What I learned from taking a train across the US

What I learned from taking a train across the US

Here’s how US train travel went from excellent to mediocre.

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If you’ve taken the Amtrak recently, you might have no idea that the United States used to have the largest and wealthiest rail system in the world. How did the US go from having luxurious, widely used passenger trains to the Amtrak system we have today?

Video producer Dean Peterson makes a 72-hour journey on Amtrak from LA to NYC to show its current state of operation. From getting kicked in the head by his sleeping seat mate to taking in sweeping views of the desert at sunset, Dean shows the highs and lows of being stuck on Amtrak for days on end.

Along the way, he explains the history of passenger rail in the US — starting in the problematic robber baron era to the US government’s takeover of passenger rail. Will the United States ever catch up to the rest of the world when it comes to train travel, or are Americans stuck with an underfunded, inefficient rail network forever? Join Dean on his journey as he sets out to find out the answer to these questions and more.


The Great Railroad Revolution by Christian Wolmar

Amtrak, America’s Railroad: Transportation’s Orphan and Its Struggle for Survival (Railroads Past and Present) by Geoffrey H. Doughty, Jeffrey T. Darbee, Eugene E. Harmon

Conquering Gotham: Building Penn Station and Its Tunnels by Jill Jonnes

The Pennsylvania Railroad, Volume 1: Building an Empire, 1846-1917 By Albert J. Churella

Zephyrs, chiefs & other orphans ; the first five years of Amtrak by Fred W Frailey

The Golden Age of American Railroading by Judith Macy, Mary McInroy, and Robert McCown

Association of American Railroads

More information about roadway deaths vs. train deaths from the US Department of Transportation: https://www.transportation.gov/NRSS/SafetyProblem

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51 Responses

  1. Vox says:

    Thanks for watching! This is our second video in a series of five all about hidden design details, growing trends, and overarching systems in travel. We’ve got three more for you so tune in with us next Tuesday!

    Check out the first video on the swishes and swoops that define the RV aesthetic: https://youtu.be/oUF8uYPjyQM

    • Alarm clock ringing says:

      I’m so exited for the rest of the series!

    • The Man w/No Name says:

      Supplemental material:

      “Men labored all day at the baking of breads and cakes for feasts for the rich and children labored from dawn to midnight and slept all greasy and grimed as they were upon rough pallets on the floor and staggered to the ovens next day, and there was not money enough given to buy a piece of the rich breads they made for others.” – Modern Day (“Wealthy & Powerful”) USA/GOP Economic Policy + Walmart -or- THE GOOD EARTH by Pearl S. Buck?

    • Yacine Boussoufa says:

      Now do the same in Europe

    • NAMAN says:

      Vox inspires me.. My parents said if i get 35K followers They’d buy me a professional camera for recording..begging u guys , literally

    • Thrashing Code says:

      Glad the end conclusion is what most people get out of taking the train. Introspection and you realize, it’s a GREAT experience really!

  2. Person says:

    My brother’s a car guy, and even he would prefer high speed trains over driving a car in traffic. Goes to show how much worse cities in the US and Canada have become since the 1950s.

    • 56independent says:

      There’s definately a difference between having a choice and being forced to drive.

    • Tiffany Sandmeier says:

      When I think about the decline of trains, I remember of the plot of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and that some car manufacturers really did buy the transit systems in some cities to run it into the ground so that people would have to buy cars.

    • Person says:

      @56independent Very true. It’s not that I want cars to completely disappear, I want to ride the train when I want and bike when I want and drive when I want.

    • Casey Allred says:

      I’ve found that a lot of “car guys” are perfectly reasonable in terms of wanting better non-car infrastructure because of nowadays it’s hard to really enjoy having a car in most built up places

    • Keon Yang says:

      Most people would

  3. Big Swings says:

    The hypocricy in all of this is that people NEVER say that the highways or roads, which are only a thing because of subsidies, need to make a profit. We understand that public infrastructure doesn’t need to make a profit for it to be valuable.

    • Oak Island Pictures says:

      Worse, the argument is usually “the freeways move freight so even if it’s a money hole for the public, it helps the economy so it’s worth it.”

