The State of the American Rail Network Is a National Shame, We Can and Should Do Better

Amtrak Locomotive and Cars 11 photos
Photo: Amtrak
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Completely to the surprise of media pundits everywhere, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and the SMART Transportation Division, the two largest rail worker unions in the U.S., struck a deal with freight rail companies this past week to avoid a disastrous worker walkout that seemed imminent.
But before American freight rail companies pat themselves on the back for a job well done, we suggest they first eat a couple of fat slices of humble pie. Why? Because they know for a fact that the American rail network could be so much better than it is. Young people abroad use their vast, high-speed native rail systems to ferry themselves across continents without driving. Meanwhile, Americans and their sub-par interstate passenger rail so often have to sit in traffic on the country's ever more crowded interstates.

The reason why American rail is so hopeless compared to Europe and Asia has nothing to do with the abilities of our domestic manufacturing or the skill of our engineers. We should also note,  we don't claim to know the answers to the endless problems plaguing American rail, both cargo and passenger. But so much of it has to do with decades-old antiquated rail doctrines that, at best, burn out cargo rail employees entirely too quickly and, at worst, ensure Amtrak riders spend exorbitant amounts of time sitting in train stations, not going anywhere.

Why is this? Well, much of it has to do with a phenomenon we're going to refer to as Freight Supremacy. Because Amtrak owns only a tiny portion of the track its rolling stock travel over, and private freight companies own the rest, freight trains will nearly always take priority when it comes down to which train proceeds while the other waits behind on the same set of rails.

Let's put it this way. To get from Paris, France, to Viena, Austria, via rail with a transfer in Nürnberg, Germany, takes a little under ten hours, give or take. That's a journey of just under 770 miles (1,236.1-km). For comparison, a similarly sized trip of 790 miles (1271.3-km) from New York to Chicago via the fancy Acella line to your transfer in Washington D.C. takes double that time, 20 hours and 45 minutes. Why? A big reason is rail supremacy. As infuriating as it is for Amtrak passengers and crew, American rail freight's feverish, break-neck pace is also leaving its workers reeling.

So many of the debates between major American rail freight firms like CSX, Union Pacific, and Norfolk Southern and the two most prominent rail worker unions stem from an ostensible lack of pay and appropriate employee benefits associated with the perennial burnout from an industry that stops for no reason, despite difficulty finding lasting labor. If nothing else, this recent aborted labor strike shows just how interconnected passenger and freight rail service success in the U.S. truly is.

Put it all together and add in decades of false promises and exaggerated claims of improvement by political actors from both major parties, we have a situation where the American rail system as a whole looks like an embarrassment compared to other countries in the developed world. President Joe Biden has announced intentions to grant Amtrak a sum of $66 billion in order to revitalize its fleet and potentially purchase more rail along its routes. But there's a sense among the American people vocal about comprehensive improvements in rail infrastructure that this simply isn't enough.

Don't get twisted. This isn't a politically partisan issue. Democrats and Republicans alike have been bluffing on direct funding towards a nationwide high-speed rail network since the days when private companies like New York Central and Penn Central did the job Amtrak does today. Those who remember them will tell you traveling by train was much less a pain in the you-know-what back when they were around.

Let's just cut to the chase already. The United States is more than capable of building a functioning, capable and dependable continent-crushing high-speed passenger rail network in our lifetimes. The fact that such projects are beset by political war games and endless bickering between labor unions and increasingly hawk-ish corporate upper management is nothing short of a complete national embarrassment. That's without mentioning that countless millions of Americans live nowhere near the nearest rail station. Be it inter-city/inter-county rail lines or interstate rail, lots of American towns are practically removed from access entirely.

Not only can America build high-speed rail, but it can do while giving American rail workers the pay raises and benefits they've fought so ferociously to attain. All without cutting too much into the record profits American rail has seen over the last decade. If all parties were to meet in peace and devise real solutions instead of sewing discourse amongst each other, we might actually start seeing improvements that satisfy both American rail workers and their company's profits all at the same time. Hopefully, enough progress to actually have a decent WiFi connection on the average Northeast Regional train.
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