be moved from rail to final destination by local truckers. It’s complicated to say the least and long past an easy solution. Indiana put its chips on automotive decades ago. We have turned right of way into greenways making a move to rail again even more complicated and costly.

  11. Sheila,

    Have you considered contacting Mike Schmuhl to ask him to connect you with Secretary Buttigieg? Would you and/or your husband be interested in volunteering to be members of the Amtrak Board? You might be able to get the ball rolling to improve rail funding and to consider expanding rail transportation in this country.

  12. Trip to Chicago one year was five hours. We took bus back in three hours. Europe has it down pat.

  13. Europe has great train service. Why? Might I suggest the Marshall Plan? After two wars in the 20th century had devastated the infrastructure of all of Europe, we paid to rebuild it. They did it smartly, though and made train travel a high priority. A lot of our remaining railbed is the same that was built in the 19th century. Yes it’s been upgraded slightly to do things like standardize the track size, but we have NEVER invested in new methods of powering trains, nor in providing rail designed for faster trains. Even Acela might not get you from Washington to New York in less than 6 hours. Acela has priority on the available rails, but it doesn’t run on its own rails, because we didn’t build them. We need a Marshall Plan for US. (Maybe that’s the message MTG was trying to get to 45?)

  14. Dream on folks…why would I want to slump along in a train when I can drive 90 MPH on the interstate, weave in and out of traffic, tailgate and BE IN CHARGE (without being stopped)?

  15. It may be correct that the US has missed the boat, so to speak, in creating a modern passenger rail network. Paved all-weather roads and creation of the Interstate highway system in the ‘50s combined with comfortable, reliable door-to-door movement by private car made that The American Way. Mass transit has been associated with cramped, uncomfortable seating, inconvenient timing, and forced association with other people’s rude & odoriferous ways. (Hey— sounds like airline travel!). Our cities, suburbs, housing, roads, our economy— our very lives— are designed around private vehicles and cargo trucks. Undoing all would be an unimaginable task. The best we can hope for is rail travel in the most densely populated regions. Much as I would love and use fast rail travel between Indianapolis and, say, Chicago, I don’t expect it to happen. Instead, we will shrink our cars European style, electrify them, and enjoy electronic entertainment while crawling along in dense traffic.

  16. Republicans have been advertising for years that we ought to be spending more of our money benefiting business owners at the expense every other stakeholder in business and instead of investing in the creation and care of the infrastructure that every individual, family, institution, and business uses every day. We have helped that cause by agreeing to buy and place all around our lives, in rooms, in cars, in businesses, on the streets, everywhere we go, instruments of advertising/propaganda as long as the influencing is interspersed occasionally with “entertainment”. We have ignored a major part of what defines us, our country, to support what only defines the 1/3 of our life spent working. We have voluntarily given up our ability to define who we are.

    Why are we surprised that we feel out of control and angry and tense all of the time?

  17. I’m sure some of you have noticed semi trailers being moved on train cars. To many rail right of ways have been abandoned to return completely to the heyday of trains. But we could greatly increase the used of trains to move freight over larger distances.

    And with some extra engineering, many interstate right of ways could support high speed trains, which are much lighter than freight cars. a network of 200 mph trains connecting Louisville, Cinncinnati, Columbus, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Evansville and St Louis, up to Chicago at reasonable prices woudl draw lots of passengers. Imagine getting on a 200 mile/hour train in Indianapolis at 6:00 am and being in Chicago at 8:00 am, spending the day in museums, shopping and catch the 6 pm train back to indy after an early dinner, and back in Indy at 8. Or adding a show after dinner and catching the midnight train back to Indy and home at two am.

