This summer I decided to take Amtrak from Denver to Tacoma, WA. It seemed fairly straight forward. I booked my ticket. It was a simple route. From Denver to Sacramento I would take the California Zephyr and from Sacramento to Tacoma I would take the Pacific Coast Starlight. It was fairly straight forward and although it would take 2 and a half days it seemed like a fun idea.
There were just a few problems:
- The 9 hour layover in Sacramento (It was 5 on the return trip)
- Sacramento’s terrible train station (it’s getting remodeled)
- The 50 lbs bag limit (its not about weight either, its OSHA standards for the workers and you can’t even pay extra. You have to remove the stuff until it weighs less than 50 lbs although I got by at about 52)
- The sketchy people on the Pacific Starlight (criminals, transients, and I’ll category I’ll refer to as “other”)
- Food costs
- Short train stop times
- Late trains
I can say this, if you want to see the most interesting people in the world, take Amtrak. You will see everything from campy snack attendants from Wisconsin to ladies combing out their wigs. But despite the interesting things you will see on the train my train trip proved to me that we need high-speed rail in this country and we need it in the 21st century like the 20th needed the interstate system.
Amtrak is doing great work as providing a mass transportation option from rural areas that are not near airports. I met a passenger from Almsville, OR who was going from her small town to California for her high school reunion. She was able to drive 1 hour to the train station and be in California in just 18 hours. It was cheaper to go that route then to fly or drive. Amtrak does that well and with her ability to also book a bus ticket for the final part of her journey I think serving these routes could be an important part of their business in the future.
However, my trip taught me something important: we need high speed rail. 31 hours in each direction is a poor excuse for mass train travel. The U.S. is one of the few developed countries without a well established and well-run high speed train system. In the 1950s rail came under tremendous competition from air travel. Airplanes could deliver passengers from New York to west coast destination is 18 hours and the jet age brought those times down to 5-7 hours. However, given rising fuel costs and the rising cost of air travel (as well as it’s lacking of comforts) high speed rail travel can be a fast and economical option for many travelers especially within regions. There is an organization lead by leaders in politics and transportation that is pioneering a plan for high speed rail in the U.S.
The US High Speed Rail Association produced this as a potential map for full deployment of high speed rail by the year 2030:
High speed rail can work very well within regions and can provide a high-speed mass transit option within regions as well. Matching rail with other forms of transportation such as car sharing, Uber and Lyft can provide a whole travel solution. Providing a long distance non-air solution can reduce cars on congested highways and make the fuel we are using for transportation extremely efficient. Having high speed rail hubs will also spur municipal investment in local mass transit options that make for a great way to move around the country besides sitting in a car. The increase in productive hours will provide additional economic benefit as well as the jobs to be created by the professionals required to build, maintain, and run these trains as well as staff stations and provide other services to the system. There is no reason in this country we can’t have an effective, easy to use High Speed rail system.