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July 24, 2007

Not-So Central Stations

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I don't worship passenger railroads. Don't hate 'em either. Maybe I'm delusional, but I fancy myself pragmatic on the matter.

There are some folks out there who think that inter-city passenger trains can cure a lot of America's transportation ills. They'll start off by asserting that if only those suckers who drive cars or fly between cities wised up and took trains, then highways would become less crowded, airports less noisy, fuel would be saved and the air would be less polluted. Then they would likely tear up in nostalgia for the transportation world of 1912 before pounding the table and claiming that our betters the Europeans know how to do things right.

It's true that Europe's intercity passenger railroad system is far superior to what we have in the States. There are many reasons for this, including: slower population growth and less pressure to suburbanize; much later mass adoption of the automobile; and longer-term government ownership of railroads. While Europe now has a highly-developed intercity freeway system and recently has been getting low-fare airlines, many people continue to rely on railroads for traveling from city to city.

Consider the Eurostar, known on the street as the "Chunnel" train. One terminus is the Gare du Nord in Paris, the other is Waterloo Station in London. Originally the trip took three hours, thanks to the French TGV (high-speed train) system. In 2003 a stretch of TVG-style track was opened in England, cutting the journey by 20 minutes. In November, the final English section is scheduled to open, the terminus being relocated to St. Pancras Station on the north side of central London. The result will be an even quicker trip.

I like the Chunnel train. Whenever I travel between London and Paris I take it because it's faster and seems to involve less hassle than the alternatives -- flying or driving and taking a cross-Channel ferry.

I've even taken intercity trains in the USA. As a kid I traveled several times between Seattle and Spokane and once from Seattle to Chicago and then on to Detroit. While in the Army I went from Washington, DC to New York City and from New York City to Baltimore when I was changing posts. Then when I worked in Albany I occasionally took the train when I had business in Washington. So I'm not utterly ignorant of the subject.

One advantage claimed for trains is that they get into your destination city. Really? Sometimes they do, as is the case of New York City's Grand Central Terminal and Pennsylvania Station -- the former being reasonably close to many Midtown hotels and offices, the latter a little more peripheral. But New York might be exceptional.

Let's assume one is traveling fairly light, perhaps with a briefcase and a wheeled piece of luggage about the size stowable in an airliner's overhead bin or a little larger. Further assume the weather is favorable and the traveler reasonably fit: fit enough to be willing to walk half a mile (10 or 15 minutes) or so rather than go to the bother of hiring a taxi to get to his hotel or business meeting location. What cities fit these criteria and which don't? Let's take a look.

London and Paris each have several train stations. They tend to be located on the periphery of the central areas. That means they aren't really handy for business meetings or many tourist activities, but some hotels (not the fanciest) can be found nearby.

Prague's main station isn't far from Wenceslas Square. Budapest's Eastern Station is the one most tourists and business travelers are likely to use, and it's a couple of miles from downtown. Vienna's stations are a long walk from the Ring and city center. Milan's central station is more than a mile from the Galleria area, though a commuter station is closer. Amsterdam's main station is near the focus of the canal system. Munich's main station is on the western edge of the central area, at one end of a major shopping street and Frankfurt's is similarly situated. Berlin's stations are a bit out of the way. Zurich's sation is at the heart of the city and Helsinki's is close in as well.

Some large North American cities with stations that are reasonably centrally located are Philadelphia, Toronto, Boston, Chicago and Cleveland.

Not so centrally located train stations are found in Baltimore, Cincinnati, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, St. Louis, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, DC.

Conclusion? Intercity passenger trains usually get one fairly close to downtown areas, but not reliably close enough for things to be hassle-free when departing the station for a hotel or an office building. It depends on the destination city, and American cities strike me as having a higher hassle quotient, on average, than European ones. For me, cars and planes still rule.



posted by Donald at July 24, 2007


Fuel per passenger mile is lowest on trains. We should get ready to take advantage of this as soon as possible. We're going to need the railroads.

As a boy, in 1951 I took the train from Detroit to visit my aunt and uncle in Chicago. I remember it being a wonderful trip. Given the state of airlines today, I don't think unaccompanied ten-year olds have as pleasant a time.

When I joined the Army, Detroit to St. Louis (nearest big-city stop to Ft. Leavenworth) was a great overnight trip. A drinking party with other new recruits.

I haven't taken trains very often only because society hasn't placed enough importance on railroads to make it an attractive alternative.
It's probably true the oil companies had a lot to do with this. Lobbying works.

I got rid of my car four months ago. San Francisco is one of the few big cities that makes this possible. BART trains, buses, and ferries connect us to most of the bay area.

I can't imagine anything more wonderful than riding a truly high-speed train (180 mph+) and watching the country slide by. But we have to start building them.

