The case for replacing air travel with high-speed sleeper trains

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I would completely replace all air travel in my life with train travel if I could lay down in a bed in one city and wake up in another city. That we abandoned rail to the degree we did in the US really frustrates me.


Well, that’s quite the “come hither” look those two are giving each other.


Things could get very interesting once we trust self-driving cars enough:

  • Call an overnight robo-uber
  • climb in, stay awake to make sure we get on the highway safe
  • sleep from El Paso to Phoenix
  • wake up, pilot the car into town

You’ll sleep, for sure, but waking up might be a bit harsh.


I’d LOVE to take more trains, but the economy just won’t stack up to cars, at least in the U.S., at least for families. The carbon involved seems to be similar, though.


This seems like a good place to share this hilarious list of airplane sleeping positions Washington Post created.


A self-driving car is just a shitty alternative to a train, why not dream bigger?

The Dutch version of The Dailyshow / Last Week Tonight recently did a piece about trains and flight shame, I thought this was going to be about that piece. Here it is, if you happen to speak Dutch (no subs available sadly):

He says it’s less about fight shame and more about train shame. Trains in Europe could be so much better and faster if only we could cooperate a little better.

He also mentions how ridiculous it is that kerosene for planes is not taxed and even the plane tickets themselves are tax exempt.

In the end he proposes a flat tax on all plane tickets of €60, this would only be used to improve our rail infrastructure. Who knows, maybe something will come of it someday.


Those of us of a certain age remember fondly “Cyclops” - aka: The Big Bus.


It was way ahead of it’s time


Taking a flight requires at least 3 or 4 hours of futzing on either end of it between getting to/from the airport (often remotely located from the city proper), getting through security, and building in insurance time in the event any of the previous takes too long. Paired with the flight itself you’re going to lose at least half a day.

Fall asleep in one city center, wake up in another? Yeah I’m good with that.


The problem is price. Whenever I’ve looked into the cost of sleeper trains, I’ve found that the cost of the train plus the sleeper option brought the price to far more than the cost of any other form of transportation plus the cost of a mid-priced hotel room.

For comparison, a one-way sleeper car ticket on a random day in March from NYC to Chicago (19 hour train ride) is almost $383. The train fare without the sleeper car is $90. And a one-way nonstop plane ticket (from LaGuardia you to O’hare) may be as low as $43.

Now, there are a lot of really good reasons to not fly anywhere (mostly having to do with our carbon footprint), but unless we as a society decide to value environmentally-sustainable transportation with real economic supports and governmental intervention, this kind of option (sleeper cars on trains) will never go anywhere.

P.S., I looked into the sleeper car option from my home, but as of now, there is no sleeper car option whatsoever from Boston to anywhere. There used to be one, but they discontinued it almost 20 years ago, due to the cost of maintaining it and it’s overall lack of popular use.


Two advantages I found when traveling on night trains in eastern Europe? Freedom to move about as you wish, and pets. AFAIK, cats/dogs in general.
No “emotional support” premise needed.


Also, consider that you’re locked into eating on a train, or from a station vending machine, for the length of your trip. For an overnight, you probably at least want breakfast, maybe dinner. Train food is expensive and… not great.

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Add in the unexpected delays of cross country train travel and it’s really hard to make the case for it. I’ve tried looking into it myself but spending 3 days on the train even with a sleeper car vs. 8 hours on the plane (including airport time) for 1/4 the price is a no-sale.

Trains are great for middling distances. DC to NYC is great for example. But when you’re talking about DC to SF it just doesn’t work.

It’s really no surprise that trains are popular in Europe and Japan. The areas are small enough to fall in that sweet spot where they work really well. It makes me wonder how many train trips in places like China, India, and Russia are relatively short and semi-local vs. cross country.


I travel to China a couple of times a year to visit vendors. Their primary mode of transportation across the country are high speed trains. In fact, you wouldn’t be able to get a flight in to most cities. Also more efficient when airport time is considered. Just another infrastructure aspect they’ve almost innovated beyond western reach. Just a little embarrassing.


That’s a problem in the US. Some other countries are very, even extremely economical when it comes to sleeper berths.


For the trains I’ve been on, meals and drinks (I forget about alcohol) were included with the sleeper car fares.


In China most airports are outside the city center while train stations are dead center or within 30 minutes. So that’s the first hour that has to be cut from the travel time. Trains aren’t effected by the weather. The bullet train speeds are about 300km/hr. and planes are about 500km/hr. No western food is available. The trains can be crowded by the seats are much bigger. Overall I prefer the trains and skip the airport/baggage hassle.


I’m all for night trains in Europe. They’re fairly successful in Japan as well (where I ride the train instead of flying whenever possible).

Unfortunately, the rail infrastructure is nowhere near being developed enough to support night trains in the US (except maybe the BOS-WASH corridor). The highway system, however, is quite developed.

I could see Tesla coming out with a specific ‘sleeper pod’ minivan or something slightly larger for just this purpose if the money were there.


What also works really well in Europe and Japan is the last mile problem. When you travel around most European and Japanese regions, you never have to worry about schedules, transfers, parking, etc. You just go to the station and hop on the next train. Stations are located in central areas and are well connected to local public transportation networks. It’s extremely efficient which promotes ridership which promotes more usage and viability.

No matter how hard we try it seems impossible to replicate across the US. It’s a physical manifestation of the network effect writ large.