The United States is a big country, with lots of trains in it. So you can really think of this big generic question as composed of three separate questions with separate answers. One question, of urgent interest to media and political elites in New York and Washington, is why Northeast Corridor passenger rail service is so much slower than the first-rate systems found in France, Spain, China, and Japan. The second question, which will have bedeviled anyone who's ever been a tourist in Europe, is why passenger rail outside of the Northeast Corridor is so unimaginably awful. Last but by no means least, there's the question of why the richest and most powerful empire the world has ever known can't build itself a first-rate, truly high-speed national rail network along Chinese lines.In Mr Yglesias's view, the Northeast Corridor is "okay."
Beyond the corridor, the Amtrak passenger trains share tracks with the freight railroads.
Instead the issue is that the dismal failure of US passenger rail is in large part the flip side of the success of US freight rail. America's railroads ship a dramatically larger share of total goods than their European peers. And this is no coincidence. Outside of the Northeast Corridor, the railroad infrastructure is generally owned by freight companies — Amtrak is just piggybacking on the spare capacity.Mr Meyers sees the success of the investor-owned freight railroads as a "greener and more sensible" outcome than the expensive passenger-only networks of Western Europe and China.
There's more to the story.
First, Chinese freight railroads don't do much to relieve highway congestion, where the trucks are sometimes stuck for days in traffic. The same thing is true in Europe. "French truck drivers, however, can only envy our stack trains."
Second, while it's the bullet trains, such as this German example a minute early into Nürnberg, that get the attention and provoke those invidious comparisons with the Acela, the modal resident of a country with ultra-fast passenger trains is more likely to be riding a regional train.
It's true that such a rider might be able to get from one city to another on a fast passenger train more easily, rather than relying on the rudimentary Amtrak service, or submitting to the tender mercies of the Transportation "Security" Administration and the "final boarding process" (Mooooooo), or playing ducks and drakes with distracted drivers on the Interstates.
Most of that riding, however, is on more prosaic conveyances such as this, at Köln.
And here we see the ways in which the superior freight infrastructure of North America's railroads makes possible a much more productive regional passenger rail network, most of which exists to move masses of commuters to central business districts.
Most North American mainline railroads can handle in an effective way a mix of coal, grain, or oil trains at 50 mph, intermodal and autorack traffic at 70 to 80 with some containers good for 90, and passenger at 80 to 110. Thus my Cold Spring Shops obsession with Free Rein to 110. Build a railroad to move trains at 200 mph the way the Chinese or German examples do, sacrifice the opportunity to handle any bulk commodities, and you'll no longer be able to run the double-stacks. That's incurring huge costs simply to shave maybe five minutes off most start-to-stop running times.
There's some technical economics behind what I wrote, if you're familiar with economies of scope and transray convexity, you know where I'm going with this. More along those technical lines soon.