On the rails of the future

The German electronic group Kraftwerk is hugely influential, with an influence on everything from hip hop to electronica to pop that persists to this day. My favourite song of theirs is “Trans-Europe Express”.

The song’s title came from the now-defunct high speed train network of the same name, founded in 1957 at the very beginning of European integration and expanding to form a sizable network before its exclusivity–the trains carried only first-class cars, nothing less–meant that it lost out to rail networks with less exacting requirements. Europe is now a continent knit together by trains, or so the North American stereotype goes.

And North America? I rode the United States’ Amtrak back in 2002, for a a Richmond to New York City trip (the one-hour layover in Philadelphia was unexpected, as was the one hour the train arrived late in Richmond). I wasn’t very impressed, particularly with the delays. The Economist noted that so far, it seems to be doing well.

Amtrak’s fiscal year 2010 continued the trend. The company carried 28.7 million riders, up 5.7% from FY 2009, and revenues from ticket sales were $1.74 billion, up 9% from last year. Almost 40% more people rode Amtrak this year than did in 2000.

Amtrak is still highly unlikely to make a profit—last year, it got nearly $1.5 billion from the federal government to cover the gap between revenues and expenses. But there’s a lot of good news in the railroad’s numbers, and, more importantly, some hints about where to go from here. Over a third of all Amtrak passengers travelled in the Northeast Corridor between Boston, New York, and Washington. Northeast Corridor travel accounted for more than half of Amtrak’s ticket revenue.

Ridership along the corridor was up 4.3%, while ridership on the corridor’s “high speed” Acela trains was up 6.5%. (Since business travellers favor the Acela, the good numbers there are a sign that business travel is fuelling Amtrak’s growth.) “Amtrak now enjoys a 65 percent share of the air-rail market between Washington and New York and a 52 percent share of the air-rail market between New York and Boston,” the company said in a press release [PDF].

If one thing is clear from Amtrak’s numbers, it’s that demand for high-speed rail travel in the Northeast Corridor continues to grow. So it’s probably no coincidence that the company recently released a long-term plan for slashing travel times between DC, New York, and Boston. But none of that will happen if America’s fractious politics continue to get in the way of making any serious investments in infrastructure.

Speaking off-hand, it does seem like the Boston-to-Washington corridor has the critical mass of population necessary to achieve a certain level of sustainability on the European model. Whether this is exploited is another issue.

And Canada? VIA Rail is a start, but only that, with serious complaints about the line’s service to smaller centres and service generally. Since the 1960s, various people have suggested the construction of a high-speed rail route on the Quebec City-Windsor corridor, a zone encompassing the heartlands of Quebec and Ontario, most of the major metropoli of Canada (Toronto, Montreal, and Ottawa, among others), and most of Canada’s industrial capacity. It’s all been talk, and I suspect that even though this corridor is the most densely populated area of Canada it’s not quite densely populated enough to make high-speed rail viable.

It’s a pity. Back in April in 2003, when I was visiting Ontario from Prince Edward Island–spending time in Toronto, and visiting Kingston to scout out my grad school–I took VIA Rail, exploiting my student discount. Sitting in a window seat, looking at the bright sunny day and blue Lake Ontario stretching out beyond the farmland, moving swiftly as I drank a nice red wine, I felt so content, so romantic, really. What’s wrong with romance in travel? Certainly airports have lost their charm.

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2 Responses to On the rails of the future

  1. One problem with expanding the rail network is that it still seems like Washington-Boston would be *just* Washington-Boston. One of the major advantages of the European rail network is that once you make your trip to the major city, you can use smaller trains to get to practically wherever you need to go. The few small towns and villages that aren’t walking distance (yes, walking distance) from a train stop universally have some sort of bus service, at least in Germany. That’s a huge infrastructural commitment to make, but it would be the only way to really have people excited about using the trains instead of their cars.

  2. Bertrand Russell~ Man needs for his happiness not only the enjoyment of this or that but hope and enterprise and change.

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