Why do Amtrak trains have to be so slow?

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David

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It baffles me as to why there is not a more adequate system of rail transportation in the U.S. that is both faster and more conveinant. For a hypothetical situation, I was wondering how long it would take to ride the Amtrak train from where I live in Austin, TX to Los Angeles, CA. It takes about 38 hours direct, which to me is rediculous. It takes about 20 hours, almost half that time, to drive from Austin to Los Angeles, a distance of about 1400 miles. Doing the math, the Amtrak train travels at about 35 miles per hour. I understand that the train makes stops and that time is factored in. Also, I understand that Amtrak has to use the freight lines, which also contribute to the added time. What I don't understand is why there can't be more funding for Amtrak to fix all of this. For one, there should be an express train for every Amtrak line. Such an express line for the Texas Eagle, which travels from Chicago to Los Angeles, should stop only in Chicago, St. Louis, Little Rock, Dallas, Austin or San Antonio, El Paso, Tuscon, and Los Angeles. Second, even if the Amtrak traveled at half the speed of a Japanese bullet train which would be 90 mph, there should be no reason why this train can't rocket across a landscape as barren as the American Southwest. Stopping for as long as an hour in each city between Austin to Los Angeles would only take about two hours. Given the train travels at 90 mph, the total trip time should take only about 18 hours, or slightly less than the time it would take to drive. If the systematics of this hypothetical situation could be applied all over the country with Amtrak I feel that more people would be inclined to use rail travel and not drive. There could arise the need for even more trains and train routes that aren't so dependent on freight lines. I don't understand why more can't be done, and I was hoping somebody in the transportation industry could provide me with a little more insight.
 

SarahZ

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What I don't understand is why there can't be more funding for Amtrak to fix all of this.
You and everyone else on this forum. Write to your representatives, join NARP, and spread the word. Many of my friends and family members have expressed a desire to travel by train thanks to all of my stories, photos, and videos. A few of them completed their first Amtrak journeys this year. The more people riding, the more demand it creates, and the more popularity Amtrak will gain. Hopefully, someday, Congress will see it the same way.
 

saxman

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The top speed for the Texas Eagle is 79 mph. And I disagree that the LD trains should have express trains. In the major corridors, such as DFW to Austin, yes, but it wouldn't really work for the vast open areas of the west. Most of those small towns really rely on rail service and even though fewer people use those stops, they still provide significant revenue to Amtrak. And

And 20 hours from Austin to LA is also without stopping for breaks, unless you're driving with 2 people and drive throughout the night. So I'd say with a hotel stay it'll be more like 25 to 30 hours for driving.

And lastly, you're preaching to the choir about better Amtrak funding. Amtrak has never had a meaningful funding mechanism like highways and the aviation system have enjoyed for decades. Each Amtrak has to request a grant from Congress and each year the amount it receives is different. It makes it hard to run a business when you don't know how much money you're going to have in a year. I'm hoping one day, we'll get a real comprehensive national passenger rail plan with a way to fund it as well. Perhaps a national public transportation bill or a surface transportation bill that includes all forms of transport. So pretty much, Amtrak has a been a political punching bag since it began in 1971, and that's why we have what we have today.

Read these forums, and you'll learn a lot about Amtrak. Also if you are interested in helping get better rail, join a local group for passenger rail. We have several Texans in this forum as well. Also look into joining the National Association of Railroad Passenger at www.narprail.org or you can look at the Texas Association of Railroad Passengers as well.

Hope this answers some of your questions!

sax
 

darien-l

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Most tracks that Amtrak travels on are limited to a top speed of 79 mph for passenger trains. Also, there's padding built into the schedule to make up for delays caused by freight traffic. The only real solution to both of these problems is to build dedicated high-speed lines for passenger trains, which won't happen anytime soon for the majority of the Amtrak network. I suppose some time can be shaved by reducing the time spent at major stops by streamlining refueling/servicing operations, but the improvement won't be dramatic. Personally, I don't think long-distance Amtrak trains are particularly "slow" compared to driving. In the example you gave, you probably won't drive 20 hours in one go, there will be an overnight stop somewhere, and the total time driving won't be that much less than taking a train. The real issue is that when you drive, you essentially waste two days in an uncomfortably small space, but on a train, you can read, work, watch movies, walk around, enjoy the scenery, interact with fellow passengers, etc. So I think that taking the train already compares very favorably to driving, and time is not that big an issue. If you really need to get there fast, you'd probably fly anyway.