      Which is funny because any country that invests in modern rail also sees economic benefits in shrinking the distance between metro areas, improving real estate values, etc.

      Almost like public investment in transportation infrastructure will always have economic benefits regardless of the vehicle used. We knew this from the days of the Erie and Panama Canals. Or how we entirely subsidize the airlines by publicly owning the airports. Works for trains too, strangely enough.

    • hedgehog3180 says:

      @Oak Island Pictures And specifically in the US most freight is moved by rail so that argument isn’t even really relevant.

    • No_name says:

      If public transit makes a profit is actually bad, because it means the money they get doesn’t get reimvested into even more public transit

    • Ned Ludd says:

      ​@hedgehog3180A problem is that freight trains have priority over passenger trains.

    • qjtvaddict says:

      Turn highways into tollways infrastructure ain’t free

  4. sophia says:

    Taking a train across the States must’ve been an exhilarating experience. You’re not restricted to simply flying as a passenger on the plane or taking your car for a road trip.

    • Drkbowers1 says:

      I will say as someone who avidly wants to see rail travel return to the US regionally and in cities, even if Amtrak had $100B they could not make LA to NY a pragmatic rail trip. It’s a good pleasure cruise to see the country though. I guess maybe if they could make it substantially cheaper than airline tickets it might be somewhat viable. Even in Europe a train ride that lasts 8 hours or more is not really worth it compared to flying.

    • Jambott says:

      ​​@Drkbowers1ctually no. Firstly, you are almost certainly implying the train is just LA to NY with no other stops like a plan would go, which just isn’t how trains work.

      What would happen is that you would have train lines that connect big cities in a certain area, like in the north east of the US almost every big city would have high speed rail connections, and then you would have connections between those, and then from those big cities you would be able to go to smaller lines.

      You would probably have a train from LA to a big city in the Midwest or the south, I would guess somewhere in texas but IDK, I don’t know how to plan out rail lines, and then get a connection from there to new York. You would also stop along the way for various cities.

      It would be far more viable to do this than to fly planes, because with a single plane, you only ship passengers from one place to another, with a train, you are shipping passagers to every single stop along the way. This is more time efficient, as while for the trip a train is longer, getting through an airport is a lot longer than getting through a train station, and will almost certainly be cheaper, trains are cheaper to run than planes.

    • Drkbowers1 says:

      @Jambott No way did you really do the “Akshually 🤓”. It’s almost like I specifically said LA to NY, which is what was shown in the video.

      I’m not against train tracks existing on the route, I’m saying no one is going to take a train from LA to NY unless it’s also to view the geography, visit the cities along the way, etc. Somebody that regularly has business in LA and NY will fly. Now would they take a train from LA to a city in a neighboring state? Sure, but that’s not what I was even talking about.

    • mr. pink says:

      @Drkbowers1a rail line that connects both cities does make sense tho, as it will be connected to various large cities along the way, do we agree? Yeah, no one will use it to go across the ENTIRE country but it works for everyone to have it connect to so many cities including NYC and LA

  5. Sensato says:

    Great piece.

    If the funding of rail vs highways was better split the fact is almost everyone would still fly cross country. But (this is something the video didn’t touch on much) if corridors like Portland – Seattle, Orlando – Miami, the North East, etc etc had not be gutted, then people would still be considering train over cars or flying for mid distance travel.

    Funding inner-city public transport + intra-city rail would mean less cars on the road, less pollution, and more options for everyone.

    • critiqueofthe gothgf says:

      high speed rail in the north east is a no brainer. boston, nyc, washington dc, pennsylvania. it’s so obvious and yet the US is just so tunnel visioned on cars, it hasnt happened

    • Drkbowers1 says:

      That’s what I was thinking, even if Amtrak had $100B they could not make LA to NY a pragmatic rail trip. It’s a good pleasure cruise to see the country though. I guess maybe if they could make it substantially cheaper than airline tickets it might be somewhat viable. I would almost say this video shows the least important aspect of rail travel. Like you mentioned, inner-city and regional is where it’s at.

    • Sacto1654 says:

      @critiqueofthe gothgf It could be done, but the purchasing the right of way is just too expensive in 2023. If they had done this right after World War II to build a dedicated high-speed line between Boston and Washington, DC (when land acquisiton costs were way cheaper), we would have had consistently fast 150 mph trains between Boston and DC by the early 1970’s.

