Would you travel on this train?

The railroad industry says it can move a ton of freight 436 miles before burning one gallon of fuel. There are some good reasons why they are so efficient. Some railroad lines are exceeding that figure, going past 500 miles. This site does the math.

Factcheck.org also seems to confirm the numbers, and you can read about some the details there.

What if the railroad industry started concentrating more on passenger travel as well with that kind of effiency working for them? One of the reasons I think most of us would never consider a train would be similar to a bus, is due to all the stops involved. It takes forever to get to your destination. This wouldn’t necessarily have to be the case with trains if they choose to concentrate more on passenger travel.

Say you traveled from point A to point B, and there were ten other populated areas along that route, where people would also want to board and depart. The railroad industry could have another set of tracks, say 5 miles long, run alongside the moving train to where other cars could catch up to the main moving train and lock on. Since it wouldn’t be but one or two cars it could easily catch up to the moving train. It wouldn’t be that difficult to set up something like this. It could be done safely and efficiently. If there was an unusual amount of people that were boarding, they could simply attach an entire car or more to the already moving train as well, while those getting off could still use the car running alongside the moving train.

Economically speaking, I don’t think any other industry could compete with them, cars, buses, and planes. If the trains averaged 60 mph, in a 24 hour day, you would have gone 1,440 miles. The amount of fuel burned would be about 3 gallons to carry about 10-15 passengers for this distance.

What do you think, would this be a good idea? And if trains offered non-stop travel while getting you to your destination in a reasonable time while making it also an enjoyable experience, would you consider riding on a train like this more often, especially for longer trips?

I’ve seen this idea floated before. Flying couplings and uncouplings are risky enough, but there’s a whole logistical challenge of moving people and their baggage within the train to have them in the right car at the right moment.

Also, you’d need a lot of the fast shuttle trains - pretty much one per stop along the way, as they’d be doing a sort of leap-frog along the main line. Just for example, Amtrak’s California Zephyr goes from San Francisco to Chicago and 32 stations in between. Currently, that line is serviced by six trains - One leaves each end daily and it’s a nearly three-day trip. To do it with non-stop trains and shuttles would require over 30 trains. Thirty engines and thirty train crews make for some seriously inefficient maintenance and payroll issues.

Any main-line fuel efficiency will be also absorbed by that fleet of short-haul shuttles and the need for them to have some pretty robust acceleration abilities to catch up to the main train.

Finally, you’d need to run at a whole lot more than 60 MPH - the Zephyr averages 60 MPH end to end with those 32 stops. Crank this up to something approaching the Shinkansen or TGV, and it might be worth looking at.

I wish I had the option of taking the old-fashioned “low-speed,” making-stops trains to more than a few of the places I’d like to go. A 1940s passenger rail system would be an improvement on what we have now.

I’m not convinced that the efficiency scales up in exactly the way you think. A freight train has a big locomotive (probably more than one) pulling dozens of cars, each with tons of cargo on board. The weight of the engines, wheels, couplings, etc. is probably a small fraction of the whole weight of the train, and so the fuel burned to move that unproductive weight is a small fraction of total burn. Not so with a passenger train. An Acela business class coach has a capacity of 71 people; at 200 pounds per person (a bit heavy maybe, but they’ll have luggage) that’s only 14,200 pounds per coach. The useful load as a percentage of unloaded weight would be much lower than a freight train. Hook a diesel-electric locomotive to that and most of its fuel burn will be just hauling itself around. To get the same economies as a freight train, you’d have to stack the passengers on board like firewood.

In most of the places where passenger rail is really successful, it’s electrified. There’s no heavy diesel engine to haul around with you. You can generate the electricity with whatever source is most efficient for the area you’re in, although there will be some losses in transmitting it to the train.

I’ve ridden high-speed and local trains in Europe and I enjoyed them. The express trains only stop in the larger towns and cities, there’s doors all along the train so people get on and off in less than a minute, and it’s so light it gets back up to speed quickly. I think the idea of the shuttle cars to get passengers on and off without stopping is a lot of trouble and expense for a very small improvement.

I’ve ridden the Acela in the U.S., too, from Boston to New York City. It’s far from state-of-the-art, but seems to be a big success.

I think the real key to passenger rail travel in this country isn’t a technological like you suggest, but just implementing existing technology in the locations where it’s feasible.

I’d be very, very happy to ride the kind of trains they have in Europe - no security, buy ticket-walk on, fairly comfortable, on time. I’d love to read a book instead of driving to, say, Atlanta or Charleston.

The roads must roll!


It’s been thought of, more or less. There are some minor logistical and safety issues.

The Northeast corridor doesn’t allow the Acela to live up to its full potential, though. Between NYP and BOS it only gets up to its 150mph top speed on two short sections of track in RI and MA. Most of its schedules are only 30 minutes or so shorter than the non-Acela schedules. It averages 70mph between NYP and BOS.

Even between NYP and WAS it only averages 80mph. Just 3mph over the Denver Zephyr’s 77mph average speed in the early 1960s.

It’s an infrastructure issue. To quote Wikipedia:

Maybe the efficiency wouldn’t be quite as high, but the cars wouldn’t have to be as heavy duty either. I do think you make a very good point though about how the passengers would basically have to be stacked like firewood to get the same kind of efficiency.

Like I said, it’s far from the state of the art, but it may have been the best they could get with the budget they had. Most of what I’ve read says it’s been a success; ridership high, and turning a profit. I think it’s a step in the right direction, and proves that Americans will ride a modern train, in places where it makes sense to build them.

I don’t know why they quote the time from Washington to Boston, though. I don’t see Amtrak pushing that trip, and at 6+ hours it’s not really competitive with flying. I remember some past threads where people have argued that rail isn’t worth building if no one rides it from end-to-end, but it’s still possible for the city pairs in between to make sense. Acela does Boston-to-Providence, Boston-to-Hartford, Providence-to-Hartford, etc.

I thought I was making the same point, but phrased in two different ways. Even if you build the passenger coaches as lightly as possible (and I think they’re pretty light already) at 7 tons of cargo per car, the train would still be using a lot of fuel just hauling itself around.

I found this amusing: