Sunday, September 14, 2008


I spent last week in New York doing research, and I decided to take the train out from Chicago to get there. It was a 21 hour trip, which I decided to undergo to see our nation's rail network for myself. It was a worthwhile experience, involving some uncomfortable sleeping, an immigration raid that nabbed the woman sitting behind me, and some beautiful scenery (seen here) in upstate New York (Chicago to New York runs through Albany, and then south).

Here's what I liked: the cars were plenty modern, with lots more space than you would have on an airplane. They had footrests, you can obviously walk around the cars, and the seats recline well enough to sleep. If you were a couple and had seats next to each other, you could make a comfortable evening of it. There were two electrical outlets in each seat, so you could theoretically get some work done. Security was much less onerous than an airport, and it felt safe rather than threatening. It was cheaper than flying. The conductors were less stressed than flight attendants.

The problems are as follows: the train ride is not quite smooth enough to allow me to work efficiently, so I got to feeling a bit sick as I tried to write on my laptop. That's not good for a really long trip. There was far too much air conditioning, making it quite uncomfortable. When you can't quite stretch out to sleep, your feet fall asleep and wake you up. For too many long stretches, the train just sits there, not moving at all. It never seemed to go faster than 80 miles an hour.

Would I do it again? I've thought about it, and I'm still not sure. I felt that I could do it again right after I arrived, but I came down with cold symptoms for the two days that followed. I blame the frigid air I had blowing on me for 21 straight hours. If I could take away that problem, I'd think about it, but most people wouldn't and I wouldn't blame them either. To really begin to reduce flying and make it easier to reduce our impact on the environment, you need some functional long-haul service that's quite a bit faster. I used to think the United States was just to big to make that work, but I was convinced by this experience that that a really good rail network would work better than I had thought. Obviously there are some distances over which trains are faster than planes when you add in all of the time in airports. And train depots are generally more central to cities than airports, so that's another advantage. But even for long-haul, I think there's an opportunity that's being missed. Chicago to New York, for example, is about 800 miles, 1000 along the route through Albany that we took. If we had a serious rail network, you can easily have consistent speeds of 100 miles an hour. You could, like I did, begin at night, and go to sleep. I woke up in Buffalo and had to wait another 12 hours before hitting New York City. But if the trains had dedicated fast track, 100-120 miles isn't even particularly speedy by international standards. And you could put people to bed on long haul routes, and wake them up at their destination. Ten hours on a comfortable train designed for sleeping wouldn't be such a bad way to travel, and might not be such a bad trade with five hours of painful flying. Maybe someday.

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