The One Tiny Law That Keeps Amtrak Terrible

The One Tiny Law That Keeps Amtrak Terrible

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Writing by Sam Denby and Tristan Purdy
Editing by Alexander Williard
Animation led by Josh Sherrington
Sound by Graham Haerther
Thumbnail by Simon Buckmaster

Historic US rail map data courtesy Bygone Maps, LLC and licensed under CC-BY-SA (historic rail graphics correspondently avaliable under a CC-BY-SA license)


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48 Responses

  1. John O'Neal says:

    As someone from Kentucky who has lived in Louisville for the past 6 years, it sucks to know that we used to have passenger rail service to the city but it shut down in 2003. If we got service again, I would no doubt use it to take trips to Indianapolis, Cincinnati, and Chicago for weekend trips, concerts, etc instead of having to drive. Literally a dream of mine, really hoping that Amtrak’s plans get through.

    • Daniel Schick says:

      @Praise The Sun Hopefully they take Billy to the river and drops’em in the water.

    • CellBlok69wLamp says:

      @Just Commenting demand for rail/public transport to attractions from transit stations. If there is little demand why spend the money on the few that will take it.

    • Just Commenting says:

      @CellBlok69wLamp what do you mean? Demand for what? You said yourself you won’t walk a quarter mile, so the demand is a function of ease of use and access, not the inverse. I think it is similar for any utility. Just as building an extra lane induces more people to drive on a road if it becomes quicker to their destination.

    • CellBlok69wLamp says:

      @YaBoiScrumpo I don’t want much of anything to be subsided by the federal or state government unless its absolutely critical, like the transport of goods to remote towns.

    • CellBlok69wLamp says:

      @Just Commenting yep. If there is enough demand to warrant it.

  2. Not Just Bikes says:

    Canada, too. 😢 It sucks so much to have to wait for a freight train.

    I wonder how much better the US and Canada would be if they had spent trillions on rail and public transit over the past 70 years, instead of only stroads and highways.

    • Tom Hill says:

      @Davidty 2006 even the possibility of double tracked mainlines would be a hell of alot better.

    • Slimey says:

      @Leonardoneta Gamer They wouldn’t. Look at the Dutch train system. A buttload of routes that have a train every 15 minutes, and larger distances are covered by intercity trains every 30-60 minutes. And yet it all works perfectly fine (for the most part, ignore winter lmao)

    • Paul de Vrieze says:

      Clear that the operators of trains should not also control the scheduling of their competition to the use of the infrastructure.

    • Oak Island Pictures says:

      @MarioYoshi4723 I’d wager it’s **because** of folks like D349 that others are getting sick of the roads. There’s a not insignificant number of drivers lately that seem to have gotten spoiled by empty freeways in 2020 and now drive in traffic like they’re on a speedway.

      Forget the cost to own and operate a wage cage, the slowdowns, the potholes, the stress… it’s the yahoos that don’t seem to care if they kill anyone that have pushed me to abandon driving. And then they come on here and pretend everyone is like them and that we need to prioritize their wants even more.

    • MarioYoshi4723 says:

      @D 349You may like your cars, a good chunk of America is getting sick of the road; Brightline’s overbooked trains prove that.

      Americans want better rail now more than ever.

  3. live90 says:

    I wish this video talked more about how this Amtrak dream across America EXISTS in the northeast where Amtrak owns the tracks. I live in NYC, don’t have a car, and take trains everyday. Whether it’s the subway to get to work, commuter rail to visit friends in New Jersey and Connecticut, and Amtrak Acela when heading to Philly or Boston or DC, the American rail dream exists here and it’s amazing. I just wish the rest of America got to experience it as well.

