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The obsession with the past is hurting the future of passenger rail

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Nick Farr

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There's a lot of discussion here advocating for a return to the "height of the train travel era".

As railfans, it's always fun to see what once was. However, as far as advocating for the future of rail, arguing for a "return to the old days" in rail is as destined to fail as arguing for a return to the glory days of air travel.

We need to be focused on advocating for services that meet present passenger needs. The much maligned NEC is a success story that models how passenger rail works in the rest of the world and one which we should be working to repeat everywhere else in the country:

A dedicated rail ROW connecting adjacent urban areas and regions that:
1) Is owned and administered by AMTRAK (Just like the roads and airports are largely run by municipalities/with Federal Funding, etc.)
2) Used by commuter rail systems
3) Used by Higher Speed Intercity Rail services run by AMTRAK
4) Directly connected to Intercontinental Airports (like EWR, BWI)
5) Serves as a backbone for extended services outside of the central corridor (Downeaster, Newport News services etc.)

The future of passenger rail are services that meet present needs:

1) Shorter trips between major urban cores that are more convenient than getting on a plane.
2) Replacing "hub flights" with Intercity rail
3) Infrastructure where regional commuter and bespoke private passenger rail services can thrive.

We need MORE NECs throughout the country, expanding out the effectively regional services supported by the LD network if we wish to preserve the national network as a whole.
 
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jis

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I have also felt that this country which has a relatively short history as popularly perceived (afterall everyone completely ignores the pre-European conquest history of the entire continent until very recently), is obsessed with its recent past way more than many other places with longer history. For some reason it causes many rail advocates here to be frozen in place trying to replicate what it was like 50 or 75 years back, instead of genuinely looking forward towards what is the best that can be achieved. That is IMHO unfortunate.
 
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LookingGlassTie

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So would the solution be to have both regional segments AND a LD network? Or just have additional regional segments which could theoretically accommodate longer-distance trips?

To use an airline example, I took a plane trip from Norfolk, VA to Detroit, MI almost 26 years ago. The plane I was on was to proceed on to Nashville, TN. So, for some passengers, Detroit was a layover stop. While for others (such as myself), Detroit was the final destination.

So an Amtrak passenger COULD just stay on a particular train from point A to point B, even if that train serves regional "hub" stations. Is that kind of the idea?
 

Devil's Advocate

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I think part of the problem is the assumption that passenger rail advocacy is an either/or proposition. Dense commuter lines, long distance service, and (true) high speed rail serve different purposes that can coexist with each other. None of these services precludes expanding and improving others. Look at the private HSR proposed in Texas. If they're granted the necessary regulatory approvals, some legal protections from nuisance lawsuits, and a few limited reuse provisions they would probably be good to go with little or no negative impact to other initiatives and budgets. Expanding the NEC across more of the Eastern Seaboard is unlikely to impact our long distance network and bringing good food and amenities back to long distance rail is unlikely to harm commuter operations. All of these goals are achievable with the right people in the right places so long as we don't succumb to Anderson's divide-and-conquer rhetoric.
 
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20th Century Rider

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There's a lot of discussion here advocating for a return to the "height of the train travel era".

As railfans, it's always fun to see what once was. However, as far as advocating for the future of rail, arguing for a "return to the old days" in rail is as destined to fail as arguing for a return to the glory days of air travel.

We need to be focused on advocating for services that meet present passenger needs. The much maligned NEC is a success story that models how passenger rail works in the rest of the world and one which we should be working to repeat everywhere else in the country:

A dedicated rail ROW connecting adjacent urban areas and regions that:
1) Is owned and administered by AMTRAK (Just like the roads and airports are largely run by municipalities/with Federal Funding, etc.)
2) Used by commuter rail systems
3) Used by Higher Speed Intercity Rail services run by AMTRAK
4) Directly connected to Intercontinental Airports (like EWR, BWI)
5) Serves as a backbone for extended services outside of the central corridor (Downeaster, Newport News services etc.)

The future of passenger rail are services that meet present needs:

1) Shorter trips between major urban cores that are more convenient than getting on a plane.
2) Replacing "hub flights" with Intercity rail
3) Infrastructure where regional commuter and bespoke private passenger rail services can thrive.