To me, the bigger issue with Amtrak long-distance trains is frequency of service. We need to have more trains between major city pairs, particularly when the trip can be made overnight (8-14 hours). That "fall asleep in city A, wake up in city B" model is the biggest selling point of train travel for me.
 

Trogdor

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You ask a very loaded question that has a lot of different answers.

These answers could take books to fully explain, and you'll run into many different opinions on why things are the way they are, and exactly how they should be different, but I'll try to answer them from a few different angles.

First, the proximate answer to your basic question of why it takes so long to go from Austin, TX, to Los Angeles, is because you start out on the Texas Eagle, which travels to San Antonio and has scheduled recovery time of an hour or so (to account for delays en route from Chicago, which can be unpredictable due to the variability of freight traffic), followed by a five-hour layover in San Antonio where through cars from the Texas Eagle are attached to the back of the Sunset Limited, that is coming from New Orleans. This, right off the bat, adds six hours to your scheduled trip.

Next, due to the same variable freight traffic (and single-track nature of the railroad, though that is being addressed over time as Union Pacific invests in double-tracking the route), the Sunset Limited has up to four hours of recovery time between San Antonio and Los Angeles. So, that makes for a combined total of 10 extra hours vs. moving continuously on a journey from Austin to Los Angeles.

Your next question is "why can't there be more funding to fix this?" Well, if you've watched the news regarding budget debates, I think you have your answer right there. If your question was more on the philosophical level of "why are we allowing ourselves as a nation to be in this position with respect to infrastructure and funding priorities," well, there's another book or two right there.

The question of speed limits on the railroad is the result of various federal regulations regarding track design and maintenance standards, as well as equipment requirements. Nationally, there is a maximum speed limit of 79 mph for any railroad not equipped with some sort of automatic train stop system (the actual rule is that speeds of 80 mph or above require this system, hence you can go up to 79 and not have it). Nowadays, the systems have to be even more advanced, with issues such as grade crossing timing and various other things coming into play. The cost of doing so is enormous, hence why it hasn't already been done in too many places by now.

The issue of express trains is a bit different. The simple economic reality is that there is very little justification for express trains except in time-sensitive corridors where there is lots of other service to pick up the local stops. The time you save by running your hypothetical Chicago-St. Louis-Little Rock-Dallas-Austin-El Paso-Tucson-Los Angeles train, even at upgraded (90-100 mph) speeds would be relatively little vs. the significant revenue you'd lose by skipping so many intermediate markets. Basically, someone who is in a hurry to get from Tucson to Los Angeles won't be taking the train, so you're not going to get more Tucson-Los Angeles riders by skipping the intermediate stops and offering a (for example) 7 hour trip, when they could fly it in an hour and a half. Meanwhile, the money you lose by not stopping at Maricopa (and, in an ideal world, that would be Phoenix instead), Yuma and Palm Springs, for example, would far outweigh whatever you might gain by skipping a few intermediate stops (and, for smaller stops, the time penalty for stopping is somewhere along the lines of 3-6 minutes per stop; depending on track speed through the area and also ridership at that stop).

Having more passenger trains that aren't on freight routes is a great ideal goal, but is not a practical option except in some of the denser corridors. Long-distance trains between the midwest and west coast will basically never have an entirely passenger-only right of way. There are too many vast empty expanses in between to justify running the frequent service that would justify dedicated right of way. Even if the right of way was free, track construction and maintenance would be too expensive for too little service. We face that right now on the Southwest Chief route (which is a more direct Chicago-Los Angeles train), where track through Colorado and New Mexico currently has no freight traffic. The host railroad, BNSF, wants to abandon that route, forcing the Chief to move to a more southerly route via northern Texas and Oklahoma, unless someone comes up with (I can't remember the exact figure, but I think it's something along the lines of) tens of millions of dollars per year to keep the line intact. And that's not even talking faster-than-79 mph service. There may be a reprieve for the route, if the states involved come up with the extra money (or lobby their congressiona delegation to find the money somewhere), but clearly it's hard on a grand scale to justify that kind of financial investment for such a small amount of service.

