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

I interpreted it as “good god, woman, it’s called a refractory period, can you give me a minute?”


Oh yeah, that’s great, provided:

  • Your self-driving car’s algorithms don’t encounter a situation in which killing you is the cheapest option.

  • Someone else’s self-driving car doesn’t decide that it’s best for its driver algorithms to murder you.

  • Non-self-driving cars don’t crash into you.

  • There’s no inclement weather along the way.

  • You can manage to sleep through all the potholes and rattling bumps of incredibly expensive, overused roads.

Self-driving cars present the same ethical issues as robots with guns and a license to kill. Cars don’t solve those issues any differently or better. Furthermore, maintaining or increasing demand for highways and parking lots is not a green solution at all. Imagine if even 25% of the pavement were replaced with parks.


Got to do a sleeper car just a twice in my life: once in Thailand (Bangkok to Changmai) and once in Sweden (Somewhere north, Umea?, to Stockholm). It’s simply an extremely civilized way to travel.

That it’s “not economical” is simply the fact that our Government has chosen to subsidize cars and airplanes and to intentionally destroy train travel. Even if they were on an even keel economically they’d probably win, but of course we should be subsidizing train travel and sin-taxing the other two.

Question to those comparing train fare to airfare: are you comparing the rates for comparable legroom?


The problem is Amtrak only offers luxury sleeper accommodations, where you get your own room and meals in the dining car are included. It’s not really designed to be a practical option but more of an indulgence.

What we need - what we once had, and what still exists to some degree in other countries - is shared sleeper accommodations, where you share a room with a few other passengers or even a whole carriage of bunks without rooms. For not much more than a coach ticket, you get a bunk which you can at least lie flat on. Bring earplugs and a blanket and off you go.

China has started putting these on actual high speed trains. I took one from Shanghai to Shenzhen on a business trip and it was perfect - got on the train after dinner in Shanghai and woke up in time for breakfast in Shenzhen.

Lake Shore Limited to Chicago. It sometimes doesn’t have sleepers until you reach Albany and they hook up the other half of the train (coming from New York) but that part of the trip happens during the day. Lots of long distance connections with sleepers from Chicago.
Also you can take the Northeast Regional or Acela and connect to a sleeper in New York or DC.


I took an overnight train in Europe once and would not have felt safe or comfortable doing so as a single woman (I was with my husband at the time). Our car had 6 bunks, and we shared it with some nice backpackers but they were all dudes…

Some details about the bus here that I didn’t know - it was actually two trucks, each with its own engine and driver, pinned together.


Once self-driving cars or buses or whatever are perfected, and made even semi-ubiquitous, the amount of roads we will need will shrink dramatically. Vast, multi-lane highways will no longer be needed due to cars talking with each other and maximizing available space. Maintaining roads will be easier, as cars can be automatically routed around trouble spots. It seems you have an issue with self-driving cars, but I firmly believe this is where we’re headed, and I welcome any opportunity to make our roads safer, which they will be when we can finally take slow, faulty human brains out of the equation.

She just gave him a handy and is tidying up and he is thinking, while in his refractory period “I still got it…” lol.

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The worst trip I ever took was an Amtrak sleeper cross-country, Oakland to NY. I did it because it was the cheapest way to move all my earthly goods as freight, & because the dear & I thought it would be a romantic honeymoon. What we didn’t reckon on:

  1. American train windows don’t open. Stale air for three days & nights.
  2. You can bring your own food, but you can’t eat it in the public areas, like the viewing car or the downstairs cafe car. You must eat it in your cabin.
  3. Bunks are too narrow to share, & because they’re set parallel to the train car they sway back & forth or bump up & down all night, & the room is full of train noise. Some honeymoon!
  4. When you fold up the beds for the day (which only the steward can do, & they insist on doing it by the clock on their own schedule), you’re left in facing seats, rubbing knees, staring at each other from inches away. If you bring your own food, this is how you’ll eat. More like a prison cell than a romantic getaway.
  5. The worst thing about Amtrak passenger trains is that they are lower priority than freight trains. So we spent many hours shunted off on a side track staring at the same scenery while waiting for a freight to pass. This delayed the train by more than 12 hours so that we missed our connection in Chicago & were told that “unfortunately,” there was no sleeper available for the rest of the trip.

The whole experience was very different from a European sleeper which was cheaper than a hotel room, comfortable & friendly. European bunks are set perpendicular to the line of travel so they don’t sway with the train motion. I too shared a sleeper cabin with three male backpackers who were amazingly chill & polite.

On the other hand, I shared a second-class (non-sleeper) cabin in Mexico with three male strangers & got groped all night, every time I fell asleep.


There are a lot of fallacies and other issues in your rebuttal. I don’t have an issue with self-driving cars in particular, but I do have an issue with breathless hype and technology fandom dismissing real technical, logistical, legal, social, and environmental issues.

  1. At what point are self-driving cars “perfected”? What obligations will self-driving car companies undertake for model transparency and algorithmic liability? What vehicular murder rate is acceptable collateral damage?

  2. The idea that self-driving cars will reduce the amount of road infrastructure is a Just-So-Story fallacy. It sounds nice on paper, but there’s no empirical evidence of it being true. Please point to a single convenience-increasing innovation in history that has led to LESS consumption thereof and not more.

  3. “Cars talking to each other” are you sure this is a good idea given how frequent and massive security breaches routinely are with tech companies? Do you have some insider knowledge on revolutionary new infosec tech that will roll out for this or are you just trusting Elon’s marketing machine to take care of it?