    • Trey Johnson says:

      @D 349that’s only if you’re not planning ahead. My friend takes Amtrak and it’s literally $30 NY to DC, you just need to buy like a month in advance. If you want a next day ticket yeah it’s gonna cost much more

    • Tom Hill says:

      @The Atomic Reverend America did not grow up around the car. That is just make believe propaganda.
      America grew up around rails. The car did not become an option for long distance travel until the 50s and 60s when the Highway act was passed. This act passed due to massive amounts of propaganda by auto makers and lobbying and corruption by law makers.
      America used to have an amazing railroad network that pretty much built the country.
      And don’t forget, the highways act was completely paid for by American tax dollars and had never paid for itself.
      People get butt hurt when they hear Amtrak is partly subsidized, but they never say anything about the massive subsidizing of the highway network to the cost of hundreds of billions of dollars a year.

    • Ryan says:

      @James Collins Or how about, as a train passenger who likes trains, you want to make trains a more competitive mode of transportation, which makes it more affordable, which makes it more competitive, which makes it even more affordable… because train is clearly a much better option for a thousand different reasons that would improve our lives and our society even outside of travel.

    • Tom Hill says:

      @Axels Mayo at least you have brightline

    • James Collins says:

      @Ryan Like a lot of train passengers, you want the trains but do not want to pay for them.

  4. RMTransit says:

    Excellent video, especially the end – freight rail as it exists in North America is almost entirely incompatible with good passenger rail!

  5. Thomas Kleppe says:

    In The Netherlands people are really upset because 95% on time became 91%. Note: over 3 minutes will count as a delay. On the less busy stations the connecting trains will often wait.

    • The Real E.B. says:

      @carmastrikes Yes! That’s what I was thinking of. Thanks.

    • 123abc says:

      @David Moore So how many trains do you get a day to go from the Netherlands to Kosovo?

    • 123abc says:

      @Just Commenting Check out The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, also known as the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act.

      From Wikipedia: “Eisenhower advocated for the highways for the purpose of national defense. In the event of a ground invasion by a foreign power, the U.S. Army would need good highways to be able to transport troops and material across the country efficiently.”

    • dascandy says:

      @No_name When your infrastructure is so bad people don’t use bicycles, not many cyclists exist to complain, and those that do expect nothing to result.

    • SQuirellsOnNIkieZ says:

      @ScileteIf it comes to lies, russia hits the 100 % mark every time. source: the last 80 years.

  6. Chris Harris says:

    Just got back from a trip to CA on the Zephyr. Encountered two stuck freights just outside of Elko, NV that set us back almost 12 hrs. Amtrak gave me a $150 voucher, even though it wasn’t their fault. You just can’t make plans too close to your arrival time. BTW, you meet some of the most interesting people on Amtrak.

    • Tibbers says:

      Indeed, the atmosphere on a train is more sociable for some reason.

    • Dennis Young says:

      Awesome scenery, too.

    • Jimmy Seaver says:

      Yeah. I took the _Capitol Limited_ almost 10 years ago and had conversations with a geneticist from India, an off-Broadway stage actor, the combo bus driver/pyro technician/merch guy for a band, and a DJ whose _name_ was DJ. You don’t get those kinds of experiences on a plane or even a Greyhound, nevermind driving around on a freeway.

  7. LaikaLycanthrope says:

    If you want a bigger shocking scandal, check out the history of passenger rail in Canada, starting with the Pacific Survey (which resulted in the Second Riel Rebellion a decade later), John A. MacDonald and his scandals leading up to the creation of the CPR, and the sad lack of rail service we have now. Pierre Berton wrote an excellent two part series on it.

    • LaikaLycanthrope says:

      @Kaiden Rogers Ask Brian Mulroney. He’s the same guy who took away Baby Bonus under the pretext that “Canada is now a mature country with enough population, we don’t need to pay people to have babies any more like in frontier days”, only to turn around and give us mass immigration because “there’s not enough babies and we need more people”. Bait and switch traitor to the Canadian people.

    • Howling Wolven says:

      We have however become the world leaders in high speed rail… study!

