Passenger-Trains Not an Option

Via both op-ed and the “letters” forum, much has been said lately about the need for extensive rail passenger-service throughout the nation, i.e., that Amtrak should make a huge effort to establish ground transportation by rail, thus relieving the traffic on both highways and airways. Actually, this only points up the reason for traveling, whether as a delightful journey just for the sake of it or a trip that’s necessary, with time in transit the prime consideration.

The rail corridor between Boston and Washington has already been put to good use with high-speed trains that deliver passengers directly to specific urban destinations rather than to airports miles away, necessitating further transportation (taxis) or car-rentals. The trains run 150 mph at times but do not travel constantly at near that speed. The average speed between New York and Washington is about 77 mph and between New York and Boston about 64.

Checking a current timetable reveals that an Acela (fast shuttle train) leaves New York’s Penn Station at 6:00 a.m. and arrives in Washington at 8:55, nearly three hours including about 8 stops that eat up time. A train leaving Boston at 5:10 a.m. arrives in New York at 8:45, three hours and 35 minutes and about 6 stops. A flight to Washington from Laguardia takes an hour and 20 minutes and to Boston about an hour and 15 minutes. The trains have no steps, so they stop at only special platforms such as those in subways.

Trains make sense in the Northeast Corridor situation and attract a huge rider-ship; however, they serve none of the many small cities and towns along the way. They do not travel over dedicated tracks but must use those over which freight trains are operated, with the freights handled so that the Acela trains are not delayed, at least hopefully. They also traverse crossings at grade, always a dangerous circumstance because drivers cannot accurately gauge their speed (especially at 150) and sometimes ignore warning-lights and gates.

Interstate rail travel is an altogether different matter, if only on the basis of huge distances. Also, Acela speeds don’t apply between New York and San Jose. A passenger leaving Ashland, Ky., headed for San Jose, California, for instance, will spend some 70 hours on the train, nearly three days, some of which time is spent changing trains and at stops. A Delta flight takes about 6.5 hours with one stop. A coach fare is $466, with first class (sleeper) at $1261. There are few of these trains, as is the case throughout the country, east/west and north/south, with very few stops for passengers.

After WWII, owing to affordable cars and massive highway construction, rail-passenger traffic died rather quickly. The last north-south passenger-train through Lexington made its last run in 1970. In the 1940s, there were at least 12 trains a day through Danville (14 during the winter months), where the trains from Louisville intersected the north-south line.

There were “locals” that stopped in virtually every town on the line. All the “through” trains included a mail-car as well as baggage cars and sleepers. They were relatively fast, considering both the time and the terrain between Cincinnati and Chattanooga. No. 3 made it in 8.5 hours, with a few stops…335 miles.

Covering about 2,500 miles, the train-trip from Ashland to San Jose averages about 36 mph, though I have a locomotive friend who operated trains at about 90 mph over a division from central Illinois west. The railroads are not enamored with passenger trains because they cause delays to freight trains, which furnish virtually all the revenue (profit). At one time (and probably still), the division of the Norfolk Southern between Danville, Ky., and Harriman, Tenn., handled/s the greatest volume of freight trains of any railroad east of the Mississippi River.

Bus transportation companies have suffered the same loss of business as the railroads. A plethora of buses used to come through Lexington (busy downtown terminal) and service the many towns through which they passed. That time has long since passed due to the automobile, even though government money furnishes the roads, unlike with the railroads that have to build and maintain their tracks at great expense.

People think in terms of the fast rail systems in Europe and Japan, with speeds in Japan set at 199 mph for passenger comfort (curves, turbulence, etc.). Maximum speed in Germany is 186 mph. In Norway, regular gasoline costs $11.54 a gallon and in England $9.85. Gas is much higher in Europe and Japan than in the U.S. so there’s great incentive to ride the rails.

Heavy freight trains make rail maintenance costly and constant. As a former locomotive engineer, I handled coal trains requiring six engines at some 200 tons apiece (21,600 horsepower) and 100 cars of coal at 135 tons each—total weight 14,700 tons. Imagine the forces at work when that train went around a sharp curve at just 40 mph. The ride was not smooth, though one might expect it to be like gliding.

This means that tracks for freights do not lend themselves to smoothness even for light passenger trains, especially at high speeds. The RRs don’t want passenger business. Even if a train could make 150 mph constantly (impossible in curves and on steep grades) and never stop, it would still need much more than a day to make it from New York City to Los Angeles.

Except for the north-south coastal “corridors,” interstate passenger service will not happen as a significant interstate entity.

And so it goes.
Jim Clark