We need MORE NECs throughout the country, expanding out the effectively regional services supported by the LD network if we wish to preserve the national network as a whole.
With appreciation for your forward thinking. Many of us on this forum... while nostalgic for the good old days, realize that change indeed means change... needs to keep pace with todays needs and todays innovations... especially if rail travel is to survive and thrive. Great Post! 🤞
 

sttom

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I also see that a lack of understanding of transportation from my generation as a problem. They tend to think all we need to do is build a bunch of TGVs and everything will be good, costs be damned. They are willfully ignorant of other parts of the rail network, like the need to speed up freight trains in this country from 38 mph on average to 60 mph on average. Or that passenger trains running up to 90 mph do carry most passengers in the country. The NEC does provide us with some stats to back this up, the Regionals carry 3 ish times more people than the Acela and the commuter railways all together carry the same order of magnitude more than the NER. But all we hear about is HSR or the pathetic 2035 plan. We need a well functioning rail system before we should even worry about HSR. Frankly, regional systems with connecting Amtrak trains would take more people off the road that high speed connections between major down towns will. I get the TGV is sexier than more NEC style routes and that my generation of politicians are frankly dumber than the people we already have in office, but that's not an excuse for the levels of blissful ignorance I encounter.
 

Devil's Advocate

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We need a well functioning rail system before we should even worry about HSR.
This is exactly what I'm talking about. We need to get out of this trap of either/or thinking. The US is a vast country with a large number of distinct situations and variables. High speed rail won't make sense everywhere but it can and should move forward wherever it is logistically and economically practical to do so. It makes no sense to hold back all high speed rail until every mile of conventional passenger rail has met some arbitrary performance standard first.
 
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crescent-zephyr

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We need MORE NECs throughout the country, expanding out the effectively regional services supported by the LD network if we wish to preserve the national network as a whole.
Who pays for the more nec’s?

And why do we need more nec’s and not more Pacific Surfliners?

And do we not also need more LD trains to connect all of the regionals?
 

sttom

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Messages
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This is exactly what I'm talking about. We need to get out of this trap of either/or thinking. The US is a vast country with a large number of distinct situations and variables. High speed rail won't make sense everywhere but it can and should move forward in locations where it is logistically and economically practical to do so. It makes no sense to hold back all high speed rail until every mile of conventional passenger rail has met some arbitrary performance standard first.
If we could get limitless money for non road transportation out of Congress, I would agree, lets go hog wild and build as much as we can. The reality that we live in is that we need a win and right now Brightline is our best example of a "high speed" project and its still just a conventional train. And getting the conventional network up to 60 mph isn't an arbitrary standard, its where the DOT thinks we need to be. And if we coupled that with more Amtrak service and it works, which it will. We have plenty of evidence to show that we can handle building rail infrastructure, which can be used as evidence to justify HSR. Right now, proposals for more HSRs can get laughed out of the room because 1 is bordering on being a boondoggle, 1 is a fancy conventional train, 1 can't sell its bonds and the only real one is still getting itself together. My point is to have steps to move forward on, yes let the balls that are already rolling keep doing so and let the chips fall where they may, but that's not an excuse to get distracted from the thankless work conventional trains do in the US and around the world and how we need more of them and how they carry more than our existing "high speed" Acela services carries.

Who pays for the more nec’s?

And why do we need more nec’s and not more Pacific Surfliners?

And do we not also need more LD trains to connect all of the regionals?
We frankly need more of everything and paying for them is generally cheaper than paying for more roads which will be full of traffic before they're even finished.
 

20th Century Rider

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If we could get limitless money for non road transportation out of Congress, I would agree, lets go hog wild and build as much as we can. The reality that we live in is that we need a win and right now Brightline is our best example of a "high speed" project and its still just a conventional train. And getting the conventional network up to 60 mph isn't an arbitrary standard, its where the DOT thinks we need to be. And if we coupled that with more Amtrak service and it works, which it will. We have plenty of evidence to show that we can handle building rail infrastructure, which can be used as evidence to justify HSR. Right now, proposals for more HSRs can get laughed out of the room because 1 is bordering on being a boondoggle, 1 is a fancy conventional train, 1 can't sell its bonds and the only real one is still getting itself together. My point is to have steps to move forward on, yes let the balls that are already rolling keep doing so and let the chips fall where they may, but that's not an excuse to get distracted from the thankless work conventional trains do in the US and around the world and how we need more of them and how they carry more than our existing "high speed" Acela services carries.