Posted by: Fred Wickham on July 24, 2007 1:38 AM

I would say that Denver's train station is at least as central as South Station in Boston. The difference, perhaps, is that Denver itself is much less centralized than Boston.

Posted by: Bill on July 24, 2007 1:41 AM

The Chunnel is a masterpiece of engineering, it deserves to be a wonder of the modern world.

Posted by: omar on July 24, 2007 5:14 AM

If the choice is between a plane and a train, I would advice you to take the train.

In a train you can get up from your seat and walk between cars to the bar, instead of being strapped into an uncomfortable posture and wedged tightly there.

Babies cry in planes due to the pressure on their ears, while they tend to sleep in trains due to the rhythmic motion.

You do not get stuck in a train for hours waiting for clerance to depart, hungry, without air conditioning and with overflowing toilets.

You do not have to take off your shoes to get into a train.

The ideal would be to combine a train with a subway, the way it is done in DC. Union Station is both a train station and a subway station which makes it very convenient (and a great location to shop, too).

Posted by: Adriana on July 24, 2007 7:42 AM

If you have to go a number of different places, trains are a pain. I went from Paris to Eastern France to Prague, Vienna and Budapest in April, by train. If I had rented a car I would have saved at least a whole day, if not two, in travel time. I wound up staying an unnecessary night in Frankfort, because of the train schedules. With the price of hotel rooms, that's significant. And I would not have been ripped off by a Budapest taxi driver.
Sure, if you're just going from city center to city center, trains could be more convenient, if you know exactly how to get around once you're at your destination. But cars are easier, probably cheaper and much more flexible.

Posted by: Robert Speirs on July 24, 2007 8:54 AM

Donald, if your objection to train system that there are not many conveniently placed railroad stations, the problem could be solved by building more stations.
It's a part of a larger problem: there are not enough train routes. Stations are only dots on a train line; I think the line itself might be more costly, by mileage it covers and the combined cost of small intermediate stations along the way, than yet another big station in transportation center/big city.
The whole system only makes sense, economically as well as convenience to the passengers, if it covers wide territory with small-cell net. And that requires immense investment and patience on part of an investor.Who can wait 40-50 years for his investment to pay off?

Posted by: Tatyana on July 24, 2007 9:33 AM

"There are many reasons for this, including: slower population growth and less pressure to suburbanize; much later mass adoption of the automobile; and longer-term government ownership of railroads."

Well, a huge reason is that in America we chose to massively subsidize auto travel instead of rails. That was a deliberate policy choice, not a confluence of nebulous social forces.

Posted by: BP on July 24, 2007 9:49 AM

Funny how inept we seem in this country at building and maintaining a decent rail system, isn't it? We can land people on the moon but, etc ... I'd happily take trains if they were more pleasant, especially given the way that plane travel involves more and more headaches and hours of prep. (It may only takes three hours on the plane to get from NYC to St. Louis, but door to door the trip takes at least double that.) But most trains I've taken have been horror shows -- ineptly run, slow ... They make you feel like a loser, much like taking the Greyhound does.

The Wife had a bad plane scare once and couldn't face planes again afterwards, so took trains everywhere. Some of the routes were nice, but she tells me that most were awful -- wobbly, slow, off-schedule ... After about five years of it, she was sick of it. She pulled herself together and forced herself to face plane travel again.

I wonder if one other reason why Europe seems to do trains better than we do is that they're so much older. Most of their cities and towns were already in existence when cars came along -- given that the towns and cities weren't going to change much, and were more compact and less sprawly than our settlements are, it made sense to connect 'em by train. Where many of our cities and towns we've been able to optimize for cars. (For better or worse, of course.) Many of htem were actually created with the car primarily in mind. That's been relatively rare in Europe.

Anyway, it does seem to be the case that we've made a massive commitment to cars and to travel-by-car. I enjoy cars and like driving, but I certainly wouldn't mind it if we removed many of the subsidies we give to an auto-centric life ...

Posted by: MIchael Blowhard on July 24, 2007 10:17 AM

Some scattered replies...

Bill -- I haven't been in some of the cities mentioned in quite a while and so had to rely on maps for help. Even so, my sorting was kinda arbitrary. For instance, in Seattle there are some tourist sites and hotels within half a mile of King Street Station, but the journed on foot with luggage wouldn't be that nice.

Tat -- I'm mostly targeting train enthusiasts here, including the concept I sometimes hear from them regarding convenience. Given a choice, I tend to avoid trains unless their advantages are overwhelming.

BP & MB -- I don't think road building in the 20s and 30s plus the Instertate construction since the mid-50s represent an outisde force imposing its will on John Q. Public. Sure, contractors, suppliers and construction workers benefit (to cite one objection I read from time to time). But I think most Americans welcomed a good highway system, a major reason why all this happened. If public works was the big deal, then throwing money at something else would have worked just as well.

