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Taking the train in the USA

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A guide to discovering the United States

Index : Northeast and West coast Transcontinental railroads Suburban rail

The USA is a world leader and world beater in many fields; but rail transport is not currently one of them.

In the first half of the twentieth century, America had a great passenger rail network, connecting places across the nation with frequent and - by the standards of the time - fast train services. Then came the age of the private automobile and the airplane, and America's rail network went into decline. Today the USA is years behind other western nations and far eastern nations in the modernization of its rail network.
    In a 2023 article for America's Forbes Magazine, Michael Bernard wrote that "North America has a railroad problem that the rest of the world doesn’t have". .In the USA, only 1% of the 200,000 kms of railroad are electrified.... compared to over 60% in Europe, 72% in China, and 80% in Japan.
Amtrack route map 2023    So it will come as no surprise to learn that a trip by train in the USA is in many situations a trip down memory lane... when it is not impossible. Hundreds of small towns, and quite a few big ones too, are no longer connected to any passenger rail networrk; and except in the Northeast Corridor (between Boston and Washington) , intercity trains, where they do run, are infrequent, relatively slow, and diesel-hauled. They are, on the other hand, comfortable.
    Intercity rail services in the USA are virtually all run by AMTRAK and tickets can / should be booked online on the Amtrak website. But before you book anything, it's best to learn what is on offer.

Trains in the Northeast corridor and eastern seaboard

    The northeast corridor, linking Boston New York Philadelphia Washington and other cities is the only part of the USA with a relatively modern network. It even has high-speed trains, known as ACELA; but unlike in Europe and Japan where high-speed trains run on dedicated track, Acela trains use tilt mechanism and run on upgraded existing track.. Yet even with Acela electric trains,  almost all trains scheduled on the 204 mile journey from New York to Washington still take well over three hours..... compared for example with just 2 hours and 4 minutes taken by the TGV in France for a direct Paris Bordeaux run of over 300 miles.
    The most significant thing about trains in the northeast corridor is their frequency - with 12 or more trains each day running on the Acela route. Yet as the map shows, apart from a short stretch in California, this is the only part of the USA where cities are connected by a relatively fast and  frequent intercity train service.
    Alas this service does not extend all the way along the east coast of the USA; and even if all parts of the route between Boston and Miami have at least two trains a day, services are not frequent.

Trains on the west coast - California to Seattle and Vancouver

Californian surfliner
Surfliner train in California
    The situation has improved in recent years around Los Angeles, with at least 6 services a day running down the coast to San Diego; the interior of California  also has a reasonable service north and south of Fresno; but that's it, as far as frequent intercity services are concerned. There are no daily direct trains between Los Angeles and San Francisco - the journey takes over 9 hours and involves at least one change.
    Plans to build a genuine high speed rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco were first set out in the early 1990s, and construction has begun on parts of the route. However the first 170 mile section in the Central Valley between Madera and Bakersfield is not due to enter service before 2030. When it does enter service, this will a dedicated high-speed route, as in other parts of the world, with trains running at up to 220 mph (350 km/h).

Transcontinental train services and other routes

    As the map above clearly shows, rail services in the rest of the USA outside of the East Coast, the West Coast and around Chicago, are sparse to non-existent.  The best transcontinental rail services west of the Mississippi involve just one train a day in each direction, and they are not fast, as the passenger trains compete for space with massive trundling freight trains. It even takes over over 19 hours by train on the only direct daily service from  New York to Chicago – with most of the 710 mile journey being overnight.  Journey time could be cut to under 6 hours if there were a dedicated high-speed rail link between the cities... but there is not, and there  are no plans to build one.
    West of Chicago, there are three transcontinental services a day to the west coast, each with one direct service that takes around two days for the journey. On the northern route to Seattle, the Empire Builder express takes 46 hours ; on the middle route, the California Zephyr takes between 51 hours and 52 hours to cover the  2,438 miles (3,924 km) route between Chicago and San Francisco; and the Southwest Chief train departs once a day from Chicago for a 43 hour journey to Los Angeles. People who take these trains tend to do so either because they have a fear of flying, or because they have time to spare and like the idea of a scenic railroad trip across the American West.


    Obviously, these trains include sleeping cars and dining cars, but booking a sleeper berth considerably increases the cost of a ticket, as you are effectively buying two nights full board service on a moving hotel.  The base price for the California Zephyr for two people traveling together in 2024 is $ 328 in coach class (seat, no meals included)  and $1360 in sleeper cars (private room) including traditional dining meals.
    Similar conditions apply on other long-distance routes throughout the USA.

Commuter and suburban trains

Californian metroliner
Metrolink suburban train in California
Commuter rail services, which are not operated by Amtrak, have developed considerably in the past forty years. There are fast interconnected commuter rail services around all major US cities, many of them using modern electric trainsets.
   Metro area rail networks are run by pravate operators or by area transit authorities such as the Los Angeles area's Metrolink system which is operated by the Southern California Regional Rail Authority (SCRRA).

The future

While American environmentalists have been calling for the development of high speed rail in the USA for at least half a century, it is only in the 21st century that things have begun to move forward, albeit slowly. There are currently five high speed rail projects uncerway in the USA, at various stages of development. In addition to the Acela trains that run at relatively high speed (up to 150 mph on short stretches) in the Northeast, high-speed lines are being built, or soon to be built, in Florida, in California, in Texas (to link Houston and Dallas) , and from Los Angeles to Las Vegas.
    The USA has a lot of catching up to do where passenger rail transport is concerned, but with climate-change scepticism fading even in the USA, and the need for new green modes of travel becoming an increasing priority, things are moving slowly forward. By 2050, the face of American railroading could be changing fast.

For more background to the USA.....

Book / ebook     A Background to modern America -  people, places and events  that have played a significant role in the shaping of modern America. A C1-level Advanced English reader for speakers of other languages, and anyone wanting to  learn some of the background to today's USA.  Twenty-two texts, with vocabulary guides and exercises. Linguapress 2023.

For California, discover About-California.com, a short guide for visitors.

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