We frankly need more of everything and paying for them is generally cheaper than paying for more roads which will be full of traffic before they're even finished.
Yes... but poor San Antonio just can't seem to get any kind of rail transit in place... and they just keep on a-building more and more freeways which as you mentioned above... are full of traffic!!!
 

crescent-zephyr

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We frankly need more of everything and paying for them is generally cheaper than paying for more roads which will be full of traffic before they're even finished.
I agree but there needs to be separate funds for different services. There’s a reason the interstate, the state highway, and the county roads are all funded differently.
 

fdaley

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I don't think very many people here are under the illusion that we will somehow bring back the era of the 20th Century Limited or that all of the kinds of passenger rail services offered 70 years ago ought to be recreated today. And I don't see much maligning of the Northeast Corridor except to the extent that people in other regions of the country are frustrated that so many of Amtrak's resources are concentrated in that one section of the nation.

Definitely we should be working to develop new multi-frequency corridors in other regions and to expand and upgrade the few that already are running. The Downeaster is a great model for what can be achieved -- even on a line that had no passenger service for many decades. There has been pretty wide agreement for the past few decades that rail corridors connecting city pairs at 150 to 500 miles have the highest potential to attract a lot of new travelers onto trains.

But I think it's wrong to suggest, as some of Amtrak's current and recent leaders have, that supporting the national network of long-distance trains is somehow keeping the development of these short- and medium-distance corridors from happening. In fact, the existence of the national network was crucial to the development of most of the other corridors we now have outside the Northeast.

And though shorter-distance routes -- where the train can compete time-wise with planes for business travelers -- do likely have the biggest potential to attract new riders, I do sense a kind of bias among some rail advocates against long-distance trains that serve mainly leisure travelers. Vacations and leisure travel are not, in my view, any less worthy than business travel or commuting on short-haul trains, and I don't think the long-haul trains need to seen as merely a social service for people who happen to live in flyover country. If they're run well, which isn't happening now, they're a great way to travel, to see the country, and to get from A to B. They ought to be treated as a national asset and not as relics that are somehow less deserving of public investment.
 
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Devil's Advocate

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If we could get limitless money for non road transportation out of Congress, I would agree, lets go hog wild and build as much as we can.
Which counties with high speed rail today waited for limitless money before starting?

We have plenty of evidence to show that we can handle building rail infrastructure, which can be used as evidence to justify HSR.
If we allow the Texas and California projects already in progress to fail then all the conventional rail in the world will do nothing to counteract the narrative that public and private HSR will never work here. It's either now or never.
 
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20th Century Rider

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Ok ya all... you keep mentioning the beloved trains of future dreams... the 20th Century Limited is my dream. That's my train... of memories... we are moving ahead and beyond that era. But I want to pause at this moment of recollection and memory of personal dreams of bygone era... dreams are what the architects of this country used to focus on visions that moved us forward and moved us ahead.

So what does one say on their 1000’th post??? It’s been almost a year since last January 27th… date of my first post and green behind the ears ‘attendant.’ Since then I’ve had a lot of fun, met a lot of really great folks, and learned a lot about that which I am s passionate about… railroads!

And since then the world has really changed!

I am constantly challenged to do a lot of thinking… recognizing other points of view, and sometimes realizing that my point of view doesn’t pass muster. With you I’ve reminisced about the past, struggled with solutions for today’s railroad dilemmas, and dreamt about the future.

When I was just a kid and took that first ride on the New York Central, my ‘pipe dream’ was to become a conductor… and ride the rails every single day… on those beautiful and majestic trains.

What da ya know! The dream finally came true! With abundant appreciation to all fellow members, moderators, and organizers, thank you for this marvelous opportunity.

In this time of overwhelming confusion and sadness as a new president takes office… perhaps it’s ok to send blessings and hopes to all. For some of us life is simple. This is that moment for me.

And may we all be riding the rails for a long time to come! My once youngness and innocence from a better time call all to a place of happiness and inspiration. Move forward because that is what we do.

If this post of mystic nostalgia doesn't fit in here... ok. I just wanted to have a chance to say my thing. May our railroad dreams just keep a carrying on. The 20th Century Limited will forever be symbol of what's possible.
Thanks for letting me ride along!.png
 

bratkinson

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Choose one or more of the following:
1. Got money? Quadrillions of it???
2. How to deal with NIMBYs
3. WHERE are you going to route it?
4. "Build it and they will come" is not a 'sure thing'.
5. "Returning to those days of yesteryear" is not an option.

