Why do trains suck in the U.S.?

LIRR is NY MTA, they sort of merged all of the regional rail in the state into the MTA umbrella. The other regional rail line is Metro North, servicing upstate NY. NJ has both PATH for commuter trains, and NJ Transit for regional rail. And Philly is all SEPTA. They’re all interconnected to one an other via transfer at major hubs or borders. And a similar sorts of systems can take you further. I’m just not familiar with the lines. And there are a lot more runs on all of these in a day than via AMTrak.

You can in fact get a lot further, and to a lot more places via these regional rail lines. I used to do it all the time from Eastern LI down to Philly. It is slightly less convenient than AMTrak, in that you need to transfer multiple times and purchase multiple tickets. But its often just as fast, and critically its cheaper. AMTrak you still need to drive or take regional rail to get to or from the AMTrak stations. Which tend to be only in major central hubs along the route and in the cities its intended to service. So as its stands its just sort of a slightly faster (as in minutes) and much more expensive middle leg for your rail journey.

The other critical thing about regional rail in the US is that it still sucks. Just like AMTrak they run outdated, dirty, slow trains on antique track. They’re often just as unreliable. And service to outlying areas is routinely cut. My town currently gets 2 commuter trains a day. They head all the way out. Then turn around and return to NYC. So you get 4 opportunities to actually physically get on a train. Unless its a holiday or a weekend. There are variably no trains or one train on those days. So functionally we still have to drive to a hub station to use the train, and the train is useless for anything but getting in an out of the city. Shuttle bus services pick up in every town, cost less, and gets you there faster (fewer stops).

The reasons for this are basically the same reason AMTrak is a failure. As an example the MTA is a very similar pseudo-private transit company. And they are like wise constantly broke, constantly raising rates, and perpetually unable to provide improvements or maintain the volume of service that already exists. All while taking decades to complete new construction or projects. Which are already outdated and in need of improvement by the time they finally finish.

I don’t know. But there’s a major difference between commuter rail and regional rail in the US. Though sometimes (thinking Philly and NYC here) regional rail acts as the commuter rail. Or in NY case, is basically useless for anything but commuter use. Europe seems to always have one or two big systems covering all usage. So while the video was focusing on high speed intercity connection. That likely rolls a lot of what we might classify as commuter or regional rail into the same numbers.


Right, but we did it for the highways. As far as I know, it’s still one of the largest public infrastructure programs in history (maybe some of China’s infrastructure projects in recent years have surpassed it?). If you think about how large an investment that was (and continues to be), I see no reason we couldn’t do the same for public rail. At least some of the infrastructure is already there.

The problem is (and always was) our inability to build and maintain these massive infrastructures.



But these days we have difficulty funding the maintenance of the highways that we have. The highway trust fund (which is also used for mass transit) is paid for with gasoline taxes which haven’t been raised since 1993. And since those are per gallon they haven’t self adjusted for 23 years of inflation.


I’ll take a flyer at an answer: There’s no government constituency for intercity rail, there’s no major group with power that sees themselves benefitting from it. All rail systems worldwide run at a loss, at least as far as fares go, some have other commercial revenue sources. But when it’s municpal, that city sees a direct economic benefit to having a transit system and is willing to kick in what it takes.

A counterexample is the PATH “subway” train system that serves my city and a few others. It was foisted upon the Port Authority of NY&NJ (whom you may have heard of recently) as part of the rather large real estate deal called the World Trade Center. They didn’t want it, but they took it to get the rest of the property.

Ever since it’s more or less been on life support, just enough investment to keep it running, but no expansion, little renovation for decades, and service just enough to keep people from getting their torches and pitchforks. Why? The PA answers to no one. Well theoretically the Governors, but they’ve had their way for a century. The PA doesn’t see a benefit to a healthy rail system, they see an albatross that will never turn a profit no matter how much money they sink into it.

Now there’s calamity in the work. The west bank of the Hudson, AKA “the Gold Coast” is in a historic boom, with hundreds of thousands of housing units being built, but the transit they would all expect to use to get to their jobs in NYC is already maxed out because there only a couple of tunnels with antiquated switching and signalling systems. So we have about a million people in Newark, Jersey City, and their surrounding areas who want and need transit, but the agency in charge of that transit could care less. Rather than spend capital on actual transit, they spent $4B on a ridiculous shopping mall “hub” at WTC that actually functions really poorly as a station, and another $4B on a 1,776′ symbol of America’s virility. All paid for by NJ commuters.


Republicans are also responsible for the designated hitter rule, instant coffee, and Jar Jar Binks.


Leaving North America is always an eye opener with regards to public transit.

We really do suck. It’s a lot like American health care:

  • We pay more to get less, and a lot of people don’t benefit at all.

Sure. We have since the beginning. We don’t maintain, we build. That being said, we built the god damn thing. The scope is pretty massive and we could do it again. We make the choice not to do so.


`#Not All US Trains


Thank you, @GulliverFoyle! I needed a cheer and this made me shoot bourbon out of my nose. Actually, that fucking hurt. So not an unmitigated thank you, but a thank you nonetheless.


Try rye whiskey next time. It’s not any less painful, but at least you can cite rye humor :sunglasses:


Unsurprisingly, Benito Mussolini wasn’t the masterful administrator that oh-so prevalent meme would have you believe…

Orange Hitler is much more like pathetic monster Mussolini than temporarily successful monster Hitler.


They do now, but Amtrak was created by Nixon. (Whose HUAC and related activities were obviously cover for his secret Communist agenda.)


The train is going backwards.

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The SNCF does handle most of the commuter trains in France, so I guess they did. It does not include the Parisian transport network handled by the RATP, which handles around three billion passengers a year, but that includes busses and subway so I suppose it doesn’t count.

Still, unless the NY MTA is running 13,700 trains per day I’m gonna say it’s still a reasonable comparison.

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That is actually only a small part of the problem. Who is responsible for maintaining lines? Who owns and maintains the passenger stops and terminals?

With different rail companies servicing a city, will they agree to linking their nets? At the moment this is also a problem that you actually have to change stations within a city to continue your journey!

I stand by my point, that the track on the ground should be federalised, and divorce it from the stock rolling on it. That would also slightly improve competition in the freight market, as then if a rail company tries to gouge a market a competitor would be waiting, and despite how we slag on it the interstates are pretty efficient at using the money we give them for upkeep – we just spend too little on it.


Thanks, that was a nice and informative video. Surprisingly interesting even though I’ve no stake in the matter.

That’s so strange to my French ears to have the SNCF as a good example !
Everyone love to bitch about them : the delays, the strikes, etc. but I guess it can be worse…


When I mentioned to my grandfather (railway engineer) that I had read about the Mallard’s record breaking 126mph run, he told me it had taken 3 weeks afterwards to complete all the track repairs.
Evening Star was even worse at only 90mph.


The intent of Amtrak was not to save passenger service but to control its demise to make it less painful.