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US Travel Diary – Amtrak

This is the third of a series of posts by economist Peter Nunns from his travels earlier this year in the US

I often argue that Auckland can learn the most not from long-established, highly livable European cities but from North American cities. In particular, we should look to cities along the American West Coast, as they were founded at around the same time, shortly before the advent of the streetcar and the automobile, and have since dealt with similar opportunities and dysfunctions. In the short term, cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver may offer some lessons for Auckland. And, as Joel Kotkin would recommend, we should consider whether there is anything to be learned from Houston.

There is no reason why we shouldn’t aspire to adopt the best urban trends, whether they come from America, Europe, Africa, or even New Zealand itself. But transforming Auckland to be more like Amsterdam or Paris (for example) may be a generations-long project. The West Coast cities offer a few lessons about what can – and can’t – be accomplished in a generation.

I spent several weeks in February and March travelling throughout this vast territory to see friends and family. I spent a week in the San Francisco Bay Area; a day in Los Angeles; a long Amtrak ride through the desert with my youngest brother; and another week in Houston, where my middle brother lives, and New Orleans. Here are a few of my observations about how each city functions and how it is changing, with a focus on transport and urban development.

Amtrak interlude

My youngest brother and I travelled from Los Angeles to Houston via Amtrak, the US’s government-owned passenger rail operator. We rode the Sunset Limited, which runs through through the stark and beautiful expanses of the southwestern desert. According to calculations by the Brookings Institute, this line is heavily loss-making due to relatively low ridership, as it’s been outcompeted on speed and price by airlines and intercity buses. However, it’s one of those strange gems that you occasionally find while travelling around the US – a unique way of seeing a strange land. It was not fast – the trip was scheduled to take 39 hours, but ran four hours late due to various delays (mechanical, staff changes, freight trains, etc) – but compensated for this by being surprisingly comfortable and civilised. We had booked a small sleeping cabin, which came with access to a shower and meals from the dining car. The food wasn’t amazing, but the service was friendly and pleasant.

NUNNS_08 We spent a long time on a train in the desert_172137

We spent a long time on a train in the desert

The interesting thing about being on a long-distance train in the US is the clientele that it attracts. Generally, if you want to travel long distances in the US, you take a plane. If you can’t afford that, you take the Greyhound bus. Amtrak tends to cater to the oddballs – railfans and romantics, the curious and intrepid, and so on and so forth. You really need to have a reason to be on the train. Its slow pace also tends to encourage conversation in the dining car or observation deck.

We had a few interesting conversations – the Finnish grandmother who was returning to North Carolina after driving her son’s car to LA; a rather intense man with a big beard who’d cycled from Abilene, Texas to Oregon to work on a ranch and who was returning to work on his “Christian romantic comedy novel”; a young activist from Oakland, California who was going to Nicaragua to help schools develop vegetable gardens. Long-distance trains seem to be an inherently confessional mode of travel.

Being on the train also gave us a lot of time to observe the southwestern American desert. It is a remarkable place: Stark, beautifully stark. Arid to a degree that’s difficult to imagine in New Zealand. The interesting thing that you start to notice, after a few hours looking out at it through a train window, is that it is in fact a landscape defined by water. There is no water to be seen, but the traces of water are everywhere. The existence of tough, waxy-leaved plants that can survive long dry periods. Shallow hollows where water pools after rainy periods and where mud dries up and cracks. Arroyos secos, or dry creek-beds. Channels carved into hard rock by flash floods. But everything is dry. We were grateful that the train cafe was serving cold beers.

Also evident on the trip was the role that freight rail plays in the US. We had to stop a number of times to let freight trains pass by – hauling everything imaginable, from containers to iron bars to crude oil tankers. The railyards in every city we passed were massive, busy entities. It’s one thing to read that rail freight in the US is undergoing a renaissance (see The Economist here), but another thing to see the scale of it in person.

Amtrak ridership is increasing at a time when car travel has stopped growing

Amtrak ridership is increasing at a time when car travel has stopped growing

Chart from Atlantic Cities, here.

Tomorrow: Houston

24 comments to US Travel Diary – Amtrak

  • Kevin Welsh

    My kind of train. Isn’t the reason why we travel, is to see what other countries have to offer? View their scenery, talk to their people? You cannot beat the comfort of a train and with the facilities they offer like sleeping cabins, restaurants and showers. Oh to be able to travel the length of New Zealand this way…

  • Greg N

    I’d love to travel the US end to end and top to bottom by train, I’d need a lot of time to do it, but the experience would be worth it. Its on my bucket list.