1. One thing that has long been said to be inevitable, death and taxes. With few brief exceptions, ever-increasing taxes have been around practically since the first governments on earth. Convincing everyone that they HAVE to pay 75% income tax to fund passenger trains will be a very hard sell. The ONLY way to get people off the highway is to make it too expensive to drive! That's how it happened in Europe after WW2. Gasoline is still too high over there, so people take transit and intercity trains.

2. If a small group of NIMBYs in Illinois can 'kill' a 3rd track on the former Milwaukee Road, how much louder and stronger will they be even to 'upgrading' the NEC reducing curvature etc? And building a second route slightly inland NYP-BOS is some of the priciest real estate (and richest folks) in the land. Does one think for one second they'd willingly want a high speed train in THEIR back yard? Or even THEIR town? Using eminent domain will guarantee the politicians involved will lose the next election.

3. To make high speed trains a success, it has to go from one very populous city to another. Dallas to Houston, for example. San Francisco to Los Angeles (in a nearly straight line between the two!). Intermediate stops are 'speed killers' and can only be done at well populated enroute cities. Averaging only 80-90 mph between endpoints because of intermediate stops will kill any 'bullet train' operation.

4. Whether it's brand new airports in Asia to new light rail lines that end up serving a very small number of daily passengers, simply getting the money and building it does not assure success. Anyone remember the 'commuter train' in Syracuse NY that fizzled after a few dismal years?

5. As much as I would have liked to ride Ed Ellis' recreation of 1950s 'first class' Pullman service, the reality was that except for the over 60 crowd that actually remembered riding the 20th Century or the Super Chief, the market was very small. And the younger crowd was likely very disappointed that the accomodations were 1940-1950 'modern' and not updated other than maybe retention tanks. Look at the number of tried-and-failed luxury trains such as AOE that had enough business to stay alive a few years before going under. Passengers that can afford luxury accomodations and service are not the clientele that pays 99.9% of the fares. Even the hoity-toity SST airplanes with outrageous ticket prices called it quits when it came time to replace the aging planes. Only the rich folks could afford to ride 'em. About 1978, my boss, the president of a 500+ person company at the time, rode the SST on a business trip and complained it was way too expensive for what he got other than a fast trip each way.
 

crescent-zephyr

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5. As much as I would have liked to ride Ed Ellis' recreation of 1950s 'first class' Pullman service, the reality was that except for the over 60 crowd that actually remembered riding the 20th Century or the Super Chief, the market was very small.
The Ed Ellis plan did not fail because of a small market. The market was actually better than expected for the Chicago to New Orleans line.

The plan was Chicago to New York. Amtrak made it impossible for them.

When I rode, there were only 2 passengers over 50. It was mostly young and middle aged adults.
 
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MARC Rider

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There's a lot of discussion here advocating for a return to the "height of the train travel era".

As railfans, it's always fun to see what once was. However, as far as advocating for the future of rail, arguing for a "return to the old days" in rail is as destined to fail as arguing for a return to the glory days of air travel.

We need to be focused on advocating for services that meet present passenger needs. The much maligned NEC is a success story that models how passenger rail works in the rest of the world and one which we should be working to repeat everywhere else in the country:

A dedicated rail ROW connecting adjacent urban areas and regions that:
1) Is owned and administered by AMTRAK (Just like the roads and airports are largely run by municipalities/with Federal Funding, etc.)
2) Used by commuter rail systems
3) Used by Higher Speed Intercity Rail services run by AMTRAK
4) Directly connected to Intercontinental Airports (like EWR, BWI)
5) Serves as a backbone for extended services outside of the central corridor (Downeaster, Newport News services etc.)

The future of passenger rail are services that meet present needs:

1) Shorter trips between major urban cores that are more convenient than getting on a plane.
2) Replacing "hub flights" with Intercity rail
3) Infrastructure where regional commuter and bespoke private passenger rail services can thrive.

We need MORE NECs throughout the country, expanding out the effectively regional services supported by the LD network if we wish to preserve the national network as a whole.
What's the best candidate for the next NEC?

