Why Trains Just Don't Work in America

I can imagine taking the train to New York on vacation, because I am a train nut and the trip would be fun in itself. But let's think about this as a business trip: taking the train would not only cost about 1.5 times as much -- or four times as much with a compartment, and I'm just sure I'd be all set to go right to work in New York after two full days in a coach seat -- but it consumes four working days in travel time. I can manage a one-day business trip by plane, but a one-day trip to New York by train is a five-day trip. Subsidies won't help: counting in the lost time, Amtrak would have to pay me $4,000 to make up for the time difference. The travel time difference is so large that Amtrak couldn't compete if train tickets were free.

So why are trains so popular in Europe? Simple: Europe is smaller. My Basel to Paris trip is 250 miles; Denver to New York is 1,625 miles. Why is Amtrak popular in the Northeast? Because, here we go, the distances are comparable to Europe: Washington, DC, to New York is 203 miles.

To make train travel competitive, you'd need to raise airline ticket prices about 15 times, say with an excise tax or a tariff. Raising the airline ticket prices 15 times would, of course, pretty well end the airline industry as we know it; rock stars and CEOs would be about all that was left. Although I suppose they'd give their occasional traveler a second bag of peanuts if asked.

New technology won't help all that much for a nationwide system, either. The French TGV train -- I love French: train à grande vitesse just sounds so much inherently cooler than "really fast train" -- really only travels about 200 miles an hour; even maglev trains are not a lot faster. That would cut the travel time in half, making the total travel time to New York only, hoo-hah, 45 hours.

It's not a matter of the government not supporting Amtrak. It's not a matter of the U.S. not having the "will" to have the best passenger trains in the world. It's that passenger trains, using any current technology or any technology we see coming in the foreseeable future, simply can't compete with airlines.

It's just arithmetic.