  18. rail enviromentally,the best option. in trucking,let me explain, rail yards are a bottle neck,and often in areas of towns where the on-off ramps are in major congestion any time of day. a truckers nightmare when you have voted to mandate electronic logs,,, and no where to park!!!!those yards do not allow us to park there,and wait,though they can and will make you wait til they decide where that pig/container is, they cannot load/or dispatch you in a timely matter. the short haul of rail to warehouse,then sort and load other trucks to destination. (few buinesses get whole truck loads or cantainer loads,they have to be sorted)time and handling and money. you have to be in this buisness to know it. no one will invest anything to make it easier for us the trucker to manage our time better,that profit goes into investors pockets. we do not have a lobby that supports us,only the profits, try and buy/finance a truck, we get laughed at because no one pays us in a timely matter.( theres federal laws that say to) i would encourage rail anyday,its a better system for,,,, but not for shipping by truck that takes people who like myself who have to babysit a specialized load that rail dudes would just throw on a railcar. its not viable in many aspects of shipping. many of my customers donot want idiots to handle what needs to be watched and treated with respect,like contracts for on time delivery and items that may be needed to keep a project ontime due to lack of storage space on site and needed handling by equipment schdualed for a certain time on site. cranes cost $1000s an hour,be late and see who pays.
    if the mega I,gotta have my car for my own suprerior needs everyday,to make me feel special and show how i paid too much for my personal enjoyment i seen on that think tank thought out commercial..lets see you change the mega traffic jams in so-called rush hour,,( its funny,rush hour,you wanna rush to work?) maybe requiring your cage to turn off your hand held fantasy land and a soundsystem in that cage to play smoothjazz would soften the inpact everyday from road rage and spilled latte’s.. (i love smoothjazz)…the biggest polluter is the car,mega cars,i see above the traffic,mega exhaust, mega issues with going to or from work.maybe your in our way? sitting and stinkin in traffic isnt fun with your leg on a clutch between idiots who have to be first,or infront of that %&*&*&&^ truck to see why your stuck.. im the guy whos in second gear crawling slower because you dont umderstand why we are here in this mess… dont crowd the trucks it maybe something thats gonna pad your ass again and again and whos in whos way?
    the goverment only spends enough money for all the yes boys and girls to vote for it in congress. it doesnt vote for roads to last.get off the whos got what lobbyists. that idea doesnt pad out. if it did we wouldnt privatetize roads and watch them deteriorate in Indiana,and then watch that foreign investor scheme go to your legislature and beg for more money,again,, or any other state. workin half my year now in road construction,hauling that hot road oil,(asphault) to the portable mixing plants that set up in the near area where aggrigate is available, to make the road mix,concrete the same scheme,heres a extra bit of trivia, rail cars that ship this hot liquid asphault/cement to a distribution yard. rail cars are always delayed,,,always. a few reasons, can put about three truckloads in a rail car,,in the areas like the upper plains where we actully build heavy roads and haul heavy weight,or like in Indiana,four loads per rail car. do some math here, the railroads are under staffed for a reason,money,now if that rail car can haul three of four loads and charge as such,and the overhead by the rail road is way under my operating costs. the rail system is subsitized like myself thru taxes to get the roads/rail maintained. now you all know who buffet is? BNSF?maybe his class of investor needs a good taken out back,and why rail will never get anywhere..the rail roads have a deliberate shortage of help,if you ever want a job with them,understand,you will work on call for years to start,because they will not hire full time because they have to pay you a living wage.(times 20 hours doesnt make a paycheck)your lucky to get 10 hours a week, and have to sit near the job and be there in 60 minutes when called in at any time,,or your fired,this is policy.this is how the railroads are.. because they expect you to serve the system they want over the needs of the workers. its all run by managers who like investors who want the big dollar. i have had many discussions with rail crews who sort and deliver cars to rail sidings,few work 40 hours a week,and they are on call 24/7..
    enviromentalists, will and do, stop expansion of the good for any reason. like expanding rail lines.
    and if ya dont like that truck, quit buying stuff….

  19. Love, love trains. Have never understood why the US doesn’t invest more in them – I guess the above comments tell me why. I rode the Californian Zephyr from Chicago to San Fransisco a few years ago and loved it – food was plentiful, views wonderful and although the sleeper was minuscule, it was not uncomfortable. I don’t remember whether it had wifi because I didn’t look at my phone – and my bathroom door did open at all times!

  20. Peggy:
    the plan from the trump scheme was to privatize all new roads and toll the rest that gained any help thru trumps admin. that PPP was public,private partnerships, the fact is, any profit would be first in someones pocket,rather than upkeep and redos, where state/U.S. gov keeps pouring more momey where its been taken by investors..

  21. Patrick:
    do you have a figure how much from such projects go into investors pockets in these projects?
    the secret is,no one ever asks the question,or.will bring it forth. recent article i read was 1.78 trillion would give every working person a living wage every year. how much is lost to the investors over changing it? the figure would probably make the case why it doesnt get done..
    basic, if the worlds GDP is about 65 trillion,and The U.S, is 23 trillion,whys isnt there any movement in such ideas? ask the likes of bezos and such, and see how they have put there money in the likes of blackrock,(Amazon 60% ) and tied up trilliions in investment schemes that only support the staus quo. unless it will make money for bezos and his ilk, we will never see a euro U.S.

  22. Reality check….by the time those posts are filled and operational, there will be a new President…likely GOP. Last nail in the rail coffin….

  23. What’s called intermodal shipping, which is standardized containers moved by ships, trucks and trains, has revolutionized the movement of cargo whether between or within nations.

    More and more people are treated like cargo on mass transit in every form. That’s why we love the sanctuary of our own cars.

    We will continue to do that until family by family it becomes unaffordable.

  24. Amtrak did receive $66 Billion in the Infrastructure Bill passed by Congress last year and signed into law by President Biden. So, Biden and the D’s haven’t totally ignored passenger rail service.

    But $66 Billion, as observed by others, is just a drop in the bucket of what it would take to establish — just — adequate inter-city passenger rail service in the U.S. — let alone high-speed rail service like that in Japan, China, and Europe.

    Although Amtrak apparently plans to spend a big chunk of that $66Bn on improving its crumbling infrastructure on its popular and highly utilized Northeast Corridor — — Amtrak is also apparently going to put some of that money towards purchasing new and better cross-country rail cars that among other amenities will reportedly have Wi-Fi.