I might think that based on current frequencies and the regional population, it might by the Pacific Surfliner route. Not quite the NEC, which does have 5 metro areas whose population exceeds 1 million people (BOS, NYC, PHL, BAL, WAS), but the LA - San Diego Region sure has a lot of people. And the routes not only have the Amtrak intercity service, they also have commuter service. Plus, there is extensive rail (or light rail) connecting transit in both LA and San Diego. To truly NEC-ify the route, they need to double track and eliminate grade crossings. Then they might be able to run the trains faster.

The other NEC type corridor that might be built is Chicago - South Bend- Toledo - Cleveland, and Chicago - Detroit - Toledo Cleveland. If you also develop a Cleveland -Pittsburgh and Cleveland - Buffalo corridor, and if you ever get the Keystone West service (Harrisburg - Pittsburgh) running, you'd have corridor service overlapping the two main New York Chicago long-distance routes, which would allow for sharing of overhead costs and improving the financials for the Lake Shore Limited and and New York - Philadelphia - Chicago train. In fact, why not also a Washington - Pittsburgh Corridor, although going over the Sand Patch grade is very, very slow, and there aren't really any big cities in between Washington and Pittsburgh.

Most of these corridors might not serve enough population to justify more than 4-6 trains a day, but the Chicago-Cleveland service might generate enough business to justify hourly service.

Of course, the Southeast high speed rail (even if it's only "higher speed rail") would be a good candidate for an upgrade, and connecting Washington, Richmond and the Carolina Metropolises (Raleigh, Greensboro and Charlotte) might generate enough business to justify hourly service. These would also provide sharing of overhead costs for the Silver service and the Crescent.

There's certainly enough population in Texas along the I-35 corridor to justify hourly service between the Dallas Ft. Worth Metroplex and San Antonio, but the infrastructure is a little flaky (for example, the rail route bypasses Waco, one of the larger cities between Ft. Worth and Austin), and, of course, this is Texas. For that matter, a corridor connecting San Antonio and Houston, and Houston and the Metroplex would probably do well, too. Again, the only way suitable infrastructure will be built is with public funding, and the only way that's going to happen in Texas is when enough Californians move to Texas to change the political culture. :)

In general, I think the kind of future we should be aiming for is a whole bunch of corridor services (whether HSR or just "higher speed rail") with select long-distance connectors to form a national network. As far as the kind of attentive service that we seem to remember from back in the "good old days", I think that (1) maybe in reality it wasn't always as good as people remember, and (2) that kind of service is long gone from everything else in our society, so why should we expect it on Amtrak trains?
 

MARC Rider

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3. To make high speed trains a success, it has to go from one very populous city to another. Dallas to Houston, for example. San Francisco to Los Angeles (in a nearly straight line between the two!). Intermediate stops are 'speed killers' and can only be done at well populated enroute cities.
Ah, that's why the Eurostar stops at those two super-megalopolises of Calais and Lille. :)

Averaging only 80-90 mph between endpoints because of intermediate stops will kill any 'bullet train' operation.
Hey if you can average 80-90 mph point-to point, that's a lot faster than driving. Northeast Regional average something like 70 mph NY - DC, and it not only makes a lot of intermediate stops, which improves its usefulness, but it's still faster than driving.
 

Devil's Advocate

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Convincing everyone that they HAVE to pay 75% income tax to fund passenger trains will be a very hard sell.
Were did this figure come from? Why not limit corporate deductions or raise capital gains instead? For a culture consumed by taxes we sure struggle to understand how tax law actually works or how much it costs to fund anything.
 

Qapla

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For some reason many seem to think that LD trains are mostly used for "leisure" travelers. Even if it is - What's wrong with that?

Came across this :

  • Direct spending on leisure travel by domestic and international travelers totaled $792.4 billion in 2019.
  • Spending on leisure travel generated $124.6 billion in tax revenue.
  • 4 out of 5 domestic trips taken are for leisure purposes (80%).
  • U.S. residents logged 1.9 billion person‐trips* for leisure purposes in 2019.
  • Top leisure travel activities for U.S. domestic travelers: (1) visiting relatives; (2) shopping; (3) visiting friends; (4) fine dining; and (5) rural sightseeing.
  • Direct spending on business travel by domestic and international travelers, including expenditures on meetings, events and incentive programs (ME&I), totaled $334.2 billion in 2019.
  • ME&I travel accounted for $139.3 billion of all business travel spending.
  • U.S. residents logged 464.4 million person‐trips* for business purposes in 2019, with 38% for meetings and events.
If I am reading this right - leisure travel brings in about 2.37 times more money than business travel - so, expanding and improving LD trains for leisure travelers would/should be a good thing and a primary concept ... not an after thought or a side effort.



