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Are US trains really that bad? It's complicated

Compared to other wealthy nations, passenger trains in the US seem to lag far behind. Recently I covered Amtrak and CalTrans' unveil of a next-generation locomotive called the Charger, and the comments surrounding the article on social media were surprisingly negative. Though they came from all sides, the common refrain was that train travel in the US is bad.

But is it? And if so, why? The answers to both those questions is frustratingly complex. Complex enough that those both sides of the argument are a little bit right, and a little bit wrong. That always makes for "fun" conversations on the internet, so let's dive in.

One engine vs. many

The trains themselves are probably the easiest place to start. A common comment about the Charger article was how it was laughable that the US uses diesel locomotives in the 21st century. This is only partly true.

Yes, Amtrak uses a traditional single locomotive to drive their trains. Most countries often use either DMU or EMUs: diesel or electric multiple units. This type of train has engines and/or motors in every car, so that each car essentially powers itself. These types of trains look far more modern.

There are pros and cons to each method, enough for an article all on its own. The broadest take is that with a DMU/EMU, the cars are more expensive and require more maintenance, but the trains are easier to extend, since each car brings its own power. If one car's motor/engine fails, usually the other cars can still drive the train.

Over longer trains, it's usually more economical to have a locomotive. According to Siemens, who makes both, DMUs are more suited for the typically smaller trains on commuter lines, while larger, long-distance trains are better suited for locomotives:

"DMUs are more applicable for commuter lines with frequent service and smaller transport capacity. Once the transport demand exceeds the carrying capacity of a DMU, Loco-hauled [trains] are advantageous and less expensive to operate. Frequency and capacity demands in intercity travel result in Loco-hauled trainsets getting used on non-electrified lines." -Armin Kick, vice president of locomotives and high-speed trainsets, Siemens Mobility, Inc.

A closer look at trains all over the world reveals that it's indeed unfair to mock US trains for being diesel. No modern train uses a diesel engine to power their wheels directly. They're used as generators to power electric motors. So the only difference boils down to where the electricity comes from.

And even in the most train-friendly countries like France and Japan, huge sections of the network are not electrified. In fact, the majority of tracks around the world are not electrified. Yep, even with those sleek and modern trains you see in photos of Europe and Asia, many have rumbling diesel engines underneath. In the case of DMUs, every car has its own, so each train potentially has several diesels running all the time.

Of course full electric is more efficient and better for the environment, but that requires the entire rail network to be electrified. This leads us to the real issue: the tracks.

No making tracks

With the exception of a few hundred miles in the Northeast, Amtrak doesn't own the tracks on which their trains run. The other ~97 percent of the tracks in the US are instead are owned by freight companies like BNSF, Norfolk Southern and Union Pacific. This is largely why Amtrak's on-time rate is so abysmal, compared to other countries.

Amtrak pays to use these tracks, but if there's any sort of delay and an Amtrak train misses its "window," it will have to wait on a siding while the owner of the track (a freight company) gives priority to its own trains. These delays tend to have a pile-on effect, so a delay of a few minutes could lead to delays of 30 minutes or an hour not just for that train, but later trains as well.

These companies are legally required to prioritize Amtrak trains over their own, and when they are held accountable (pdf), on-time performance improves significantly. According to Amtrak, in the northeast where they own the majority of the tracks, on-time performance is significantly better than elsewhere where they don't, despite far more trains and routes. It remains a contentious issue.

In most train-friendly countries, the government owns the rails and leases their use to train companies (when the train companies themselves aren't state owned). This is Amtrak's biggest problem by far, and it's not their fault. They can't force, say, Norfolk Southern, to improve or add additional tracks. That would require government intervention and, likely, assistance.

A prime example is in Southern California, where the Pacific Surfliner route is one of Amtrak's busiest, but also one that is often delayed due to sections where there's only one track in each direction. Even in a pro-train, pro-infrastructure environment like California, it's a challenge because of how expensive the land is along this route. Adding just a few miles of additional tracks could cost billions.

Even if Amtrak owned all the tracks, there'd be another, rather insurmountable issue: geography.

The US is a big country

If you look at all the countries with extensive high-speed rail networks, with only one exception they have two things in common. They're all wealthy and small. France and Japan are at the top of that list, but Germany and Spain, also have a lot.

A general rule is that if a train journey takes around four hours or less, it's faster to take the train than to fly. This is because trains get you directly to a city center, whereas flying takes time to get to the airport, time at the airport, the flight itself and time from the airport, all that have to be included when considering total travel time.