What are the prospects for a three-tiered rail transit system in the U.S.?

A year ago I started this GD thread: “What are the prospects for a high-speed rail network in the United States?” – http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?t=193444

Since then, it appears the idea has gained some traction. At least, an organization has emerged – New Trains – which has prepared a map for a proposed high-speed rail netword. They’re also pushing for integrated rail-transit systems at the regional and neighborhood levels.

From the New Trains website (http://www.newtrains.org/pages/354055/index.htm – click link to see maps):

Whaddaya think? Is that a plan, or what?

See also:




I’m wary of a national train system created with public funds. Basically my thought is, if it could be done for a profit it would already be being done by a private company.

That said, I would love to see a high speed rail system in the US, as its a blast to travel by rail if you aren’t in a big hurry to get somewhere. However, I think independant Americans would rather drive or take a plane, so I don’t know how successful such a venture would be on a large scale. I don’t see the public clamoring for a rail system ATM.


I think it’s a good idea even if it isn’t profitable. We need a real alternative to the automobile.

The problem with trains as general transportation is that they aren’t flexible. You can’t stop and pick up a quart of milk on the train. You can’t drop your kid off at daycare, and pick up the suit from the cleaners.

Most areas that have light rail have to subsidize them because they don’t carry enough people.

I like light rail transit for many uses. For getting people in and out of a dense area like a sporting event, they are fantastic. They might work for moving people in high density corridor. But as general transportation they are overrated, and governments keep overestimating the demand for them.

Are you trying to imply that every possible profitable business has already been created and every possible profitable venture is already being undertaken?

That definitely doesn’t sound right to me.

While the public may not be clamoring for a rail system specifically, we ARE clamoring for a solution to traffic/transportation and oil dependence problems. This would seem to fix a lot of those problems.

Are you going to force people to ride them? Are you going to heavily subsidize the trains?

Tell you what - get some small light rail systems turning a consistent profit, with no fancy bookkeeping. If you can do that, use the profit to invest in larger train networks. Maybe the government can even give you some matching grants to help it along, after you’ve proven the ability to make a profit with them.

When I was in Europe, I loved the public transport system they had over there but I suspect there may be problems transferring such a system in America.

First of all, you need to look at why do people move and how do they move, especially on the proposed long distance tracks. The big problem I can see with the US is that the main population centers are around two strips of coast, Unlike Europe, this makes it much harder to build a transcontinental rail system because theres very few practical places in the middle from which you can hang hubs. Contrast with europe where the population is a lot more evenly spread and major rail terminii can be placed: Paris, London, Rome, Berlin, Munich, Vienna etc. Because of these hubs, it’s very easy to hop along through Europe taking trips of around 6 - 8 hours maximum each time. Wheras a NY - LA route would be a multi-day affair with little of interest in the middle. At that stage, rail brings very little benifit to the table when compared with air.

The second thing is that the excellent intercountry rail often links into an excellent public transport system of the towns at both ends. This makes it practical to hop from your house to the train station and to any destination at the other end, all relying on public transport. American cities OTOH are often very car-orientated and it would be almost impossible to retrofit a decent public transport system at an economic price. This means that your stuck with needing a car at either end which brings major benifits to driving there.

In short, the compelling case for rail is in medium length journies less than 12 hours in length where the cost and convenience of rail outweigh the time savings of air and the length makes car tedious.

Rail needs subsidy. Subsidy is perfectly acceptable to European electorates, but a dirty word in the US.

End of the line, before the line begins.


The real problem is there are only two corridors that make sense. Washington to Boston and San Diego to Seattle. And I’m not even sure about the occupancy of the latter.

Rail can’t compete with air once you get out of a radius of, say, 300 miles or so (roughly the distance between DC and NY). It’s slower and far more expensive. Ticket price is going to be the main sticking point. It already costs me $180.00 round trip to go from Washington, DC, to NYC by way of train - and that’s the on the cheapest fare. How much is a more expensive, new, rail system going to cost me?

