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Charlie Stross on American Rail Service - Elf M. Sternberg
Charlie Stross on American Rail Service
So, Charlie Stross has left Seattle for Portland. I've done that route myself, several times, but his take on what I consider one of the loveliest and most relaxing travel experiences in the United States is fascinating:
You can get beer on that train. In fact, there's a choice of microbrews (as well as the usual horse piss) in the galley. ...

I was gobsmacked by how slow and inefficient the process of catching the train in America feels, compared to even the ghastly suboptimization of Virgin or National Express in the UK, never mind Japan Rail. ...

The galley was as good as can be expected on a rail service, certainly on a par with non-US equivalents, and the staff were friendly and helpful. However, the ride was so bumpy we were wondering if they'd outsourced track maintenance to RailTrack (in the bad, pre-Hatfield days). And the train was so slow it was almost surreal. It took three and a half hours to cover just 144 miles. A good thing the scenery was picturesque; I had a lot of time to stare at it. ...

There are many reasons why passenger rail is the unwanted stepchild of transport policy in the USA; a lack of suitable track signaling, priority given to freight over passenger services, routes laid out in the 1930s and earlier rather than between current centres of population and commerce, and so on. But despite understanding why, I find it really strange that in this day and age, a critical chunk of the USA's infrastructure barely rises to the level of third world quality.

Read it all here.

Current Mood: amused amused

6 comments or Leave a comment
jpallan From: jpallan Date: May 18th, 2009 03:32 pm (UTC) (Link)
I didn't read it when Mr. Stross posted it (distant acquaintance from USENET), but it just makes me think of Amy Poehler on Amtrak.

"Amtrak, Ameeerica's way to travel with weeeed!"
shockwave77598 From: shockwave77598 Date: May 18th, 2009 04:34 pm (UTC) (Link)
Rail is slower than airplanes, but the tickets cost more. The logic escapes me...
From: (Anonymous) Date: May 18th, 2009 06:57 pm (UTC) (Link)
Being British it confused me for some time hho the US could not have much in the way of passenger trains, at least so I've been told. Then I realised...

Moving from one state to another in the US can often be a similar distance to moving from one nation in the EU to another. The channel tunnel hasn't had much success at this either. Seems likely that the costs involved must be fairly high for train travel, down to the sheer time it takes as much as anything.

When you're spending your life in countries like the UK it is very easy to lose sight of how the sheer difference in scale of land mass can impact the nation as a whole.
gromm From: gromm Date: May 18th, 2009 11:45 pm (UTC) (Link)
It is the way it is because America wanted autobahns from coast to coast, and spent trillions of dollars in tax money to make it happen. That didn't leave much for railroads.
From: (Anonymous) Date: May 19th, 2009 12:23 am (UTC) (Link)
It isn't so much that Europeans don't "realise" how much bigger the US is, most people do. It's just that, as I said, we tend to not realise how this impacts the way the country is run. Our idea of a country's size, a generic country in our subconscious, is informed by our own experiences. To us rail is naturally either an alternative to buses, or a mid point between the extended long distance of air travel and that of local travel. That is how we experience rail travel as we grow up through our lives. Cars and buses are local to regional, trains are local to national, and air travel is international. Predominantly anyway, except for businessmen and those few long trips in the car.

I'm sure a lot of people from the US would be equally baffled by the amount we rely on rail travel. It just normally isn't significant enough a point to make people think outside the box, and look at it from other angles. I probably wouldn't have done so myself were it not for a combination of curiosity and having had cause.
ewhac From: ewhac Date: May 19th, 2009 08:55 am (UTC) (Link)
I've ridden the Coast Starlight a couple of times. It's a lovely trip so long as you're not in a hurry, consider the schedule vaguely advisory, and don't care when you actually arrive.

We've ridden from Los Angeles and San Jose to Seattle. Yes, it's far slower than you'd think, but all the railbed in the US is in abominable shape. And yes, it's also more expensive, but in exchange you don't have to take off your shoes before boarding, you get to wander freely around the cabin, the seats can actually accommodate humans, the food is decent, and you don't have a turbojet engine thundering in your ears for four hours.

If you go first class, you get a little room all to yourself. Where you can stretch out. And power your laptop. And look out the window. And sip wine... trinsf can tell you so much more...
6 comments or Leave a comment