By Request: Amtrak Outside the Northeast

Brian Ulrich asks: "In moving from Illinois/Wisconsin to New York, I'm noticing that Amtrak has much more service on the east coast than on the midwest. Why is this, and what, if anything, can be done to get our national rail service serving such potentially useful routes as Chicago/St. Louis or Indianapolis/Kansas City?"

Several interrelated causes. The primary underlying issue is that in places where Amtrak depends on using rail lines that are owned by freight rail companies, it's difficult / impossible to provide frequent, reliable service. Also, clearly, in a place where the right-of-way is owned by a freight company, you're not going to build track optimized to the needs of high-speed passenger rail so you can't provide the speed of the Acela in the Northeast.

On top of this, the DC-to-Boston Acela corridor is the most densely populated part of the country, which makes it ideal for rail service, and also includes many walkable cities with transit infrastructure and substantial commuter rail networks. Transportation is always a network phenomenon -- part of what makes taking the train from DC to New York appealing is that when you arrive car-less in New York, that's fine. Indeed, driving from DC to New York would becomes an expensive/annoying proposition when you consider the difficulty/expense of parking in New York and a car's limited utility in terms of getting around. Even if you live in the suburbs, it makes sense to take Metro to union station and take the train up to NYC rather than driving. But if you took the train from Tucson to Phoenix you'd probably wind up needing to rent a car anyway, so why not just drive?

So in terms of what can be done, it's more a question of a thousand cuts than a single broad stroke. Every time any city anywhere does anything to make itself less auto-dependent, it's a step in the right direction. And then it's just a question of deciding that this is important to us. Building new high-speed rail lines is expensive. But it's not as if building new airport terminals or new freeways is cheap, either. Giving passenger rail more priority over freight rail would be a good idea since timeliness is more important to passengers than it is to giant boxes. But ultimately if we want to move more stuff by rail, we need to build more -- and more modern -- track.