The United States’ intercity rail system is a vital lifeline for its tens of millions of annual passengers.
However, the existing system can seem maddeningly archaic. I experienced the strengths and weaknesses of that system on a recent Amtrak trip from DC to see family in Florida – the 2019 edition of the trip I wrote about last year.
But after I got to the Sunshine State, I caught a glimpse of a possible future for our rail system: one where Amtrak is not the only company that provides intercity service. With multiple companies to choose from, states that subsidize regional routes will benefit from competition for operating contracts. And in markets across the country with high demand, these companies will have an opportunity to operate profitably, giving them even more resources to support improved and more extensive service.
I traveled to southern Florida in coach class on Amtrak’s overnight Silver Meteor train. The trip, aboard 1970s-era railcars traveling at up to 79 mph, was enjoyable, but an imperfect product provided by a company that faces plenty of external challenges and seems stuck in its ways.
Some of the Silver Meteor’s issues were due to shortcomings associated with the U.S.’s freight-oriented rail infrastructure – and general transportation culture – that are outside of Amtrak’s control. For example, south of Richmond, VA, somebody got their car stuck on the tracks. Our train, with a couple hundred people aboard, had to wait an hour for a tow truck to show up and drag the unoccupied vehicle out of the way. (No Amtrak employees ever announced the delay’s cause, so I had to go out of my way to ask the conductor for this information.)
Amtrak has adjusted to the ever-present threat of these types of delays by building lots of padding into its schedules, giving trains a chance to make up time. I benefited from this padding on a recent DC-to-Chicago trip, when the Amtrak Cardinal train fell as much as one hour and 45 minutes behind schedule while passing through West Virginia but recovered to pull into the Windy City right on time.
But in my experience, most Amtrak trains normally do not perform as well as the Cardinal did when they fall behind schedule.
Click here to read the full article: https://mobilitylab.org/2019/04/23/will-new-private-sector-rail-operators-change-the-look-of-intercity-train-travel-in-the-us/