'Twas the rise of the automobile and the aeroplane that did it in. Folks basically travel by car or air these days. If it’s closer than about 1,000 miles, you drive; farther away, you fly. I know lots of “snowbirds”, retirees who routinely drive from Illinois and Michigan to Florida every winter and back again in the spring, Detroit to Orlando being about 1,100 miles. And these are grandparents, and even though they grew up riding trains, they don’t even consider taking Amtrak.
Amtrak is widely considered hopeless as “transportation”, for two reasons. First, because once you get where you’re going, you don’t have a car for further transportation, and very few cities have decent, comprehensive public transportation, so there you are with your little pile of luggage on the train platform.
I could take Amtrak from Springfield to Chicago, but once I got off the train, I’d be S.O.L. for wheels unless I wanted to rent a car or take taxis or figure out the Chicago bus system, and I don’t really want to pay for a taxi, or a rental car–I already have a car at home, all paid for and everything, why should I pay to use someone else’s car?–and I don’t really want to stand there on a bus corner with my little pile of luggage.
Second, Amtrak so rarely goes where you want to go. As long as you want to embark in Springfield and disembark in Chicago, you’re copacetic, but if you want to go to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, you’re S.O.L.
List of destinations for the Midwest.
Trust me, this is a mind-bogglingly limited list. It’s as if British trains only ran between London and Edinburgh, with a couple of side branches out to Plymouth and Liverpool.
For example: There is no train that goes from Major American City Of Detroit to Major American City Of Orlando. To get to Orlando from Detroit, you get on the train in Detroit, and you go to Toledo, Ohio. Then in Toledo you have your choice of trains: you can get on a train for New York City, or a train for Washington D.C. Then once you’re in either NYC or DC, you get on another train that will take you to Orlando.
That’s assuming there are any vacancies, which at peak times of year, there aren’t.
You see why all those snowbirds drive it twice a year. They load up the Buick with snacks and knitting and magazines and cupholders and head for the interstate.
So Amtrak is generally considered only for people who have someone meeting them at the other end (college kids coming home for Thanksgiving, grandparents coming to see the new baby), and for novelty/vacation trips, “Hey, let’s ride the train from New York to Chicago!”
What travels on the American rail system nowadays is freight, and not that much of it, mostly bulk shipping of stuff like corn syrup, and containerized shipping. Most everything else goes by truck. There are abandoned railroad grades all over the country that have been converted into hiking trails, bike routes, bridle paths, etc.
I’m not talking about in-and-around-Chicago commuter trains like METRA, ya understand, just Amtrak.