U.S. Travel Answer Sheet | U.S. Travel Association
 

bms

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Jan 29, 2018
Messages
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Cleveland
Ok ya all... you keep mentioning the beloved trains of future dreams... the 20th Century Limited is my dream. That's my train... of memories... we are moving ahead and beyond that era. But I want to pause at this moment of recollection and memory of personal dreams of bygone era... dreams are what the architects of this country used to focus on visions that moved us forward and moved us ahead.

So what does one say on their 1000’th post??? It’s been almost a year since last January 27th… date of my first post and green behind the ears ‘attendant.’ Since then I’ve had a lot of fun, met a lot of really great folks, and learned a lot about that which I am s passionate about… railroads!

And since then the world has really changed!

I am constantly challenged to do a lot of thinking… recognizing other points of view, and sometimes realizing that my point of view doesn’t pass muster. With you I’ve reminisced about the past, struggled with solutions for today’s railroad dilemmas, and dreamt about the future.

When I was just a kid and took that first ride on the New York Central, my ‘pipe dream’ was to become a conductor… and ride the rails every single day… on those beautiful and majestic trains.

What da ya know! The dream finally came true! With abundant appreciation to all fellow members, moderators, and organizers, thank you for this marvelous opportunity.

In this time of overwhelming confusion and sadness as a new president takes office… perhaps it’s ok to send blessings and hopes to all. For some of us life is simple. This is that moment for me.

And may we all be riding the rails for a long time to come! My once youngness and innocence from a better time call all to a place of happiness and inspiration. Move forward because that is what we do.

If this post of mystic nostalgia doesn't fit in here... ok. I just wanted to have a chance to say my thing. May our railroad dreams just keep a carrying on. The 20th Century Limited will forever be symbol of what's possible.
View attachment 20294
Better than I could have put it. Hey, I think the tracks are still there, it could be done! The USA landed on the moon and has designs on colonizing Mars. It's certainly possible to have a true first-class train.
 

railiner

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For some reason many seem to think that LD trains are mostly used for "leisure" travelers. Even if it is - What's wrong with that?

Came across this :





If I am reading this right - leisure travel brings in about 2.37 times more money than business travel - so, expanding and improving LD trains for leisure travelers would/should be a good thing and a primary concept ... not an after thought or a side effort.



U.S. Travel Answer Sheet | U.S. Travel Association
Good points. The only thing I would add is that the proportion of business to leisure travel on long distance trains is but a tiny fraction of the total proportion you cited. There is just a miniscule bit of business travel on long distance trains.
 

jis

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The Ed Ellis plan did not fail because of a small market. The market was actually better than expected for the Chicago to New Orleans line.

The plan was Chicago to New York. Amtrak made it impossible for them.

When I rode, there were only 2 passengers over 50. It was mostly young and middle aged adults.
I would submit that while people love to deflect blame onto their favorite boogie man, most of Ed Ellis' plans failed because mostly of Ed Ellis. They just were not really viable to start with.

Ah, that's why the Eurostar stops at those two super-megalopolises of Calais and Lille. :)
To be fair though, only a few Eurostars stop at Calais or Lille, and at least when I traveled last time, there were none that stopped at both. Both Calais and Lille have bypass tracks which are used by most Eurostars.

BTW, you forgot to mention Startford International and Ashford International in UK which have somewhat the same characteristics as far as Eurostar stopping patterns go. When I traveled last Eurostars were not stopping at all at Startford, and a few stopped at Ashford, but most bypassed it.
 
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crescent-zephyr

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Messages
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I would submit that while people love to deflect blame onto their favorite boogie man, most of Ed Ellis' plans failed because mostly of Ed Ellis. They just were not really viable to start with.
Yes and no. Ed Ellis is an interesting character. But regarding Pullman Rail journeys specifically, the plan was viable. Amtrak did not want to cooperate. That’s not putting blame on anyone, that’s just a fact as far as I’m concerned.
 
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