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American railroads, in need of a deadweight loss

What is the single easiest Christmas or birthday present for a toddler? Whatever you are thinking is wrong because it without a doubt has to be Thomas the Tank Engine toys. If you happened to guess Thomas the Tank Engine toys then good for you, but everyone else, work on yourself a little. Thomas the Tank Engine were the toys I admired as a little one; always asking for more tracks to create more elaborate tracks or new cars to make my train longer. I had so much track that my lines became impossible for me to follow at times. I had so many trains as well that it became hard for me to find my favorites and I ended up losing interest in the whole thing. But from these humble and wooden beginnings came my love for railroad infrastructure.

I upgraded my wooden Thomas tracks for electric model trains as I exchanged my pull ups for boxers. Watching those electric trains whiz by me as I lay down next to the tracks had me curious about the real deal. My search history soon after was filled with videos of Amtrak trains going by and brochures on where they go. What stood out in those videos was how large and boxy the Amtrak trains are; they seemed to be living relics of past decades and I was confused where the new rail technology was. I understood that Europe, China and Japan had newer technology in the form of bullet and maglev trains but could not fathom how the United States, a fully industrialized nation, could be decades behind on any kind of technology.  

Since high school I have been, admittedly, way too invested in rail infrastructure and the inner business of Amtrak. Although I am no expert on this subject it is clear to any untrained eye that Amtrak is in dire need of a revamp and there are some clear solutions. To understand where solutions need to be made it is important to first highlight what makes a high speed railroad successful. The first ingredient for a profitable high speed rail network derives from geography in relation to population. Rail networks which connect cities that are close in proximity are the ideal location for said networks. When built there they can move large amounts of people between massive economic centers avoiding major problems that other forms of transit face such as traffic from cars and proximity to home such as airports (which are required to be so far from city centers to prevent low flying planes from crashing). Trains serve as a cost-effective option for city hoppers who need to make it from one city to another to conduct business or see family. This becomes increasingly important as more Americans and people around the world move into cities and urban centers and are victim to gridlock traffic and the high cost of plane tickets and gasoline.

The second factor that is important in building an efficient high speed railroad is in the direction of the tracks. Tracks which consist of many twists and turns force trains to reduce their speed to greatly lower the chance of tipping over and passenger discomfort. Thus, tracks which are built as straight as possible between the destination and the point of departure are going to maximize the efficiency of the train line. They reduce operation costs because repairing straight lines of track is far easier than replacing a curved segment and it takes the trains less energy to maintain speed than to constantly be slowing down and accelerating every few minutes.

The third and final ingredient is actually beneath the rails that the trains run on: the ties. Ties are laid underneath the rails and ensure that the rails do not drift too far apart or too close. Traditionally they are wooden and riddled with problems of upkeep. The wood frequently splits due to the pressure the weight of the trains exerts on them and to replace them you have to dig up all the rocks under the ties to slide them out and then insert the new one. To allow for heavier trains to run faster, efficient railroads are now built with concrete ties which last longer and far easier and more sustainable to produce.

For a high speed rail line to be profitable and well-run the train line requires proximity to major economic centers, straight lines of track and the usage of concrete railroad ties. The best example of this in practice in the United States can be found in the “Northeast corridor” which unites the cities of Boston and Washington D.C. and all major hubs in between such as New York City and Philadelphia. This line runs between a plethora of major economic hubs, uses modern railroad ties and runs trains as fast as the lines can handle to move people efficiently. The issue with Amtrak is that the rest of their lines do not follow this pattern.

Most of Amtrak’s mileage comes from their long-distance train lines which run between small cities out west which are great distances from each other and not up to date on newer infrastructure technologies. These lines are barely profitable, if they make any profit at all, and are rarely a traveler’s first choice for transit. Those trains run slowly on their old tracks and can be costly for travelers as operating costs for conductors, engineers, fuel and food can become rather expensive. In favor of cheaper options most travelers prefer to fly or drive those distances. Unfortunately, it ends up costing Amtrak more money as they continue to provide those long distance trains despite the low and continuously decreasing ridership.

To compensate for the losses on long distance rail lines Amtrak raises prices on the lines which drive a serious profit; such as the Northeast corridor due to its efficiency in moving people and filling seats on the train. But the solution for Amtrak is not to raise ticket prices on those lines with high ridership to ensure service for the long distance trains with virtually no ridership; the solution is to cut off the dead weight. Amtrak inherited large amounts of track from the fallout of the private train sector in the mid twentieth century but they now need to be let loose in order for the corporation to stay in the green. Long distance lines bring in no profit and Amtrak should not center its attention on lacking lines, rather Amtrak should use the profit from the Northeast corridor to continue to improve service on the lines that keep the business alive.

This improvement could come in the form of newer trains, as Amtrak just did with the introduction of the Avelia Liberty into the Northeast corridor, or in the tilting of curved tracks to allow trains to turn at higher speeds. One of the flaws currently with the Northeast corridor is the old lines the trains run on. They were built with less technology, so to affordably build lines the railroads had to go around hills and valleys rather than through them. Thus, the current line is very twisted with many curves and forces trains to continuously be slowing down and speeding up. Tilting the tracks would allow trains to maintain their high speed as their momentum would not shift causing a possible tip. These improvements, although minor maybe, will bring down train ticket costs and travel times making it a far more competitive method of transit compared to flying from Logan to LaGuardia for example. With higher ridership Amtrak can build more high-speed lines between cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco and then between Miami and Orlando. Plans to build lines between those cities have been proposed and construction has begun but with Amtrak behind those projects they could be accomplished far sooner and far better.

In focusing solely on high-speed rail which has the three characteristics I mentioned above, Amtrak could effectively build itself a new foundation for their profit. When this is accomplished then long-distance rail lines can be re-established but until then Amtrak simply needs the profit to make the necessary updates to compete with train corporations such as the ones in Europe, China and Japan. Amtrak is facing the same issue I did with my Thomas trains, they have too much track and too many trains distracting them from the ones that really matter—it’s time to cut the dead weight off to make Amtrak trains known around the world.

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