Article Thumbnail

Why Is Train Travel So Fucking Expensive?

As long as we have corporate lobbyists, it’s in no politician’s best interests to make train travel better and more cost effective

Trains in America are rarely the romantic experience we’d like them to be. They run agonizingly slow, they invariably show up late to your destination, and holy fucking shit, are they expensive to ride! While train rides might make a bit of sense in the denser East Coast, in the western half of the U.S., they’re far slower and more expensive than a rental car, even when you factor in all the gas it takes to get you where you’re going. 

Why should this be? With the help of Richard Nunno, a policy analyst who’s studied passenger trains at the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, we, uh, tracked down some answers.

Okay seriously, no messing around, why’s it cost so much to ride the goddamn train?

There are so many reasons! Let’s start with labor. 

Trains are expensive because of the conductors with the funny little hats?

Yep: Amtrak employees, on average, make $75,000 a year. One reason for this is that they’re unionized. Of course, so are others in different transportation industries, but the difference with trains is the amount of labor and the hours. A flight from Chicago to L.A. takes four hours, but by train, it takes 44 hours. That’s a lot more hourly labor. 

Fine, that’s one thing. What else? Do they have to rent out the tracks, or something?

Actually, yes.


They really do! Amtrak only owns 457 miles of the tracks it rides on along the busy Northeast corridor, from Boston to D.C. Freight companies own the other 21,400 miles of track in the country, and Amtrak has to pay approximately $5 per mile of track for use of their tracks (conversely, airplanes pay nothing to fly through the sky). This is also why Amtrak trains take longer than a car ride, and are often late — they have to cede the right of way to freight trains, which any Amtrak passenger is aware of as their train sits still while a slow-moving, thousand-car-long freight train rumbles by. 

But going back to that 457 miles of Northeast corridor track — it’s a cash cow. It accounts for 37 percent of Amtrak’s total revenue, even though it’s only 2 percent of the total mileage, simply because it’s so busy. Think what that says about the other 98 percent of Amtrak’s territory.

But isn’t Amtrak subsidized by the government?

It sure is — it’s received $1.5 billion to $1.9 billion a year for the past several years. Yet it’s still a huge money loser, and in fact, it’s never made money since it was founded in 1971 (although the Northeast corridor route is actually profitable — one of the only ones that is). Perhaps if there was more political will behind funding rail travel in the U.S., it’d get subsidized more and prices would go down, but as Nunno says, there have always been powerful groups aligned against trains — they’re known as the fossil-fuel industry and the automobile industry.

Unfortunately, in politics, train travel is just no one’s first choice when it comes to how to spend infrastructure and transportation money. The Trump administration has even sought to decrease Amtrak’s handout.

So were trains always this expensive and dismal?

No! That’s the tragedy of it. “Rail travel 100 years ago was much more robust, especially compared to automobiles, which was a nascent industry at that time,” Nunno says. “But the railway service has just declined. There were lots of local trains, small commuter rails and small intercity railways and intracity railways that have all kind of gone away.”

Nunno says one reason it’s gotten more expensive than car travel is because gasoline hasn’t gone up in price: That may sound hard to believe, but from 1929 to 2015, it’s increased by only seven cents in constant dollar terms. Oh, and the government also hasn’t raised the gas tax since 1993.

Is supply and demand at play here, then?

Sure, to an extent. Think of how busy airports are: Now imagine if just a fraction of those people traveled by rail (never mind all of them). Why don’t they? Because in the U.S., air travel tends to make more sense. Unlike in Europe or Japan, where passenger train travel is fantastic, the U.S. is just so much bigger. Our cities are so far apart: You can cross a small country by train in a matter of hours, but to go cross-country here in the same amount of time, you have to board a jet plane and endure multiple offerings of mini pretzels and fiesta mix snack packs.

One caveat here is small towns: Amtrak is sometimes the only public transportation option between small towns, and is vastly cheaper than flying into or out of a tiny, rural airport. It’s a money-loser but an important way to get people around who don’t live in major cities. 

What else causes it to not be economically viable?

It’s somewhat of a chicken/egg scenario — it’s expensive and lousy because more people won’t ride it, and vice versa. Nunno wrote a study on the U.S.’s lack of adoption of high-speed rail, and the obstacles are virtually identical to why our regular passenger rail system isn’t more viable. For one thing, our population density in this country is lower than in places where trains are more efficient — basically, we don’t have people living close enough together for train travel to make better sense.

We also have stronger property rights, which makes it difficult for our government to purchase land to build out tracks. It’s just more complicated to get big things done in a democracy. Nunno studied China’s high-speed rail, and says that large infrastructure is less complicated to build in such a top-down-driven economy like China’s, as opposed to a country like ours, with privately owned real estate. 

It’s also tough to get people out of their cars once the automobile infrastructure is built. Many cities in the West were built around highways, not the other way around, whereas cities in Europe existed long before cars, and railroads have long been incorporated into their infrastructure.

Are there any other countries where it’s as bad?

“I don’t know of any developed country that has such higher priced train travel compared to other modes of transportation than the United States,” Nunno says. Which, considering how much train travel costs in countries like Britain, is truly shocking.

Great. Then how come metros and subways are so much cheaper to ride?

Well, you’re going a fraction of the distance, for one thing! But point taken. The reason, Nunno says, is because those are funded through a whole different mechanism — usually regional governments, though they do get some money from the federal government. So it’s worth noting that they are, in a sense, competing for the same federal funding.

Will it always be like this?

Yep. As long as passenger railroad remains on the back burner in terms of the government’s transportation concerns, the status quo will remain. Which is a shame — a well-thought-out public-transportation infrastructure is an investment in the economy, as Nunno points out. You can only get so many people on a highway, but with trains and busses, people can live farther from work, their choice of economic options increases and they can travel to and from their jobs more easily than on congested highways. Basically, it would directly increase economic opportunity for everyone, never mind the benefit to the environment.

But there’s just so much to overcome, from private property issues to powerful interests. “If the Koch brothers and Exxon and other companies had their way, we’d continue to be in our cars and keep burning gasoline,” Nunno says. “That’s their business plan. But I don’t know that that’s going to be a good long-term strategy for the country, or for our economic growth.”

For better or worse, We the People of the United States of America live in a huge country with a strong car culture. Unless that changes, train usage — and thus, its pricing — probably won’t, either.