Fix Rails to Make Travel Great Again

PRR 1953

About 10 days ago, I found on Facebook a photograph taken in 1953 that perfectly captured what travel and big cities were like in those days. It shows a Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) passenger locomotive peering out from that railroad’s station in Pittsburgh about to head west toward Columbus, Indianapolis and St. Louis. In the distance, there is a massive civic building that the train will soon pass under.

In those days, this was one of 47 scheduled intercity passenger trains that passed through the station in a 24-hour period. Six of them went to St. Louis. Passengers could also take the PRR from Pittsburgh to Chicago, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Detroit, Cleveland, New York, Philadelphia and Washington. Almost all routes had multiple frequencies, and most of the trains were equipped with sleeping cars, parlor cars, dining cars and lounges.

Over the next two decades, the airlines and motor vehicles grabbed market share from the railroads with the help of government subsidies and policies. The passenger rail business became unprofitable, so the railroads combined, downgraded and/or discontinued their trains. Things got so bad that the federal government had to step in to save the passenger train by creating Amtrak.

Today, the Pittsburgh station is served by only three trains a day: one to New York, one to Chicago and one to Washington. The line to St. Louis is gone. Trains have to use a more circuitous route via Crestline, Ohio, to get there.

Flash forward to today. Actually yesterday, to be precise. I got up early to take my mother to JFK airport to make a flight back to West Palm Beach (PBI). Things went smoothly. An attendant checked her bag and walker. Another got a wheelchair to bring her to the plane. I gave her a hug and kiss and sent her on her way.

Or so I thought. During breakfast, I got a voicemail that her plane, which was supposed to leave at 8:30 a.m., was delayed two hours. That got pushed back to 12 noon, then to four p.m. and, finally 6 p.m. It arrived at PBI around 9:30 p.m., 10 hours late.

Mom had the smarts to rebook on another flight that left and arrived on time and well ahead of the first one. She got home a little after 7 p.m. Unfortunately, her luggage didn’t go with her. It stayed on the original flight and was delivered this morning. Her walker was damaged and is unusable. Delta Airlines will buy her a new one.

However, more troubling to me was a comment on my Facebook thread from my cousin, a corporate travel agent from Minnesota. “That’s like a nothing delay. Save your ire for “we can get you on a flight two days from now.” That was a professional opinion, BTW.”

Since she works on the front lines of dealing with the airlines I understand where she is coming from. But, why should the traveling public, especially corporate road warriors, have to tolerate this?

People should be up in arms and insist that our do-nothing Congress take action. Better yet, start demanding better rail service, comparable to what is available in industrialized nations in Europe and Asia.

How about, for example, a rail line with hourly service from downtown Minneapolis to downtown Chicago in three hours with stops in St. Paul, Madison and Milwaukee along the way! That is not an abstract concept or unproven novel technology. It is a clear, actionable idea. Take a ride on Florida’s Brightline to see what I am talking about. There are dozens of potential routes like this throughout the country. This is what we must advocate for.

It is high time we get with the rest of the industrialized world and rebuild our rail network with fast, direct routes free from freight train interference. The freight railroads don’t want passenger trains on their tracks, anyway.

We also need new rolling stock and locomotives to replace Amtrak’s aging fleet. In addition, we need increased frequencies and more routes to cover unserved and under-served markets. Finally, we must spend billions to repair and upgrade fragile, aging infrastructure like the Hudson River tunnels on the Northeast Corridor.

With the exception of St. Louis, every city I listed above is within 500 miles of Pittsburgh. That is the sweet spot for high-speed rail travel, i.e. the maximum distance where rail is competitive, timewise, with air. Hence, they are potential markets for intermediate-distance high-speed rail.

Instead, we – the United States – have let our passenger rail system, which once was the world’s best, deteriorate. Today, it is characterized by slow trains, frequent delays and inconvenient schedules, which doesn’t make it a good alternative to air travel.

If we want better air travel we need better rail service, too. It would force airlines to either compete and offer better service or cede the short-haul market, i.e. less than 500 miles, to rail and concentrate on long-haul business. Either way, the traveling public would win since fewer short-haul flights would mean less airport congestion. Mr. Trump, if you truly want to make America great again, start with our trains.

Photo by John Dziobko Jr.

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