    As for Amtrak losing money – yes its true, but Amtrak sponsers something called “National Train Day” in May which they put up some really good infographics about Amtrak and train travel in the US, and its not quite the basket case people like to portray it as. (link here: http://www.nationaltrainday.com/s/#!/whytrainsmatter/view_them_now )

    Yes it subsidised and yes it suffers from priority problems with freight always taking priority over passenger trains. But you don’t take trains long distance (except on the East Coast between DC and points north) to beat the planes, nor can you beat the bus for cheapness. But its about the journey not jus tthe destination.

    And it is moving 31 million people a year around the US. And is lower CO2 than either planes or cars.

  • Yay, this gets me excited. I’m doing a San Francisco, Chicago, Washington by Amtrak next month. I hope there are enough oddballs to keep me entertained across the wide open plains of the central US.

    • Globe Trotter

      I have done that exact trip. You should get off in Colorado Springs and/or Denver – both nice places. Chicago is great Washington a shithole.
      The people that I found traveling on Amtrak were very fat Americans who never left the country because they were too wide for aircraft seats. They used the train despite it being much more expensive than flying (when I did it it was three times the cost of flying coast to coast).
      As I remember Amtrak is all diesel powered so the train has a much larger carbon footprint than driving or flying.

  • Stevenz

    Nice post. Yes, the trains in the US are quite comfortable especially compared to the airlines (anything short of a coffin is comfortable compared to US airlines). However, service can be sort of unpolished, but they do take pride in the dining cars. Those are the most professional of the staff. It’s also true that a lot of misfits travel by train but they’re interesting sophisticated misfits. Talking to such people whiles away the miles. And as a former Arizona resident I can attest to the beauty and allure of the desert, though it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea as a place to live. Interesting observation about the landscape being defined by water because there is so little of it now that the original affects can still be seen. In other landscapes the effects of millenia of water are washed away by… water, and it keeps reforming. Not so the desert. If you haven’t been there, by all means go if you can. Oh, and the Canadian trains are even better.

    • Peter Nunns

      I was motivated to travel by train in large part by some seriously bad experiences with airlines and the TSA in the US. They must have imported a bunch of customer service staff from the USSR after the Cold War ended.

      I definitely agree that Amtrak staff take a lot of pride in their work – it showed on our trip. They had a bit of an old-fashioned way of doing things, which is probably not that efficient. But it’s enjoyable to experience when travelling!

  • Peter Nunns

    Prepare to be evangelised is all I’m going to say…

    Seriously, though, it was a fantastic trip.

  • nonsense

    did the train have power outlets or wifi?

    • Peter Nunns

      Power outlets but not wifi – in fact, cellphone reception was a bit spotty due to the fact that we were travelling through some very uninhabited areas.

  • Dave B (Wellington)

    I did the Sunset Limited with my wife and daughter, late last year. We did LA right through to New Orleans. The latter part of the trip was quite different. Green and fertile, not desert. We even awoke to rain one morning! Then we took another train (the ‘Crescent’) from NO to Atlanta, via the heartlands of Alabama.

    We too got delayed by mechanical issues (broken brake-hose connector) and freight trains crossing. I had long known about the priority given to freight trains over Amtrak, but what was apparent is that this is mainly an issue in single-track areas only. The route of the Sunset Limited as far as Houston is primarily (if not all) double-track and apart from a delay departing LA to start with, all our delays came after this. So Peter I am surprised that you experienced freight-induced delays prior to Houston. But no doubt it can still happen. The single-track railway with crossing-loops really is a poor-man’s railway for anything other than minor branch lines! Thinking here of our own NIMT and the continual struggle to get speed and reliability up. Such lines are the equivalent of State Highways when they were still unsealed dirt-roads!

    Prior to the Hurricane Katrina wipeout, the Sunset Limited used to go all the way to Orlando, Florida, making it a true coast-to-coast service. However like the Napier-Gisborne passenger service after Cyclone Bola, it never got reinstated even after the track was fixed. I understand discussions are on-going about restoring this service but for the present there remains a glaring gap on Amtrak’s map! At least freight services still run, unlike Napier-Gisborne.

    • Double tracking the NIMT would be a multi billion project (and would be particularly complicated on the Marton-Taumaranui Central section),

      I am fairly sure that no one has seriously proposed this happening, the freight and passanger volumes simply dont justify it,

      • tuktuk

        Yes, the gains on the NIMT are to be had by triple tracking within Auckland, maintaining the double track to a high standard south to Hamilton, and maintaining to a similarly high standard, the single track south of Hamilton which as far as Te Kuiti runs along “easy country”.