The bigger answer is that decades ago, we as a society and nation decided (consciously or not) that we were going to tilt the economics of transportation by putting metric-s***-tons of money into highways (and aviation), and essentially nothing into railroads. The results weren't surprising. Railroads (particularly passenger rail) struggled, and automobile travel became ingrained in the public mindset as a sort of default. In order to attempt to correct it, passenger rail has been attacked as being "subsidized" and representative of "government waste" by many, making it even more difficult to correct the imbalance in our transportation network.
 

Rail Freak

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If I'm in a hurry, I take a plane! If I want to chill & see the countryside, I take Amtrak! Different strokes for different folks!!!!

Have Fun
 

TVRM610

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If I'm in a hurry, I take a plane! If I want to chill & see the countryside, I take Amtrak! Different strokes for different folks!!!!

Have Fun
I disagree with this as a blanket statement... There are plenty of times when taking the train will get you there as fast as flying even on some long distance routes depending on a number of factors. Now if you are going NYC to LAX the plane will naturally get you there days before. But there are many routes that are more convenient by train.
 

none

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This thread is showing some very thoughtful answers and I thank the original poster for asking the questions.

As suggested, join up, ride and enjoy it, and talk it up among friends and family - I personally believe a lot in "grassroots" campaigns, and most people I know, when I say I am going to California next month on the train, say "wait - you can do that???"
 
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Nathanael

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I have a thoughtful canned response for this sort of question -- but apparently so do Sorcha, saxman, darien-l, and especially Trogdor, who said almost everything I would have said!

I guess there's one more thing from the canned response to be said: the vast majority of passenger transportation isn't profitable, and many of the benefits accrue to people other than the travellers, so it generally requires government assistance (or direct government operation). Furthermore, it's practically impossible to assemble rights-of-way without government assistance. So the state of passenger transportation has been a question of government funding for most of history, dating back to at least the Roman roads -- and it still is.

Call your state and federal elected officials, watch what they do, and if you don't like it, elect different ones who will fund improved passenger service.
 
D

David

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Thank you for your detailed response. I agree with all of your points. I understand the loss in revenue of skipping the intermediate markets; I would just hope that more local trains could accomodate that albeit on the same route, connecting people to the larger cities where they could hop on an express train. Also as you note, there are lot of other markets that need to be accomodated and it would be great if Amtrak didn't have to rely on the freight lines and have more routes. I know that train travel will never compare to air travel in terms of time, but making it comparable to car traffic would be great. I see the big picture, and you explained it well, why train travel is in the situation it is in compared to car travel. I can also see the equipment and mechanical issues; I just wonder if there is a way to increase that set 79 mph limit. I agree that not many people would take the train from Tuscon to Los Angeles, but if it could get you there in an hour (hypothetically) more people might use it. I know the ultimate issue is money; I just wish there was a way to fix it and make train travel something more people would want to use in this country.
 

Bill Haithcoat

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One of the most devastating blows to train speed happened before Amtrak. That was when the interstate highway system was built, That gave a huge advantage to the car and also the long distance bus overnight.

It took a long time for the Interstate system to be built so I do not know the age range.

But believe this, before Amtrak there were many more trains than now and they varied a lot as to how fast they were. But the fastest ones were often the fastest things on wheels.

BTW the interstate highway system also ruined the business for a lot of small road side businesses.
 
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Alexandria Nick

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make train travel something more people would want to use in this country.
When you get down to it, the real problem is unsolvable: the United States is huge. Air won long distance and people are willing to pay a lot because their time is valuable. Trains can't make up for the car's flexibility, which is its trade off for the time issue.

