Off the Rails | Derek Li

Off the Rails

by Derek Li

On December 18, 2017, an Amtrak train traveling from Seattle to Portland derailed on a highway overpass in DuPont, WA. So far, the accident has left at least three people dead and has injured hundreds more. This is the second time in just three years that Amtrak, America’s national passenger rail service, has been involved in a fatal accident. Back in 2015, an Amtrak train derailed in Philadelphia, killing eight people and injuring hundreds. Major rail incidents like these cause Americans to ask a simple question: why are trains in America so neglected and dilapidated?

The issue with American trains mainly concerns passenger rail service—not freight trains. For long distance cargo transport, railways still play a major role to this day, albeit not as large as it did a hundred years ago. However, it’s a completely different story for passenger transport. Ever since WWII, ridership on railroads has sharply decreased; this is directly correlated with the rise of faster, more convenient, and often cheaper modes of transport: automobiles for shorter distances and airplanes for longer distances. In the early 20th century, before cars and planes became popular, railways were the backbone and source of American development in urban and previously sparsely populated areas in the country. Trains were luxurious, modern, safe, and fast. They allowed people to travel across the country in just days, compared to weeks or even months before. Because of trains, towns sprang up in the mid and southwest portions of America; perhaps the largest beneficiary of transcontinental railways was the state of California. Before the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, California was relatively isolated from the rest of the United States. So, although there was a lot of opportunity in the state, traveling there was extremely difficult and unsafe. But, when a railroad connected California to the rest of the U.S, people migrated to the golden state in massive numbers in search of economic prosperity, and California’s population skyrocketed. Additionally, the nationwide economy was stimulated since resources (such as gold) could travel swiftly from coast to coast in no time. As America moved into the early and mid 20th centuries, Henry Ford innovated the automobile and the Wright Brothers invented the airplane. In just a matter of a few decades, the United States became engrossed in an automobile and airplane culture. Almost all railroad companies were either struggling or bankrupt. The government attempted to revive the rail industry, but to no avail.

The root of the poor state of U.S railroads is the fact that trains simply don’t interest Americans. One major factor for that is the nation’s demography and geography: the overall population density is low and people generally live very spread out from others. This type of layout makes it very costly and inefficient for railroads to operate. In countries such as India, England, China, and Japan, where the population density is high, railroads are very successful and are the main source of medium and long distance transport. In America, however, it makes much more sense for somebody to drive within a metropolitan area and to take a flight between two distant cities. Also, because most of the nation does not live close to a train station, having to find another way to get to the station only increases the inconvenience. Yet, the few long-distance trains in the country are slow and almost never on time. In fact, in 2014, Amtrak’s Empire Builder, which runs from Seattle to Chicago, was on time a dreadful 20.9% of the time. This is mainly due to the fact that most passenger railways operate on track owned by freight railroads, which prioritize their trains over others. If Amtrak had enough money to buy or build their own track, then their long-distance routes would probably be more successful.

Because most Americans either don’t have access to rail stations or don’t benefit from taking trains, railroads have continuously been losing money. In fact, Amtrak hasn’t struck profit since its formation in 1971. The lack of money causes trains to become more unsafe and less frequent, producing a never-ending bad cycle. Add in the recent innovations in the automobile and aircraft industries, and it looks like railroads in the United States will never return to its former glory.