Passenger trains generally travel on the same tracks as freight trains

Saturday, August 6th, 2022

Modern American passenger trains take longer to travel the same routes than trains used to take:

First, Amtrak trains often have to make more stops than their pre-Amtrak counterparts. (Abrams didn’t go into detail why, but as a quasi-government corporation, Amtrak sometimes makes more stops along a route to please Congressional representatives who need to authorize its funding, unlike the private railroads that existed before Amtrak’s formation in the early 1970s.) As an example of the added stops Amtrak now makes, Abrams pointed out the 1959 New York Central’s New York-Chicago route took 16 hours and made eight stops, whereas Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited along the same route takes 19 hours 10 minutes making 18 stops, including a lengthy pause in Albany where train cars coming from Boston are linked up.

The second reason has to do with track priority. Passenger trains generally travel on the same tracks as freight trains. When the passenger and freight trains were owned by the same company, they typically prioritized passengers. Now, in the Amtrak era, freight rail companies no longer operate passenger train service but still own, operate, and maintain the tracks, which Amtrak uses. Although the law requires them to prioritize Amtrak trains, in practice they rarely do, resulting in an escalating beef between the freight companies and Amtrak.


One of the few places Amtrak does not have to contend with freight rail is along the Northeast Corridor from Washington, D.C. to Boston via New York. Either Amtrak or regional commuter rail systems own those tracks. And it is one of the few routes with noticeable time improvements since the Eisenhower Era and the only stretch with anything approaching high speed rail service, saving riders some 45 minutes between New York and Washington when compared to Olden Times. And New York to Boston on Acela — until recently the only stretch of track in the U.S. with true “high-speed rail” — is 21 minutes faster than the fastest train in 1952.


  1. Handle says:

    Wow, 21 minutes in 70 years, and that’s the success story. VRE (and MARC, with some differences) is an excellent passenger train service for commuting from the suburbs into DC for work, and would be good for better connecting the NOVA suburbs to DC in general for other trips, but it only exists as part of a deal made with the freight companies which own the tracks and use them intensely the rest of the time, and so passenger service is only available at very limited times during the work week.

  2. Isegoria says:

    I’m reminded of William Lind’s conservative case for public transportation.

  3. Handle says:

    Heh, oh that Lind. It’s always the same story, though oddly no one notices the uniform pattern or explains why there’s a common theme. Part of why the right always gets duped.

    There is in fact a natural, strong, and straightforward “conservative case for” almost every kind of state subsidy, transfer, infrastructure, or primarily economic program which is at least marketed at helping otherwise decent and hardworking members of “the struggle is real” class, which is probably about half the population from just above lumpenprole to the lower upper middle class. That’s part of why there’s always a constant stream of “the conservative case for” things we usually associate with the progressive left, not just because those authors are desperately trying to get some “strange new respect” from the progressives, but because the arguments are easy to express in ideologically coherent ways.

    The trouble is that this is completely distinct from realistically plausible ways, when the conservative case plan makes contact with the bureaucratic enemy. All these authors can argue a conservative case for an ideal and imaginary version of the thing, but not for the actual thing as it will likely be implemented in realty, which all sane and savvy observers know it’s going to fall so short of the ideal, you can’t even see the ideal from there. There’s public transportation as it could be in heaven or, like, the not too distant past, and then there’s the actual misery of sharing your bus or metro ride with noisy troublemakers, beggars and stinking bums, sometimes crazy and/or intoxicated.

    “The conservative case” for anything — indeed, for government itself — turns out to be the case for the version of that thing that would exist if it were of conservatives, by conservatives, for conservatives.

  4. A Texan says:

    AmTrak should have been sold decades ago. And passenger trains became a dead letter when every city decided to spend money on airports, so now we have several airports within a four hour drive between major cities now. I would love to have passenger train travel for weekends to places that take me half a day to drive anyway, but I don’t think the government should be doing it.

  5. Eli says:

    A sure way to breathe life into rail is to convert it to a system that combines efficiencies of air and interstate travel.

    The federal government buys up railroad rights-of-way (and adds to them), and then sells rail time to commercial and private operators similar to how the FAA sells access to skyways and terminals.

    This can initially get freight off the interstate system in autonomous hauling units and eventually expand to passenger service.

    When operators are free to innovate in the manner freight operators for surface roads/waterways are rail can modernize more quickly and adapt to new markets.

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