And, as I noted, there are plenty of freeways in Europe. Take a look at a road atlas and see. For instance, the Netherlands seems to have an especially strong concentration, and France and Germany have large networks as well.

The problem we face in the Seattle area is the Establishment, politicians, planners, intellectuals and some vocal car-haters who are preventing badly-needed new freeway construction. But what do I know: I'm jes' a simple fool who loves cars, roads and freeways.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on July 24, 2007 11:29 AM

Train transportation is a difficult topic for me to address without bias because I'm forced to ride horrendously bad commuter trains twice a day. With respect to the issue of station location, it should be noted that much travel in the United States is not central city-to-central city but suburb-to-suburb. A relatively remote train station is not necessarily a huge disadvantage, especially if the city in question is notably decentralized.

Posted by: Peter on July 24, 2007 11:41 AM

San Diego has its train station located near the west end of Broadway. One trolley line is available right at the station. The same line can also be boarded about two blocks east, as can a second line. Buses are available on Broadway itself, and cabs can be called. There's also a commuter train.

Where expanding rail travel is concerned, first you need to expand the rail net. You cannot travel from San Diego to San Francisco entirely by train. For much of the distance you take a bus. In addition, much of the San Diego to LA stretch is just able to handle current rail traffic. But plans to add lines keep getting torpedoed by special interests and various species of NIMBY.

Then you have the city of San Clemente, which lobbied to sabotage Borlington Northern's plans to move the lines inland. At present a bad storm from the Gulf of Alaska coupled with a spring tide could shut down rail travel between Orange County and San Diego County entirely.

There's also the matter of rights of way, crossing safety, noise, and all the NIMBYs ready to bitch and moan about something or other. As things go, we'd be better off going highspeed rail. But that faces opposition from various groups.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on July 24, 2007 11:43 AM

I doubt all your mountains and forests help matters any. (And would you want to be the grader operator who discovers the sasquatch by running over one? :) )

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on July 24, 2007 11:46 AM

The great lesson from the chunnel (which, like omar, I think is marvellous) was that Mrs T managed to negotiate the whole thing so that the British taxpayer paid hardly anything: the French taxpayer and investors footed the bill. What value! (Naturally, Princess Toni undid the good work.)

Posted by: dearieme on July 24, 2007 11:55 AM

I rode several of the great trains during the 40s and 50s when I was young, including the Twentieth Century Limited, the Broadway Limited, the Santa Fe Super Chief, the Burlington Zephyr, and the Hiawatha. They were grand. The superdomes on western trains gave passengers breathtaking views. The club cars offered delightful society, where one could order a drink, sit in swivel lounge chairs and enjoy other people or read or watch the rails recede behind the train. The roomettes were wonders of comfort. I loved to lie in my bunk at night and let the rhythm of the rails lull me to sleep. Food in the diners was a marvel, swiftly served, and you never knew who you might meet at the dinner tables. At various stations you could leave the train, stretch, and return before it started up again. Yes, it took time to travel by rail, but the travel itself was a delightful experience worth enjoying in its own right. And rail travel was much faster than cross-country driving. I've often felt that if rental cars were as easily available at train stations as airports, there might be a fine future for passenger service.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on July 24, 2007 12:41 PM

To rise to the bait:

When Boeing makes a 1200 seater that can land on 6th Avenue between 52nd and 56th, then we'll know airlines can compete straight-up with railroads on the central city question.

All else is losing the forest for the trees.

Posted by: Chris on July 24, 2007 4:33 PM

-Passenger trains are not economically viable in most parts of the USA. The population is too dispersed; train routes are too inflexible. As Donald suggested, even in Europe most people prefer to drive if they can. Indeed many Europeans prefer to fly now that air travel has become inexpensive.

-Also as Donald suggested, subsidies cannot explain Americans' preference for automobile travel over trains. Amtrak passenger service is heavily subsidized almost everywhere, except perhaps between Boston and DC, yet there is relatively little demand for it.

-Increasingly, highways are being financed privately based on amortized revenue from tolls. IOW there is sufficient demand to build and run them, at least in some cases, without subsidies. This is not true for passenger trains. With the exception of a few private commuter lines (Chicago-South Shore?), and perhaps Amtrak's DC-NYC-Boston route, most passenger rail systems operate at a loss and couldn't be privatized even if everyone wanted to.

-You like trains? Cool. But that doesn't imply that the rest of us should subsidize them.

-For most Americans, automobile travel is much faster and more convenient than trains or planes for short and medium-length trips. And air travel is much faster and more convenient than trains for long trips. In a competitive transportation market, where does that leave trains? Carrying freight.

-But if we only built more train stations and rights-of-way. . . train travel would become even more expensive. In a country where people need to go from Detroit to Chicago or Atlanta to Miami, trains are just too slow, and it's the slowness of trains, rather than lack of infrastructure, or subsidies for automobiles, that is mainly responsible for the low demand for passenger service. The golden age of train travel is over for good reason.

