Comparing America’s passenger train system to that of Europe is difficult. One has efficient, popular high-speed trains running on tracks criss-crossing the continent. The other doesn’t.
In fiscal year 2022, Amtrak served 22.9 million passengers. That figure was down ten million from 2019 when 33 million people rode Amtrak, a 30% decline. By contrast, in 2022, some 736 million U.S. air passengers were screened by the TSA, as airline travel returned to near pre-pandemic levels.
Green advocates want to replace airliners with trains. But according to the data, it could be argued that the opposite is actually happening.
There are many reasons for this. There is limited service between cities (Amtrak says it runs 300 trains with about 87,000 passengers per day), freight is often prioritized over passenger service in the U.S., and trains and facilities are often outdated. The Pacific Surfliner in California, for example, runs on a single track for long stretches, requiring switching that limits service.
But Amtrak doesn’t help its cause with constant delays and service outages. I’ve enjoyed the Surfliner’s comfort and spaciousness, but I was frustrated by an additional hour delay on what should have been just an hours’ ride to Ventura. Many are familiar with Amtrak delays, particularly in heavily trafficked East Coast corridors where commuters and travelers depend on the trains.
In Southern California, since September of 2022, passengers have had to leave Amtrak trains for a bus, then get on another train to their destination. There appeared to be some movement in the hillside and the tracks taken by the scenic Surfliner, so the hillside had to be stabilized.
A media advisory announced some good news: that weekend Pacific Surfliner service between San Diego and Orange County without a bus connection will finally resume on Feb. 4 on Saturdays and Sundays. The bad news: The tracks will remain closed on weekdays for construction, which is expected to be completed sometime in March.
If you don’t have a car, or just don’t want to drive, you’ll have to endure a long train and bus odyssey. The 135-mile trip from Van Nuys to San Diego takes about two and 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 on Thursday, January 26 at 9:09AM from Van Nuys would arrive at 1:20PM, a 4-hour, 11-minute “3 segment Mixed Service” marathon.
It’s a shame, really, because the Pacific Surfliner offers travelers a spectacular view of the Pacific. It follows a 351-mile coastal route through San Diego, Orange, Los Angeles, Ventura, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo counties.
Meanwhile, as a result of recent storms, tracks are closed north of Goleta (just north of Santa Barbara) for repairs and construction, with bus service providing connections to San Luis Obispo and the Bay Area. Service is supposed to be restored north of Los Angeles by mid-February.
Unfortunately, this appears to be the latest proof 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 U.S. 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, including two in the last year and a half. On September 25, 2021, the Empire Builder derailed in Joplin, Montana, killing three and injuring 50. On June 27, 2022, the Southwest Chief derailed near Mendon, Missouri, killing three passengers and a dump truck driver and sending 150 to the hospital.
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 rail crossings of trespassing on railroad property.
Amtrak was allotted $66 billion dollars in the bipartisan Infrastructure Bill to deal with some of these issues. The $66 billion “represents the largest investment of its kind since Amtrak was founded in 1971,” Amtrak CEO William Flynn noted. He said $44 billion would go to the Federal Railroad Administration for state grants and rail projects, with$22 billion for fleet acquisitions and various improvements.
Yet even with this and other Federal largesse, one publication states that Amtrak is resigned to ‘perpetually losing a billion dollars per year.’
Even $66 billion will hardly address the demand for more trains, less planes from green activists. The 2019 Green New Deal called for the US to “build out high-speed rail at a scale where air travel stops becoming necessary.”
Trains do create less carbon than airliners per passenger. And high-speed trains can get passengers door-to-door as fast as planes over certain routes, such as Beijing/Shanghai, London/Brussels, and the BosWash corridor, (Boston/New York/DC) when travel to and from the airport is included.
This is true even for Amtrak’s anemic Acela, which averages 68 mph compared to European and Asian trains capable of 200 mph. Even the biggest US rail advocates will admit that US train service hardly resembles that of France, Germany, or Japan.
If the U.S. is serious about building a true high-speed national train network, many more billions of dollars must be spent. But considering how the auto and the airplane currently dominate American travel, if you build it, will they come?