I also think the interstates are a bit overblown. Cars were already hammering the railroads decades before the interstates.
 
R

Rick

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The CEO of Amtrak, Joseph Boardman, has testified before Congress many times. In a recent testimony for funding purposes, he basically said that much of Amtrak's revenue is derived from travel between intermediate points. For instance, on the Texas Eagle, someone traveling beween Marshall and Temple, Texas has no other option except for driving. Some people don't want to drive or may not be capable. While a good idea, I do not see any hope of express trains over long distances, because they cannot compete with air travel. That is, unless, Amtrak acquires the right of way and upgrades to the Northeast corridor standards.
 

darien-l

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Basically, someone who is in a hurry to get from Tucson to Los Angeles won't be taking the train
I agree that not many people would take the train from Tuscon to Los Angeles
That's funny, I took the train to Los Angeles a lot when I lived in Tucson. Back then, it was an overnight run both ways, which was extremely convenient: sleep, shower, get dressed, have breakfast, and be ready to go early in the morning at your destination. *That* is the real strength of long-distance train travel: it combines lodging and transportation. No other mode of transportation can compete with this. I honestly don't understand why people are having such a difficult time grasping this concept.
 

Trogdor

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Basically, someone who is in a hurry to get from Tucson to Los Angeles won't be taking the train
I agree that not many people would take the train from Tuscon to Los Angeles
That's funny, I took the train to Los Angeles a lot when I lived in Tucson. Back then, it was an overnight run both ways, which was extremely convenient: sleep, shower, get dressed, have breakfast, and be ready to go early in the morning at your destination. *That* is the real strength of long-distance train travel: it combines lodging and transportation. No other mode of transportation can compete with this. I honestly don't understand why people are having such a difficult time grasping this concept.
I think you're the one who didn't grasp what I was saying. Nobody in a hurry would take the train from Tucson to LA. If you're leaving at night and don't have to be at your destination until the next morning, then you're not in a hurry.

Plus, my statement (which you took out of context) was in reference to whether a nonstop train would be effective due to its time savings over a train that makes all the stops. The answer, in this case, would still be no.
 

darien-l

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I feel like we're speaking different languages. "Time" and "hurry" are relative concepts. There are certain things that humans need to do, like eat and sleep. These can be done while riding a train, but not while driving a car. Therefore, although a trip can be done in a car in fewer hours and minutes, it wastes more valuable, productive time.

For example, let's imagine that I live in Tucson and "in a hurry" for a morning meeting in Los Angeles. Let's further imagine that there's reliable overnight train service between the two cities. I could drive or fly the day before and stay in a hotel. In this case, the time spent driving or flying is wasteful, unproductive time. Moreover, the total time (driving or flying plus hotel) spent in getting to the meeting is longer than the train trip would have been, because the train combines these two things (travel & lodging).
 
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v v

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I live in France with the 200 mph trains. The few times that we use them they are almost always full, and their frequency has increased dramatically. I don't think any of this could have been contemplated without the French state backing, it's too big a project for a private company and needs national legislation.

I come from the UK where the national rail system was slpit up and privatised quite a while ago, it's chaotic and expensive now.

Checked out a fare yesterday to travel from 30 miles east of central London to Heathrow airport about 10 miles west of central London. 78 GBP (about $125 USD for 2 people if booked in advance), very poor value for money. For less than that I can get from LA to SF on the Starlight with reserved seats.

The French pay high taxes, but do get services to be proud of. Each country has it's own way.
 

amtrakwolverine

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Congress and the GOP cannot get it into there iron thick skulls that they are the reason Amtrak is the way it is. Outdated equipment poor maintenance. They keep stripping Amtrak of more and more funding then complain how Amtrak goes no where etc. Give Amtrak the funding it has been denied for years and Amtrak will gladly {if management is smart enough) buy new equipment restore old routes increase frequency on other routes. Should tell those in the GOP lets see your annul income cut by 50% or more and try to maintain the same lifestyle you do now and even improve your lifestyle while living on less money. That's what they keep doing to Amtrak cause Americas government will always be anti-rail and it will never change.The roads and interstates get more funding each year then Amtrak has gotten in its 40+ year history combined.
 