  4. “Slow, faulty human brains” will also be what designs and makes the self-driving cars, nor are algorithms inherently superior judges. Believing that a computer will be more consistently virtuous or correct than a human, just by virtue of it being a computer, is completely fallacious.

  5. Try letting go of the idea that suburban organization or personal vehicles are necessary for thriving or progress. There are many other ways that living and transportation can be organized. Being open to imagining those other modes will make the fallacies engendered in your post clearer.

At the Wall Street Journal ’s D.Live conference on November 13, Krafcik said that ‘autonomy will always have constraints,’” Marx writes. “It will take decades for self-driving cars to become common on roads, and even then they will not be able to drive in certain conditions, at certain times of the year, or in any weather. In short, sensors on autonomous vehicles don’t work well in snow or rain — and that may never change.”



We take the train from Pittsburgh to Chicago every year on Thanksgiving evening. Train boards around midnight, we get to our sleeper room lay down then magically wake up in the middle of downtown Chicago the next morning (thanks to tryptophan and a little extra wine at Thanksgiving dinner). No TSA, no extra bag fees…it’s all very relaxed. That being said, our arrival time has never been as advertised. We’ve arrived 15 minutes early and 2 hours late before so…


Good train service would be wonderful, but good bus service also works, and requires less new infrastructure than trains would require in most places outside of Europe or Japan.

Here in Mexico the long distance buses are always comfortable and often luxurious, they’re clean and modern with plenty of leg room and wide reclining seats with leg rests. I take buses rather than planes for any trip less than 8 hours - and arrive at my destination rested and in good shape. For longer trips, I’ll sometimes take buses and break the trip for a night in one of the many interesting cities along the way, since you can find economical and comfortable hotels in every city here, too. The economy is structured to support people with a wider range of incomes here than in the U.S. or much of Europe.

If more countries gave their employees more paid vacation days, plane travel would look less appealing, too. When you have the time for slower travel, it’s great.

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So again-- the first line of my post:
“… once we trust self-driving cars enough” which could be 10 years away.

I just finished trip #47 to China. I’d agree that getting around by high speed train is great. I prefer a 5 hour train from Tianjin to Shanghai to a 2 hour flight. Given how long it takes to navigate secuity and how often flights are delayed, the train is often faster and guaranteed to arrive on time.

But not perfect. Luggage is effectively carry-on only (bigger luggage requires more hassle and a bit of luck finding place for it). And longer travel is less attractive. Better to fly the bulk of the distance, then take a quick train the rest of the way. Sleeper trains are extremely rare.

Not really. They licensed/copied from Siemens. And safety is still catching up. Just 6 days ago, I got to hear the wonderful story of how a derailed high speed train was buried, dead passengers and all. Problem? What problem?


Anything less than the current death rate from human-driven cars?


Self driving cars have many serious challenges to overcome, but the idea that “sensors can’t see well in snow or rain” doesn’t seem to be one of the biggest issues to me. Experienced humans usually do reasonably well driving in snow and rain with a single pair of optical sensors. High resolution digital cameras are cheap and getting cheaper and better all the time. No reason to think that a sufficiently advanced AI that was observing the world with a suite of such cameras mounted all around the car wouldn’t be able to perceive the world at least as well as a human, and that’s assuming that radar and lidar weren’t functional.

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Technically the opposite is true. When the government took over passenger rail from the freight railroads, part of the deal was that the railroads had to give Amtrak trains priority. The freight railroads routinely ignore this. There’s been some legal fighting and it seems like the freight railroads have basically won, despite congress passing a law to try to strengthen Amtrak’s position.


Well the viewliner sleeper (used by Amtrak on Eastern routes) weights ~65 tons and has a capacity of 30 passengers. While trains are significantly more efficient per ton than aircraft, sleeper cars in particular are much heavier per passenger. And at 30 people per car, there simply isn’t enough track to move as many people in sleeper trains along most routes as we can in aircraft.

@SheiffFatman who or what is liable, then? I, for one, am not OK with arrogating life-and-death decisions to unaccountable, proprietary software and find it insane than anyone is A-OK with doing so.

@Otherbrother repeat after me: AI ≠ magic. Sensors + AI ≠ human-style internal mental spatial model. AI, in the sense that you and popular press are using the term, is just shorthand for handwaving away real-world complexity. Perhaps you have ideas on a precautionary testing regime for adversarial data cses that throw the AI for a loop.

@davejenk1ns “once we trust _________ enough” is magical thinking that doesn’t consider implementation complexity. It’s a nice flight into fantasy full of beatific upsides, but that doesn’t warrant ignoring the downsides and risks. Let’s fill in that blank above with other examples and see how insufficient the reasoning is: “Internet-based voting in federal elections”, “facial recognition in policing”, “environmental and nutritional footprint of lab-grown meat”, “Boeing MAX 737s”, “algorithmic justice”, we could go on.


I agree with you whole-heartedly. But I understand why passenger rail has almost disappeared. Of all the kinds of freight that a rail line can move, the least profitable dollar-per-pound is people. People require the most room per unit, they require services that must be supplied by live employees, and they require climate controls. European railroads still provide passenger service, but the passenger-per-mile-of-line density is much higher there, and they don’t have a highway network as extensive as ours, so their number of ticket buyers is higher. Their rail lines are also heavily subsidized by their governments, which can’t happen here because Congress is so firmly in bed with the airlines.

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