I pondered the title of this article for a bit because we're currently struggling over the future of trains in America. One party wants to break up Amtrak into the NEC or Northeast Coridor (40% private) and then leave the current Amtrak to die on the vine trying to manage the rest of the non-profitable lines. The other party put 8 Billion into HSR (high speed rail) lines and wants to spend more. Amtrak has said it will cost about 100 Billion to rebuild the NEC. So having read Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service--A Year Spent Riding across America by James McCommons I know a few things about the history of passenger rail in America. For those of you who don't want to read an entire book about the history and current state of passenger trains in America I ran across a PDF entitled On the Wings of the Zephyr
The Rise and Fall of America’s High-Speed Streamliners (click to download). This tells the story of the Pioneer Zephyr an advanced high speed train in America. It left Chicago in the evening and arrived in Denver first thing in the morning. The average speed was 77 mph and it topped 116 mph. These numbers look a great deal like our current Acela high speed train in the Northeast Coridor. They also look a lot like the proposed high speed rail line between Orlando and Tampa that was refused by the current Florida Governor. As we struggle to get even single lines built it's hard to imagine that at one point in time the United States had 49,000 miles of high speed rail lines. The top 10 fastest scheduled passenger trains in the world were American. The year? Nineteen thirty-four! Yes I said 1934. Steam engines gave way to diesel and American wanted to prove it's chops so we built (using private money) a high speed rail system with entire trainsets engineered in America. The Pioneer Zephyr trainset (97 ft) weighed a total of about 200,000 lbs including engine. That's about what the engine on a modern Amtrak weighs by itself! Weight costs money - the more a train weighs the more stress on the tracks, the more diesel fuel it uses, the more it costs to pull. The freight railroads say it costs $1 to pull one ton (2000 lbs) 50 miles. With this train weighing about 1 million pounds less than our current Amtrak Superliners it makes sense that it would be drastically cheaper to run.
It all came to an end for various reasons. Diesel locomotives were required to have a fireman onboard even though they no longer had fires to tend to. A days pay was calculated by 100 miles traveled so the Zephyr engineer and fireman were paid for one week every day they worked. This was good for the engineer and fireman but bad for the railroad. To discourage traveling during WWII 15% was added to train tickets. Between 1945 and 1953 this raised 1.4 Billion dollars for the US treasury. The tax wasn't lifted until it was all over. Speed limits of 79 mph were placed on trains without specialized switching gear that would cost 500 Million dollars (current dollars) to install. During this same period of time the US Government started directly subsidizing airlines and indirectly subsidizing the airline industry with fixed airmail prices. In 1946 the Airport Development Act called for construction of 2000 new airports and provided 500 Million (1946 funds) to build them. By 1960 they'd spent more than 2 Billion on airports. The Federal Aid Highway act of 1944 authorized $500 Million per YEAR for highways. This however, wasn't enough so Vise President Nixon (yes tricky Dick) proposed a 50 Billion dollar highway plan (remember this is 1954 money equivalent to 1 Trillion dollars today). The entire United States budget was 71 Billion so 50 Billion on one project was immense. This would be roughly equivalent to us spending 2 Trillion today on one project. In 13 years the Airlines portion of intercity travel went from 6% to 39%. After 28,000 miles of interstate highway was opened 49,000 miles of passenger rail track was closed.
Was it even possible for passenger trains to compete with the deck stacked against them? Probably not. By 1971 the private passenger rail companies wanted out of the business and the government handed them a carrot. Amtrak would be created to relieve them of the burden as long as they let Amtrak run on their rails. So the next time someone complains about Amtrak's subsidies remember that the entire airline and car infrastructure was built on trillions of dollars of tax money. Ironically the political party pushing in those days for tax subsidies to create this infrastructure and ultimately kill off an entirely independent private industry were the Republicans. Quite the change of philosophy in relation to now. Now the same party wants to end subsidies to Amtrak. Maybe the goal is the same but it can't be about dollars can it?
Current Amtrak trains average about 45 mph and have only a fraction of the track that we used to have. Most every small town in America had a passenger train station. It doesn't bother me so much that one technology would replace another, what bothers me is how much it cost American tax payers to unbalance competition and how much it's ultimately cost us in the end.