That would only be true if the competitors (i.e. cars and airlines) were not subsidized by public funds. But roads are paid for by tax (and not just gasoline tax), so it’s no surprise that railways also need subsidies to compete.

This is probably true for existing communities. I say we need to build not just rail systems, but entire public-transport oriented communities. Entire suburbs are built from scratch all the time; there’s no reason we can’t encourage these to develop around train stations. Public transport can be flexible - in Japan I’d get off the train, get groceries at the supermarket (located next to the station) and then get on the bus home.

I agree that ticket cost, along with travel time, are the main sticking points other than the fact that it would probably have to be paid for by the government. Just as an example, I priced a trip from home to school–either directly to the town via Amtrak (as the tracks run within two miles of the school) or to fly to BWI, from where I would drive back to school (which is actually what I am going to do at the end of the month.) Assuming that I would want to come back home in December for Christmas, using Amtrak would cost me about $240 (plus taxes, of course) and take two full days of travel.

Flying on American (my preferred airline when I don’t fly Southwest) and buying the tickets directly from the airline (using the same dates, both days of travel beginning on Saturday) would cost me $302, plus the gas and any food I’d need to get back to school, say another $20. Plus, I could probably start looking into using some of my frequent flier miles. Travelocity gives me a flight on Northwest of $222. I could do Southwest for $240 (once again, direct from the airline as Southwest doesn’t deal with Travelocity and the like.) The travel sites don’t give me a better deal on American, though I could fly several other airlines priced between Northwest and Southwest. All these prices do not include taxes, airport fees, security fees, and the like.

I also did the math once for driving home, and figured that in terms of gas (call it 1700 miles getting 30 mpg, so 60 gallons to be safe) at an average of $1.75 a gallon would be $105 in gas alone one way. Add in the fact that it takes three days to drive one way, so that motels and food would probably be another $100 one way, and I’m looking at about $200 one way each time, so call it $400 round trip.

So for me, flying is preferable if I can leave my car with a friend near DC (which I can), if I have available transportation at home (which I do), and if it’s about the same price as the train. The train, to me, would only be preferable if I had to leave my car at school (which, once again, I could) as the ticket price is about the same for a trip that takes four times as long. Driving isn’t really much of a savings for one person, and both I and my parents would prefer that I don’t drive home if the other options are comparable.

Seriously, I would love to be able to take a high-speed bullet train across the country. I like the train and I would actually use it more often if I could just get to other places, especially going east, without having to go to freaking Chicago first. For example, to go from Albuquerque to Miami (I’ve never been to Florida, so I just picked a possible vacation destination), I have to go all the way to Chicago. That is massively out of the way, having to go all that way north and south, when I could probably drive that way in the same amount of time just by being able to use I-40 and the like.

I’m just going to say that even in New York City, which can be criticized for many things, but not the light rail system, the tolls for bridges still heavily subsidize the rails. (They’ve been talking about raising fares again. It was last raised two years ago)

Now, the management… that you can criticize, but not the infrastructure.

No – I think x is implying, or simply assuming, that no large-scale project is worth doing if it is not directly commercially profitable. This kind of thinking would rule out public libraries, police forces, fire departments, public education systems – oh, and also publicly-funded street building, street paving, street maintenance, street signs, parking facilities, traffic control systems, highway patrol officers, drivers’ licensing bureaus, public departments of transportation, and the interstate highway system. And our very expensive national defense establishment, and in particular the use of our armed forces to guarantee a steady supply of cheap imported oil.

You can do those things with low-speed at-grade streetcars, provided the network is built densely enough that you’re never beyond walking distance from a stop. This is workable at urban and some suburban population densities. It is impractical with most of the low-density suburban PUDs we have been building since the 1950s – which is one more reason why we have to stop building them.