Posted by: Jonathan on July 24, 2007 6:36 PM

It is sad that train service is going down the toilet, but the same can be said of air travel. At least when a train is delayed, the passengers are not held hostage, strapped in their seats, with no food, air conditioning, nor working toilets...

Posted by: Adriana on July 24, 2007 10:58 PM

I have to agree with the folks saying that Europe is a special case for train travel. The population densities there are very high indeed. The Northeast US is the only area of the country where large cities are found comparably close together, and that's still more spread out than much of Western Europe.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on July 25, 2007 7:04 AM

There is no good way to restore passenger service on the existing rail grid, which is overburdened and geared to slower freight traffic. Roadbeds are maintained at lower (rougher) freight standards and much roadbed is dangerously worn. Mile-long freight trains clog the rails. Much of the reason for chronic Amtrak delays involves freight-train jams. Stations have disappeared or are unusable. Don't count on seeing privately operated long-distance passenger service again.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on July 25, 2007 12:36 PM

There is a place for trains in the transportation landscape. But the thinking here seems to presume trains will fit in as they did 50 or 60 years ago, as multipurpose common carriers competing for long distance travel.

In 2007, trains could fit into the picture in several ways:

1. Corridor travel such as Boston - DC, LA - San Diego, etc. etc. has a definite role to fill, and the ridership figures suggest these services will be well patronized. LA - Las Vegas would be a natural, and Amtrak is looking at that.

2. Even long distance trains could be viable, provided the schedules and equipment were appropriate. Lots of people point to the Sunset route as an example of a service that should be gotten rid of, but within the Sunset route there are several corridors: LA - Phoenix, Phoenix - San Antonio, Houston - New Orleans. Schedules would need to be arranged to serve these route segments at convenient times, not to mention the fact that 3 times a week service isn't going to cut it in corridor-type markets.

3. The second type of service that could be offered on long distance routes is what others refer to as "land cruise" accommodations. IOW, service geared to travelers who want to have a luxurious travel experience and are less concerned with time than with the sightseeing aspect. Amtrak is already talking with private operators to offer a limited number of trips of this type.

4. I think it may even be possible that short/medium haul overnight trains might be feasible, if properly marketed.

Airline travel has become so unpleasant and freeways in metro areas so congested that any reasonable alternative that comes along will get a serious look from the traveling public, IMO.

Posted by: Gary on July 25, 2007 1:32 PM

I love taking the train, but it's a vacation choice (California Zephyr, Coast Starlight) rather than a commuting choice. I took one trip with bad delays— the leg up had a problem car, and the repair put us off schedule, while the return trip was vastly slowed by flooding, which had damaged the rail sensors. IOW, "we know the rails are fine but the sensors are ambiguous, so we have to go slow." Another trip I took was actually early. But hey, both times I was on vacation, so what did I care? The scenery was pretty.

Incidentally, last year Amtrak sued some of the freight companies because the contracts specify that passenger trains are supposed to get right-of-way and they were scheduling the freight first instead. Don't know how that turned out.

I wouldn't recommend trains as a commuter choice unless the person is like my husband, who really hates flying. It's just not efficient. But if Amtrak were to sell the romance of train travel, they'd probably do better.

Posted by: B. Durbin on July 27, 2007 11:28 PM

I agree that the romance of train travel is overblown, but compared to the romance of plane travel...

I mean, no overflowing toilets, yet in trains...

As for cars, the problem with driving one into a big city is contending with big city traffic and ***finding a parking spot**** As I live in a small town, both experiences are extremely stressful, and I think that riding Greyhound (there are no trains where I live) is quite tolerable in comparison.

Posted by: Adriana on July 28, 2007 9:48 AM

There's been chatter for over a decade here in Texas about building a high-speed rail network between the major "triangle" of cities like Dallas, San Antonio and Houston. Southwest Airlines has often been fingered as the culprit against such a scheme. Still, I think the only way to make rail a viable alternative on long distances is that it has to be some sort of TGV high-speed train. Otherwise, it all becomes too slow.

I've taken the "Chunnel" twice and I remember it being outrageously expensive and requiring just as much prep time before the trip as any plane trip. My advice to those traveling in Europe is to take the train only if you need to travel a large distance with no intention of stopping. Otherwise, rent a car to best enjoy Europe's landscapes and out-of-the way architectural gems. Trains offer passengers some nice views of landscapes but some of the most unflattering cityscapes, as the rail lines are often servicing the industrial sectors of cities. One gets to understand the urban relationships much better with a car or on foot. Train routes are offer to a narrow a perspective on the surrounding city.

Posted by: corbusier on July 28, 2007 11:53 AM

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