    Perhaps the major roadblock (so to speak) preventing Amtrak from providing better on-time service is that outside of the tracks in the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak is relegated to using the tracks owned by the major U.S. freight railroads, which Amtrak must pay for the right of using (Somewhat ironically perhaps, the land those rail lines sit on was originally given to the private railroad companies by the U.S. Government to encourage the building of cross-country rail lines). The major reason Amtrak is notorious for delays is that the freight railroads prioritize their own freight trains over Amtrak passenger trains (and why wouldn’t they?) Thus, when one of the many 200 car long freight trains is coming through, the Amtrak trains are shuttled off onto a siding to wait until the freight train (or trains) has passed through.

    The fact that Amtrak doesn’t own and doesn’t control the present major cross-country, inter-city
    track rights-of-way also means that Amtrak can’t use those rights-of-ways to build new high-speed rail tracks on them. Thus, to build high-speed rail lines, Amtrak would have to purchase new rights-of-ways. And if you want to see how that goes and how much that would ultimately cost, just look at California’s attempt to build a new intra-state, inter-city high-speed rail line.

    As pointed out by several of the realist posters above, long distance inter-city high speed (or even just on-time) rail service in the U.S. could never even come close to paying for itself (something that conservatives think rail service must do even if it’s not required for highways and air travel). But then even in places such as Europe and Japan where there is higher density, it doesn’t come close to paying for itself.

  25. We can’t have trains in America for exactly the data point you made: They only contribute 1.8% to atmospheric carbon. Cars use a lot more petroleum. Can’t be replacing our gas burners with something efficient.

  26. Jack Smith, I really enjoyed your posts on this subject and I do feel your pain and frustration with the situation you and all working people feel in this country. I was an owner operator before deregulation and it wasn’t pretty then. Forced dispatch covering the lower 48 , Canada and Alaska which usually ran a dollar mile for interstate and two for intrastate and get this fuel 23 to 25 cents per gallon. Stay on the road for weeks and months at a time and if you got to go through your home town they were on the phone pressuring you to get back on the road . Say old story as today , sold my rig and got hired out on the BN as a brakeman. Good pay benefits and yes I was on call like you said but like they said you are paid for your inconvenience . Inconvenience is not not in the trucking industry’s dictionary . The problem is everything has to be for profit and have private ownership here in the USA . Tax payers dollars are not allowed to support or subsidize anything that can not be turned into a profit for the corporations. Now the government wants to send how many billions of dollars to Ukraine so maybe they can purchase more weapons from US arms makers or how about the raise the private medicare insurance (Medicare Advantage) just got to put in their pockets which was just lifted out of yours. Socialism is alive and thriving but it is only for the Trump’s of the world. The thing that has always bugged me is why do the working class people not stand together to create a better place for all families . I know one answer is conquer and divide on issues that don’t seem effect me . Good luck keep the nose to the grindstone maybe you can buy twitter someday.

  27. When the National Interstate and Defense Act was signed in 1956, Air travel was still in it’s infancy. Cars were still somewhat of a luxury. Cross country road travel was slow and laborious. Rail roads were still making money hand over fist, and had been since the robber baron days of the Golden Age. The Rail Roads were private investment and capitalism at its finest. Nobody could see that something might put the rail road in decline. Yet here we are and trillions of dollars later with subsidies for the trucking and auto industry, via the Interstate and National Defense act, we are lamenting the demise of the rail roads.

    Most of the rest of world has realized that rail roads are a vital and necessary part of the economy and will not survive with the onslaught of subsidies given to the trucking industry.

    When you have an entire tricking industry that is given nearly unlimited tax payer subsidized infrastructure, they can afford to lobby the competition into oblivion.

  28. Agreeing with the various comments on the freight end of the equation (my father had a siding next to his warehouse. It was a lot easier to deal with than trucks – that also delivered bikes at times).

    I remember a trip from Chicago to New Orleans long ago. The last available sleeper was a handicap room (no one needed it, so they sold the ticket to me) – roomy with decent food on the train – It was 6 or 8 hours late, but I wasn’t in a hurry and –5 minutes to my hotel instead of 90.

    I also remember Chicago to Detroit with a six hour delay due to snow (driving in normal weather takes about 4 1/2 hours)

    Then I was invited to a focus group for Amtrak – they insisted that of all of their choice, the one saying that there were never weather delays was the one – I disagreed – I suggested alternatives – that was the last focus group I was ever invited to.

    Amtrak didn’t know how to attract customers and we also have a chicken and egg problem, along with the maxi mindset –
    The maxi mindset says if you don’t dominate the market, you are a loser or the market is and shouldn’t be entered. All or nothing.
    Chicken and egg – don’t spend money because there is no demand and there is no demand because the train service is so lousy.

    I’m from Detroit – your wheels are your freedom, but that doesn’t decrease the appeal of trains.

    If only

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