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TVRM610

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To the OP Guest David... You should realize that the Sunset Limited is the slowest train for a number of reasons. Amtrak is working on getting more high speed tracks. It's a slow process but there are big time improvements. The following trains operate at speeds of over

79 mph when track conditions allow.

Chicago - St. Louis - up to 110 MPH

Michigain Services - up to 110 MPH

Philadelphia - Harrisburg - up to 110 MPH

California Surfliners - up to 90 MPH

Southwest Chief - up to 90 MPH

Lake Shore Limited - up to 100 MPH

and then there is the North East Corridor which has tracks up to 150 mph in a few sections for ACELA trains with other trains operating 100-125 depending on the age of equipment (Long distance trains operate with older baggage cars that limit the speed) from Washington DC to New York, to Boston.

I point this out because this is itself a big accomplishment considering the extremely low budget Amtrak is given. They really are trying to do their best with the budget they are given.
 

Trogdor

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I feel like we're speaking different languages.
Perhaps. I'm using Merriam Webster's definition of hurry:

to move or act with haste
When you have the option/luxury of being able to take a seven-hour trip, when other modes can be done in about two hours, then there may be plenty of reasons for going that route, but being "in a hurry" is not one of them.
 
G

Guest

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For one, there should be an express train for every Amtrak line. Such an express line for the Texas Eagle, which travels from Chicago to Los Angeles, should stop only in Chicago, St. Louis, Little Rock, Dallas, Austin or San Antonio, El Paso, Tuscon, and Los Angeles.
I would agree with you 100%, except that such a train would certainly be strictly forbidden to stop in Austin or San Antonio, or anywhere in Texas for that matter. No compromise on that (wow, I sound like a Republican :giggle: )

Now, let's continue the discussion on how much you will support, politically and financially, this particular purposed train?

The issue for any express train, HS or other, is that everyone wants it to stop for them, and then not stop for others to save time.
 

PaulM

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Basically, someone who is in a hurry to get from Tucson to Los Angeles won't be taking the train
I agree that not many people would take the train from Tuscon to Los Angeles
That's funny, I took the train to Los Angeles a lot when I lived in Tucson. Back then, it was an overnight run both ways, which was extremely convenient: sleep, shower, get dressed, have breakfast, and be ready to go early in the morning at your destination. *That* is the real strength of long-distance train travel: it combines lodging and transportation. No other mode of transportation can compete with this. I honestly don't understand why people are having such a difficult time grasping this concept.
I'd agree with you except that I'd also want supper and a night cap in the lounge.
 

NETrainfan

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We need the express trains for commuters, but speeding up the LD trains doesn't seem necessary to us. Business commuters need the express trains (like the Acela on the NEC)- but it seems that most people traveling LD are taking the train because they prefer train travel to other modes-not because they are in a hurry.

Ridership is up, true? We think it would go way up if more people knew more about the LD trains and that an overnight coach seat is quite affordable.

We hope more funding for Amtrak will increase express trains for commuters and maintain and increase the number of LD trains.
 

jis

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For example, let's imagine that I live in Tucson and "in a hurry" for a morning meeting in Los Angeles. Let's further imagine that there's reliable overnight train service between the two cities. I could drive or fly the day before and stay in a hotel. In this case, the time spent driving or flying is wasteful, unproductive time. Moreover, the total time (driving or flying plus hotel) spent in getting to the meeting is longer than the train trip would have been, because the train combines these two things (travel & lodging).
Each to their own taste. In general I would not choose lodging on a rocking and rolling thing if I can arrange it so that I get to my destination and get lodging on solid earth. The ideal for me is a two hour journey in the morning, meet all day, then a two hour journey back home. If a train fits that form, as it does in quite a bit of the NEC, then it is train, otherwise it is plane for me. And for distances further afield it usually is plane, though there always are variations that come into play depending on the situation..
 
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