    • train says:

      ​@Sacto1654We have the money for it, which is the sad part. Ultimately, if we push politicians to vote for it, we absolutely can have a system rivaling Europe in as little as 20 years. But little to no political will blocks it all

    • Ned Ludd says:

      There have been proposals for triangular rail service between major cities in Texas and Florida, but the airlines lobbied to bury them.

  6. Evan B. says:

    The optimistic side of me believes we can achieve some serious improvements soon. I mean, train travel hasn’t been as much of a hot topic in the U.S. for decades. All that’s left is to convince the politicians with control of the budgeting to let Amtrak get more money (and maybe to give the highways a bit less?) while also making it clear that Amtrak being “for profit” shouldn’t be the goal. It’s a public service, and should be funded like one.

    • Chester_King says:


    • Evan B. says:

      @Chester_King you clearly missed where I said the “optimistic side” of me. I know it’s a far shot, but let me dream lol

    • DavidRGD says:

      Almost around >70% of the American public (iirc) wanted rail transport, but what’s holding them back. Politicians…. And even if they also wanted them too… you want to know what’s also holding them back as well?
      Aviation and oil industries.
      Of course, there will be some more factors on what’s holding the rail transport back other than the things I just mentioned (because these are what I can know of and always think of)

    • critiqueofthe gothgf says:

      i think there’s been an increase an public demand for walkable cities and viable public transportation. once california HSR kicks off, it should lead to the start of something new

    • Ripley says:

      ​@DavidRGD Say it like it is, oil, auto & the likes are buying those traitors

  7. Anton Allen says:

    Over the summer I’m having the pleasure of staying in Japan for a month (studying the language). It’s incredible, the feeling you get, of sitting down in this countries bullet trains, and seeing the countryside go by and incredible speeds. It feels like it’s almost a space ship. Don’t get me wrong, flying is cool too, but there’s something mesmerizing about trains that are actually awesome. And, there’s a ton more legroom than on an airplane.

    • Ryuichiro Suzuki says:

      and don’t have to go to the airport. you can just get off in middle of the city, where ofc, already well connected with other local trains and metro

    • Ghajik says:

      imagine a shinkansen between new york and los angles. The flexibility and the frequency would be amazing, so that you can simply go to the other side of the country without any plan.

    • ダニエル遠藤乃惠海 says:

      Thank you for your kind words about my country!
      We also have some specialty, resort and sightseeing trains to visit if you want an even more beautiful experience. I don’t know where you’ll be staying, but I recommend you look into it!
      I hope you have a good time here, from a fellow train enthusiast (⁠。⁠・⁠ω⁠・⁠。⁠)⁠ノ⁠♡

    • GTAVictor9128 says:

      As someone living in Ireland which is the most underdeveloped country in Europe in rail infrastructure and one of the most car centric, I recently had the pleasure of visiting Reus, Tarragona, Barcelona and Madrid. Compared to the standards of Irish public transport, being able to seemlessly travel around Catalonia by regional train and then taking a high speed train from Barcelona to Madrid truly felt like a luxury to me.

  8. Angel Romero says:

    Amtrak is a hidden gem. If you have the extra time, it’s worth it

    • Jared Jackson says:

      And extra money, cause “first class” on amtrak is expensive

    • qjtvaddict says:

      IF!!!!! Most people don’t have that time speed it up no more excuses

    • MattsCats says:

      @Jared Jackson Coach isn’t cheap, either. I love the train, but honestly, there’s no point in taking it anywhere aside from to have the experience.

    • Bas Engelblik says:

      Chinese and Japanese bullet trains are gems. Amtrak, … granite maybe but no Onyx

    • Equestria Iron Horse fan says:

      @MattsCats Not true, I take Amtrak to get places because air travel is stressful and people are rude, Amtrak is just the opposite

  9. B says:

    I want Amtrak to expand. I want them to innovate. Weve become too focused on highways and planes

  10. Mason 美生 says:

    Experience public transportation in Taiwan, China, and even London makes we wish the US had similar.

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