    • Kaiden Rogers says:

      @Ian Homer Pura I really don’t understand why we lost any of our crown corps. Why move the onus of government revenue completely to taxes?

    • SIVAH. AKASH. - ஆகாஷ் says:

      I think Canada’s passenger rail is still better than the US’ currently?

    • Brian Barker says:

      and VIA Rail here is about as sad-sack as Amtrak is as well

  8. Jack Chen says:

    My single data point anecdote: there’s a ski train from Denver to winter park, Colorado during weekends in the winter. Most passenger takes it to do day trips to to skiing at winter park resort. We’re supposed to depart Denver a 7am and arrived at winter park resort at 9am, and get our full day of skiing before leaving the resort at 4:30. This is very convenient and high value, since it saves the passengers from a sometimes difficult drive across the continental divide.

    My one time taking that train was about 20 years ago. We ended up stuck behind a coal train and a 2 hour journey turned into 4 hours, and our 7 hour ski day shrank to less than 5. The whole time we were waiting for that coat train to pass, all I heard was people saying the coal has been i the ground for millions of years, surely it can wait a few more hours. I and my family have never taken that ski train again after that.

  9. ShroudedWolf51 says:

    I recently listened to twelve hours of podcast talking about the history of Penn Station and it’s absolutely insane in how many different ways the US rail industry sabotaged itself and its operations out of desperation to avoid nationalization.

    • Just Commenting says:

      @GintaPPE1000 you’re suggesting incentivizing breaking the law and making passenger rail more expensive. It’s not that freight won’t make money it’s that they won’t make as much for the c suite shareholders if they actually invest in the business rather than sitting on appreciating land while buying back their own stock. If they followed the law the incentive would be to build more track to avoid delays. Corporations have ignored laws to poison rivers and drive planes into the ground. These are all symptoms of a larger problem of corpo impunity. The answer is not capitulation because they have no limit beyond what is imposed on them, they will only take more.

    • YaBoiScrumpo says:

      ​@GintaPPE1000 I should note that UP wants out of Metra. Since YouTube nukes comments with links, you can look up “Commuter Trains will Continue to Run on Chicago’s UP North, Northwest and West Lines”. There’s a statement from UP which cites a disagreement about common carrier responsibilities. The point I want to make is that it’s not going as smoothly as you might think and is not inherently successful to give the private industry a stake, but I’m interested in hearing your interpretation of the situation.

      Otherwise, I’ll look into those situations you cite and see what I can glean from the Pacific Surfliner since you mentioned it a few times. Although I’m sure you already know, I’ll mention that it’s currently experiencing reduced service due to track erosion and related construction to reverse the effects. I would think the freight operators would have wanted to prevent this for their own sake too and maybe would have used the money from Amtrak to try to better mitigate the effects before it got this bad. In other words, I’m skeptical of the success of trusting the Class I railroads to do the right thing with increased funding from charging Amtrak “what it owes”. That said, I’ll follow your leads and see what I can learn from California as I’m not adequately informed on the happenings of the Surfliner since the 90s and on to be honest.

      As far as PSR and the short-term profit obsession, I was mostly talking about current circumstances and trends over time. Certainly PSR was reliable at some point before it progressed to where we are with it today. That doesn’t change the fact that it’s gotten out of hand in the present and is hindering today’s customers. It also has had the added effect of making passenger rail continually worse with the longer trains that the sidings no longer accommodate. In many ways, PSR is the problem not just something to compartmentalize.

    • GintaPPE1000 says:

      @YaBoiScrumpo It is not idealistic whatsoever. Such an approach – when implemented properly – has worked time and time again for transit operators that use freight railroad tracks, and for state-supported Amtrak corridors that use freight railroad tracks like the Pacific Surfliner. So, too, has the approach of inviting the freight railroad to be a stakeholder in the passenger business – as Metra does on the BNSF and UP lines by contracting the host railroad to run the operation, and Brightline did (indirectly) through their parent also owning their host railroad.