        I understand that were plans for substantial deviations at other points along the NIMT which would have collectively knocked a decent chunk of time off the journey but these all seem to have been shelved. I’m unsure on what level of detail the plans were developed to.

        • Bryce P

          Double tracking or passing loops on the easy bits wouldn’t be so expensive. Switch the NIMT to ETCS and there would be some gains in reducing time delays.

      • Dave B (Wellington)

        Yes, a double-tracked NIMT would be a luxury in NZ, and I am not pushing it as a suggestion. However you mustn’t forget that our government is currently trying to foist on us a very luxurious and not-very-necessary motorway system which I am sure is costing way more than a double-tracked NIMT+ECMT would. And that’s the irony of it. What happens in transport is all about the choices of a few politicians, not what is economically, commercially or environmentally best.

    • Peter Nunns

      I should have said that the train was delayed for several different reasons, including but not limited to freight. Although the lines were double-tracked, I think there were still a few places where we had to wait to allow two freight trains to pass each other. The rail marshalling yards we passed by were pretty impressive as well – kilometres of railcars carrying everything from cars to steel plate to liquids in tanks.

  • Vinny

    Have just finished reading ” All gone to look for America” by Peter Millar ( so back on the Auckland library shelves) a pleasant read about the authors train travels across America and his sampling of craft beers. What’s not to like!

  • Tony

    Had a similar experience going from Seattle to SF. Helpful staff and a comfortable sleeper. Food as you say is not great but the scenery was interesting,from the sounds around Seattle through the Oregon backwoods then area around SF. Having a shower available was a plus.

  • Mr Plod

    We did Vancouver to Seattle around New Year and it was superb. Should have stayed on all the way to Portland as the Interstate was horrible. Nice staff, big seats. comfortable, beautiful scenery, basic on board cafeteria and poor US customs/immigration service prior to boarding. Air NZ make AKL –> Vancouver, train to Portland, drive to San Francisco (Redwood Coast) –> AKL a great option for Kiwis, especially those wanting to check out some leading PT cities.

  • While I like trains, the reality is if a train service can not make money then it should be shut down. There is no major public service benefit from offering these trains – you can take the bus or the plane. Thus the US Government should shut these services down. However the reason they will stay is that the US government has far bigger costs to cut.

    • Nick R

      Yes exactly. They should shut down the interstate highway system too for the same reason, damned thing doesn’t make a dime!

    • Dave B (Wellington)

      Parks and reserves don’t make money but are considered worth subsidising for the minority that use them. Libraries, swimming pools, sports facilities likewise.
      Roads are assumed to be self-funding in that the tax-take from road-users generally exceeds the cost of providing them (not in the case of RoNS of course). However considered on a road-by-road basis, there must be many lesser roads whose usage does not justify upkeep on a strictly commercial basis. Should the govt close these? How far should this “if in doubt, cut it out” argument apply? And if one adds in all the external costs imposed on society by mass road-transport which are not sheeted home to road-users, just how self-funding is the whole thing really?

      Regarding passenger rail, another factor exists. The POTENTIAL to provide a far more societally useful service, if it is given adequate INVESTMENT and not forced to compete on a very un-level playing field with road and air. Countries which do invest heavily in rail generally provide good passenger-train services which are very much part of the fabric of society. But surprise, surprise, countries which since the 1950′s have invested heavily in roads and have starved their rail systems, do not. Some of these countries have realised their mistake and are now trying to turn things around. Maybe this is part of the reason for not letting Amtrak die out. Some people, somewhere, are awake to the huge benefits passenger rail brings to other countries, so why not in America. And many older Americans will be aware that in times past, their country pretty much led the world in terms of passenger rail, before allowing it to wither.

      As has been said many times before on this blog, what you invest in shapes what you get. What we (and the USA) have got today has definitely not resulted from universal choice, but from the financial and planning decisions of a few over many years. The holistic outcome of this has not been good and those with open minds can see that there are better alternatives we could be pursuing. Not shutting down Amtrak is a good first step in this direction.

      • “the tax-take from road-users” – As has been mentioned many times on this blog, that tax does not pay for the vast majority of the cost of local roads in NZ, especially in the big cities. It is mostly paid from rates and the general tax pool. Only motorways are paid 100% from fuel tax and other costs paid by motorists.

        Plus over half of that money is just for maintenance, which of course is all caused by cars, buses and trucks. Non-motorised road users are therefore subsidising drivers on local roads.

        http://cyclingchristchurch.co.nz/2013/02/18/mythbusting-cyclists-dont-pay/

        So we should really shut all the local roads down too as they are simply not producing a profit.

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