All stations but America: why the US can't fall in love with rail

Train tracks : flickr/jurvetson There are many reasons why Amtrak suffers from an unenviable reputation: sluggish operating speeds, expensive tickets and long journeys being among the most obvious. But just as important is the American philosophy of ‘individualism’, which has proven incompatible with the idea of nationalized transport.

Passenger trains are barely and rarely represented in trendy American entertainment and in the American mass media. Long train journeys are popularly believed not to be exhilarating enough and surely are not all the ravishing rage in the United States. The famous press footage that is granted to jet planes, war tanks and upscale automobiles is almost never shared with the passenger trains.

As an Asian living and working in North America’s mid-western city of Chicago, the non-existence of a widely and heavily knit passenger rail network (excluding the north-eastern corridor) in a nation as large as this left me in disturbing discomfort.

Growing up in 1990’s liberalizing India where the profitable and proficient Indian railways remained a quintessential and encompassing ingredient of urban and rural life, it was barely a consolation to re-watch in cold Chicago the celluloid scenes form Sir Richard Attenborough’s classic film ‘Gandhi’ where the Mahatma upon his initial return to the Indian sub-continent from South Africa embarks on an invigorating cross country train journey to understand the massive diversity and heterogeneity of the Indian terrain, topography and ethnic territories.

 Amtrak (b/w) – americantrains

3,924 km long, the ‘California Zephyr’ covers one of America’s most scenic routes. Yet it was 3/4 unoccupied in both directions. The Americans, it seems have never been in love with the train. Pic: Amtrak

Determined to explore the North American rail networks and to understand why there never are sighs of the slightest enthusiasm to partake in train journeys in the United States, I set off for a whole week on Amtrak’s historic and most admired long train routes – The California Zephyr and the Coast Starlight.

The tapering trapezium of the John Hancock tower diminished on the Chicagoan skyline this January as my train pulled out of the Union Station in downtown Chicago.

Making a journey from Chicago, Illinois across North-America to Emeryville, California covering 3,924 kilometers in 52hours on the ‘California Zephyr’ was for me the most hassle-free mode of continent exploration.

Originating in the mid-western city of Chicago the Zephyr passes westwards through the states of Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and California. The passenger train route of the ‘California Zephyr’ started in 1949 is the eighth longest train route in the world and one of America’s most scenic, second only to Amtrak’s ‘Coast Starlight’  which sprints 2,216 kilometers along the Pacific ocean from Southern California to Oregon and Washington State covering the west coast's entire length.

Yet, shockingly three-quarters of my Superliner train all through both journeys was unoccupied, more shockingly, the sleeper-roomette and dining car services were first-class plush and fantastic and most shockingly an overwhelming thirty-six of the forty American peers I spoke with at the University of Chicago had never before heard of Amtrak’s ‘California Zephyr’ or ‘Coast Starlight’ all along while growing up in sub-urban America. What they had heard of were the shorter train routes and the dilapidated Amtrak stations at the little towns on these interior routes.

Why might a locomotive that lustfully loops around the upper Colorado River valley in the Rocky Mountains, the Wasatch Mountains, the Pequop Mountains and the Sierra Nevada mountains through forty odd tunnels be so insignificant and infamous?

As an economist I’ve often pondered if the general state of public transport and the specific state of passenger trains in the United States tells us a story about the priorities of the populace. Is the American love affair with trains over with altogether? Or did it never exist in the first place?

A brilliant piece of journalistic writing in the New American titled ‘Amtrak and the Railroads’ goes on to summarizes the frustration an average American feels towards the Amtrak passenger trains – “Amtrak and its lobbyists at the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP) at the recent commemoration of the third annual National Train Day are supposedly celebrating “America’s love for trains,” the day could not boast a more ironic host than the railroad nobody rides. Worse, Amtrak’s sponsorship was as shameless as Dracula’s funding a fashion show concentrating on décolletage: The government that owns Amtrak has sabotaged, subsidized, and sucked the life from American railroads since the industry’s inception.”

