Why Trains Are So Great, and Why America Needs More

I grew up in the Washington, DC area riding the metro subway system for fun with my grandfather. I remember taking the Red Line, switching to the Orange/Blue line, and going to Rosslyn, Arlington to take a picture for my grandpa and a book he was writing. I remember when the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority (WMATA) extended the Green Line north of Fort Totten to Greenbelt. I was there at the Greenbelt Station as a news reporter was reporting live, but I dared not to run behind him while he was live on camera.

When my grandpa’s brother Fred was still alive and living in Brooklyn, we used to take the Amtrak, sometimes from Union Station, but other times from New Carrollton (just because it was easier and faster to get to) to New York’s Penn Station for a day trip. We’d board a train around 7:30 a.m. and be in Manhattan by 11. We’d spend the day with his brother, buy him some clothes, and take him to lunch. We’d visit a tourist attraction, then be on a train by 5 p.m. and were home by around 9:30. It was a great day, and it was so easy, and relatively inexpensive.

Today, I wonder why more people don’t use trains, where applicable, of course (you’re not go to ride a train from DC to Los Angeles, unless you care to spend two days doing it). Driving these days is going to cost you about 50 cents per mile of wear and tear on your car, using the US Government’s reimbursable rate. That accounts for fuel, repairs, and the eventuality that you will have to replace your car…every mile you drive is another one you can’t. If we estimate the trip from Washington to NYC as 200 miles, then you are already spending $200 on a round trip ($.50 x 400 miles). Then add in the massive amount of tolls, especially the ones that NYC charges to drive into Manhattan. So why would anyone drive?

Because the national train system is subpar. It’s on time, sometimes. Its cars are old and outdated. It’s wifi works, sometimes (as I type this from a train, the wifi is not working). The train stations are crummy. Perhaps, most importantly, on the east coast corridor, the cost for getting a train ticket close to your trip is exorbitant, and it’s usually cheaper to get a plane ticket. I will admit, though, that I bought this ticket five months in advance and purchased a $98 round trip ticket.

I think of Europe–its fast, clean trains, beautiful and effective stations, and it’s continental network that seems flawless. I think of how my overnight train ride from Oslo to Bergen, Norway, was seven hours of uninterrupted sleep. I think of how I was able to easily take trains from Kortrik, Belgium to Cham, Germany, over 13 hours to see a small heavy metal concert. I couldn’t have done that in America if I were European. I thought of the train ride from Copenhagen to Berlin, where my name appeared on my seat for the duration of my journey–no more, and no less (and then I am reminded of the frenzy of passengers on this train vying for a seat as quickly as possible, because, despite my ticket saying “reserved,” in fact, nothing was). I remembered purchasing my inexpensive ticket from Berlin, Germany to Kutno, Poland the day before I was taking the trip (buying a ticket from DC to NYC the day before could cost you more than $200).

People take trains in Europe because of those reasons–effectiveness, ease, cost, convenience. We could do this in America, where it makes sense. We could reinvest in our infrastructure to make our train system that of Europe’s–effective, easy, cost-friendly, and convenient. Will we?

2 thoughts on “Why Trains Are So Great, and Why America Needs More

    1. It’s true, Mike. I understand that we might not have as dense a population in the United States, but there are certainly areas where better trains could significantly ease traffic troubles.

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