Travel Trends: Train travel in the USA

Paul Theroux, the great American travel writer, once said, “Almost anything is possible in a train” — and that still holds true today. While the U.S. has not embraced rail travel as a primary means of transportation for several decades, a resurgence is growing. Passengers frustrated with airline delays and rising costs, the high cost of gasoline and road construction are beginning to give train travel another look.

These Aren’t Your Parent’s Trains
Without a lot of fanfare, Amtrak, which operates most of the passenger rail system in the U.S., has quietly been making small improvements. While capacity and routes have actually decreased since 1985, today’s passenger trains tout high-speed wireless access (on some routes), no baggage fees for up to three checked bags and the ability to bring golf clubs, bicycles and ski equipment. Some business class seats also have electrical outlets, conference tables and complimentary newspapers.

On longer routes there are dining and sleeping cars offering first class dining and turn down service. An Auto Train which runs from Lorton, Virginia to Sanford, Florida allows passengers to bring their vehicle along for the ride. It is arguably the longest passenger train in the world and is pitched as a cost-effective and environmentally-friendly alternative to driving for families on the East Coast heading down to Disney World.

Improvements for 2010 and Beyond
According to Bruce Richardson, President of the United Rail Passenger Alliance, “Even if train travel evolves at lightning speed over the next 10 years, it will still not be at the same point in North America it was in 1956.” The U.S. is severely behind other nations in providing high speed rail infrastructure and Americans are just now beginning to consider it as a mode of transportation again.

In looking at statistics provided by the Federal Railroad Administration, rail travel has fairly consistently increased over the past 25 years (see below). While there are no federally-approved forecasted numbers for 2010 and beyond, the expectation is that passenger rail travel will continue to increase every year. (For the purposes of this article, Gadling forecasted passenger traffic for 2010 and 2011, as shown in the graph below.)

As part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the Federal Government allocated $8 billion for high-speed and intercity passenger rail (HSIPR). In addition to that, the HSIPR Program includes an additional $92 million from an existing state grant program (see below for the allocation of money by state).Unfortunately, most of this money is going to a backlog of rehabilitations and upgrades of old Amtrak routes that have been needed for years — rather than to new routes — and some of the money is being spent on new maintenance facilities as well as IT projects. But still, improvements are being made:

  • In California, the Pacific Surfliner Route which runs from San Diego to San Luis Obispo with stops in Los Angeles is getting $51 million to build a new track between Fullerton and Commerce to ease congestion and upgrade the speed to 110 mph.
  • A whopping $590 million is allocated to the Cascade Service route which goes from Eugene, OR to Seattle, WA with routes to Portland, OR. Infrastructure improvements will allow for 2 additional round trips from Seattle to Portland (there are currently 4).
  • A few new routes are in the works. The Hiawatha route from Milwaukee to Madison, Wisconsin will be extended and have 3 new stations in Brookfield, Oconomowoc and Watertown. A new 3C Route in Ohio will go from Cleveland to Columbus to Dayton and Cincinnati.
  • Other existing routes are getting signals, stations and other infrastructure type improvements.

So where do these improvements leave us? We’re still way behind where we need to be for Americans to consider rail travel as a cost effective, first-choice of transportation. Existing routes need to be extended, more daily frequencies added and new long distance routes implemented. Amtrak routes that were discontinued in the 1990’s such as the Sunset Limited, which ran from New Orleans to Orlando, and the Desert Wind route between Chicago and Los Angeles need to be put back into operation to give travelers enough choices to ride the rails.

Data sources:

See more Travel Trends.