Why Are U.S. Trains So Bad?

Mario Tama // Getty Images
Mario Tama // Getty Images / Mario Tama // Getty Images

Trains are amazing miracles of infrastructure technology. They can go really fast! They’re better for the environment! There is no fasten seatbelt sign dictating when you can and cannot go to the bathroom! 

Unfortunately, if you live in the U.S., taking a train is at best slow and expensive, and at worst, totally unavailable. Part of this is because the United States is a big, big place, but so is China—a country that is building a network of state-of-the-art high-speed railways. 

For short-haul trips, like between New York City and Washington D.C., hopping a train should be much faster than heading out to an airport, going through security, catching an hour-long flight, then taking a cab downtown. But with Amtrak, it takes about as long as driving does, unless you take the country’s only “high-speed” railway, the Acela Express, which still takes about three hours and costs more than a hundred dollars each way. (Driving takes about four and a half hours.)

Why does America, a country where early railroad tycoons became some of the richest men in history and wielded incredible influence over everything from city development to education (Stanford and Vanderbilt University were both founded on railroad money), have such a bad railroad system? 

Cars and planes became more trendy and efficient in the 20th century, so people didn't need to take trains. Passenger trains just weren’t profitable anymore, especially after the U.S. Post Office began shipping mail by truck and air, rather than on railroads. In 1970, President Nixon signed the law that created Amtrak, the national company tasked with getting people around the U.S. by rail. Sadly, Amtrak doesn’t operate enough trains to actually make itself useful—it runs around 300 journeys per day, compared to the 14,000 daily journeys run by France’s national rail service. Only 72 percent of Amtrak’s trains arrive on time, on average, in part because freight trains run on the same tracks, and often take priority.  

For a whole lot more on the sad state of American railroads, check out the video from Wendover Productions.

[h/t Boing Boing]

Know of something you think we should cover? Email us at tips@mentalfloss.com.