Travel Features

Who Killed the Train?

Why you should care, and what you can do to save it.

Why you should care, and what you can do to save it.

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RAILROAD, n. The chief purpose of many mechanical devices enabling us to get away from where we are to where we are better off. For this purpose the railroad is held in highest favor by the optimist, for it permits him to make the transit with great expedition.

That's how Ambrose Bierce defined the railroad in his Devil's Dictionary. Before he vanished in the wilds of Mexico, Bierce did make his mark on railroad history. The San Francisco Examiner dispatched Bierce to Washington D.C. in January 1896 to foil an attempt by Collis P. Huntington to get Congress to excuse the Union Pacific and Central Pacific from repaying the $130 million loan the government had given them to build the first transcontinental railroad.

Huntington, wanting to get the bill through without public attention, tried to bribe the journalist on the steps of the nation's capitol, telling him to name his price. Ever the wit, Bierce replied:"My price is $130 million. If, when you are ready to pay, I happen to be out of town, you may hand it over to my friend, the treasurer of the United States." The papers ate it up; the bill, of course, got defeated.

If Bierce were still alive, what would he say about the bleak state the rail industry finds itself in today? Perhaps he'd riff on the topic on everyone's minds these days:?fuel efficiency. Why boast about the elbow space, the scenic travel, the conversation, all the luxuries train travel affords? He'd just aim for the jugular. You want better fuel efficiency? Ditch the car and plane when you're taking a long-distance trip that's less than 500 miles. That's 17 percent less energy you'll be wasting per passenger mile than if you flew and 21 percent less than if you drove. (Not as eloquent as he would put it, but you get the point.)

In the American arena of public transport, passenger trains barely get a sliver of the pie. In 2002, airlines received $14 billion and highways received $32 billion in federal subsidies, while Amtrak received ... $521 million, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Okay, maybe that was just one bad year for passenger trains. Let's look at funding from 1971-2001. Surely, our country's support of rail transport will be evident then. Air and highway funding: $1.89 trillion. Yep, sounds about right. Amtrak got what our highways received in one year?

It's a Sad Sad Sad Sad World that we find ourselves in. Next year doesn't promise to get much better. The proposed fiscal 2008 budget slices up the pie by allocating $14.1 billion to airlines, $40.3 billion to highways and $1.1 billion to railroads. How did we get to this point, and what can we do about it? Jason Strykowski shares the story.

—The Editors

 

The jive and the jazz both play pretty well in the Bayou, probably Salt Lake City's best Creole-inspired bar, maybe the only one for that matter. Fortunately, my company and the beer are good too, but it's now 2 a.m., the bar is closing and San Francisco has not gotten any closer. The California Zephyr, the "Western breeze," one of the few remaining long-distance passenger routes in the United States, is running four hours late.

A tardy departure out of Chicago, a medical stop along the way and I'm stuck in downtown Salt Lake City, Utah, with nothing to do and no train to depart on. Normally, I'd love to bide my time in a train station. In fact, within several blocks of my current location are two beautifully preserved historic depots. Salt Lake City's Union Pacific and Rio Grande Stations are shining examples of 20th-century rail...

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