In more common conversation it is often argued that the federally subsidized monopolistic Amtrak passenger trains charge its commuters an exorbitant price to be able to pay their unionized staff inflated salaries. An individual return ticket on the California Zephyr costs $550 which is exactly twice the cost of a return ticket on a domestic airline from Chicago to San Francisco. Also, the Amtrak passenger trains aren’t exactly the fastest trains in the world and can take almost five to ten times the duration to reach a destination compared to an airline. While the operating speed of the Eurostar trains between London and Brussels or London and Paris is an overwhelming 186mph, the average operating speed of Amtrak’s Superliner trains is a mere 47mph.  And most obviously an American would argue that it is more economical to rent or own a car and drive across the continent’s gloriously connected convenient six lane expressways from coast to coast than make an expensive yet, rigid slow train journey in which you are merely a passive observer with no control at all.

Yet, the disastrous economic and political consequences that the nationalized Amtrak passenger trains pose to it’s customers might not have everything to do with why their Superliner trains lack complete luster in the minds of the Americans. The real reasons may go beyond how much time it takes to reach LA from Seattle on the Coast Starlight or how much currency it would cost to buy a seat on the California Zephyr from Chicago to Emeryville.

The real reasons may have to do with the real overriding philosophy of ‘individualism’ and the ‘indestructible importance of the individual’ on which the entire nation has been built brick by brick for generations. The real notions of the individual against nature, the individual’s conquest, the individual’s adventure, the individual’s unstoppable power of exploration, the individual’s immeasurable power to define leisure at her/his will, the individual’s pride in his/her personal exclusivity which have been reiterated and reconfirmed in recurring frequency by the media, the arts, the entertainment and most significantly by science and technology in North America surely and stably add up to why the idea of scuttling and scampering in a nine compartment passenger train with hundreds of other fellow passengers is unbearable to the average American who wants his holiday to be solely exclusive and not shared.

American capitalism’s precious beliefs of positioning the ‘individual choice’ above the ‘collective communal choice’ and of prioritizing the ‘individual interest’ before the ‘institutional interest’ have made the American consumer overtly selfish, child-like and demanding the best services his money can fetch him; and surely mode of transportation is not an excusable exception to this school of thought.

When the privately owned fuss-less low cost airlines and the fuss-less car rental enterprises can excruciatingly spoil their customers with custom made traveling options, the nationalized Amtrak failingly falls far behind. The only strata of customers the Amtrak seems to unfailingly and securely attract all round the year are the baby-boomers and senior adults who for one receive 15% discounts on their cheapest tickets; secondly are disadvantaged when it comes to driving on the expressways in unfavorable weather conditions and thirdly have the time to ride on a train for two whole days and sometimes more.

Sadly but truly, the California Zephyr christened after the Greek god of west wind ‘Zephyrus’ is a magnificent exclusivity of its own, exposing you to a wild terrain view than cannot be attained from 30,000 feet above. As President Obama unveils his transportation plans in his new budget, supporters of Amtrak argue that in succeeding years the federal grants and subsidies have not kept up with the grants and subsidies to the other sectors of transportation primarily the Inter-state Highway System and the Federal Aviation Administration. Amtrak President Alex Kummant has repeatedly noted that Amtrak receives a subside of $40 per passenger while the expressways receive between $500-$700 per automobile, implying that Amtrak’s superliners could be on their deathbed in the near future, if expected to pay property taxes all the while and achieve self-sufficiency at the same time.

Amtrak’s critics and supporters and senators can eternally argue about how the long passenger rail routes have to be made profitable and if they ought to be run privately. But, at the end of it all, increasing or decreasing grants to the passenger trains might make no difference to social preferences of passengers and who romanticizes an Amtrak and who doesn’t in North-America.

About the author

Shilpa Kameswaran is an Indian author and the founding editor of the literary journal Urban Confustions

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