Why on earth should we expect a public transportation system to turn a profit? Do you honestly think our automotive transportation system is not a public transportation system? According to Asphalt Nation by Jane Holtz Kay (University of California Press, 1998), a motor vehicle in the United States costs its owner, on average, $6,000 a year (factoring in financing, repairs and maintenance, insurance and fuel) – and costs the public sector (federal, state and local, factoring in all the costs I mentioned in the post above, except for military spending) another $4,000 a year. And you think light rail and trolleys should be expected to operate without public subsidies? What use do you think your car would be without public subsidies?

Pardon me, but have you never heard of Chicago, Minneapolis-St. Paul, St. Louis, Kansas City, New Orleans, Dallas-Forth Worth, and Houston? Just for starters.

Exactly. Check out these websites:






Yeah, sorry, but those aren’t really large cities.

For example, just between Washington and Boston, you have four of the 10 largest metropolitan areas in the United States - all with populations over 5 million.

The west coast has two of the only other metropolitan areas over 5 million, along with Seattle which has over 3 million.

That little corridor you mentioned only has Chicago with a metropolitan population over 5 million, and Dallas and Houston only have 4.8 and 4.4 million respectively. None of the others crack 3 million. In fact, only Minneapolis and St. Louis crack 2 million.

And the journey between all of those cities is a lot farther than just straight up and down either coast.

Not a lot of people live there.

I travel quite a bit for business - like every single week - so I think I’m qualified to shed some light on this subject.

You are absolutely correct. The problem is that once you get away from the Northeast Corridor and the West Coast, those big populations centers are further and furthur apart.

Let’s face it. We have a lot of space in this country. For those routes, the airplane is still the best option.

For densely populated regions, rail is fine. NYC to Philly is a quick 1 hr Acella or Metroliner ride and Boston and Washington are 3 or so more hours in either direction. It would probably be less time except IIRC there are a lot of restrictions that prevent the trains from reaching full spead.

I’m pretty much against subsidizing rail or airline service just because treehuggers think it’s a “good idea”. On the other hand, development tends to follow the existing infrastructure. If you design a city for automobiles (like in the midwest) then expect to see a lot of urban sprawl for miles that will make rail impractical. If you put an efficient public transportation system in place, expect to see development that takes advantage of it (like in NYC).

How many of you who think that trolleys, buses, and trains are a good substitute for cars have actually tried raising a family this way?

I grew up too poor to have a car. We rode the bus everywhere. And our community had a very good bus system. You could get anywhere with at most two transfers, and often none.

Let me tell you - it SUCKED. My mom was a single mom with kids in tow. Grocery shopping was an adventure with two small children and no way to get the groceries home (we had to bus to a grocery store on the other side of the city because they were the only ones with a delivery service). I couldn’t join swim clubs or team events because I couldn’t ride the buses by myself as a little kid so i wouldn’t be able to play whenever the team was ‘away’.

My mom’s life was much harder. While other moms would drop the kids in the car, whip them over to school, then head to work, my mother would have to walk us to school, walk home, get on the bus, transfer, and take the second bus to her job. A ten minute drive was, for her, an hour and a half ordeal.

Little things like running out of milk meant a long walk to the store (if it was open). If the local store was closed already, we’d have to do without. Doctor’s emergencies meant taxis, because the buses stopped at 11pm. Of course, a taxi ride or two could double the monthly transportation budget.

Buses and trains are simply not as convenient as cars except in some specific circumstances. And we’re not talking about minor inconveniences, we’re talking about a major reduction in quality of life for many people.

Sure, the social planners say - if we just re-design our cities and pack the people in like sardines, we can set up efficient busing. And if we get rid of the evil Wal-Marts of the world, we can get corner grocers back so people don’t have to drive to the store. But people LIKE Wal-Mart. They LIKE having backyards and open spaces and parks around their houses. They LIKE being able to live in bigger houses. People move out to the suburbs because they like living in the suburbs. I know I sure do.

At some point, gas will get more expensive, and then maybe people of their own volition will choose to live closer into town. Maybe they’ll start taking trains when gas costs them $300 a month. At that point, you won’t need to hold a gun to anyone’s head - they’ll choose the rational choice.