      The failure of infrastructure bills to achieve similar results is not because such things don’t work, but because they were managed poorly. The government handed the freight railroads a check and simply said “spend it on infrastructure” without asking for any sort of concrete plan or even list of improvements, not to mention failing to make any sort of progress checks to see if anything actually improved. Of course the money disappeared off into the void when there’s no accountability. To use the example of the Pacific Surfliner as one where sponsored upgrades were managed properly, in the 1990s CalTrans and the ATSF agreed to a track upgrade project from Fullerton to San Diego, with the state providing 50%, the municipalities along the route chipping in 25%, and ATSF footing the remaining 25% – on the condition that ATSF showed them where the money was going and completed the upgrades by an agreed-to date, otherwise the subsidies had the contractual right to be withdrawn, leaving ATSF with the whole bill.

      I am aware that Class I timeliness has been slipping since PSR became a thing, and especially since COVID hit. But that is a PSR-specific problem. You can argue that government intervention will be necessary to reverse PSR, to which I agree, but for many years before that poison started spreading in the mid-2010s when Hunter Harrison made waves at CN, freight railroads successfully ran hotshots on-time, so that is not the proof you think it is.

    • GintaPPE1000 says:

      @Yuriy Miami And why is that the case? Because the cargo on each freight train is worth millions of dollars to the railroad. Meanwhile, Amtrak pays their host railroads cents per passenger, even when they have to carry those passengers over hundreds of miles of privately-owned track. That doesn’t even cover the cost of wear and tear.

    • GintaPPE1000 says:

      @Just CommentingYou can keep complaining the DoJ won’t tackle the case of Amtrak delays if you want. It hasn’t solved the problem in 50 years, and it’s not going to just because someone else started complaining about it.

      Alternatively, you can try something different to solve the problem. Incentives and joint ownership stakes have worked very well at keeping trains running on-time in places like Florida (Brightline), Chicago (Metra BNSF and UP), and California (Pacific Surfliner, ACE, Caltrain, Capitol Corridor/San Joaquin). Helping to pay for capital improvements that freight railroads don’t see as viable (Michigan Line, Pacific Surfliner, Cascades) is also a proven-effective means of securing freight railroads’ cooperation and support of passenger business.

      I did not say negotiating concessions with freight railroads was the be-all-end-all solution to solving Amtrak’s timekeeping issues. I said it’s a step they have the means to take right now, and implement some minor improvements pending a more permanent solution instead of just throwing up their hands and saying they can’t do anything.

  10. Piero Maddaleni says:

    For those wondering, Amtrak’s plans for new trains is called Connects US. It is a list of routes less than 750 miles in length, those which require state funding, which can be setup and run in a fairly short time frame. If all of the routes in this plan are created, Amtrak’s daily trains will approximately double. A small step towards a much better rail system. Additionally, the FRA has created Corridor ID/Connect ID, a inquiry into new routes, some of which are in Connects US, which will be eligible for federal funding for startup costs. Those startup costs are most of the costs involved, so having those covered essentially guarantees a route will happen.

    • Some guy says:

      omg piero famous

    • Mr Obamium says:

      750 miles are nothing for a country this size

    • Lzzzzzzzzz says:

      Requires state funding yeah good luck

    • Joesolo13 says:

      ​@Yuriy Miami Poor argument. The US has some very rural areas, but many regions are as dense or denser than Japan. Several states have population densities higher than Japan, including New Jersey. But even states with lower density usually have regions that are plenty dense for transit. Wyoming has counties with fewer people than the town I grew up in. Even several of them combined. But the area around it’s capitol has density comparable to Switzerland. That’s where you’d build a transit network. Not just from Ranch to Ranch.

    • Joesolo13 says:

      @mrsleakyshit 3-4 daily trains is a big jump for many amtrak routes.

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