Why Americans Don’t Go On Trains

It seems as though everyone in the world is in love with train travel… except for Americans. In the United States, train travel is rarely (if ever) considered as an option by most people, whereas in Europe and Asia traveling by train is as routine as tying your shoes.

If you skim the Wikipedia article for High-Speed Rail you will quickly notice China, Japan, France, and Germany boasting trains that can go 250 to 300 miles per hour or faster. You might also notice that the United States isn’t a player in high-speed rail at all. Actually, one of the only mentions of the US in the entire article is this sad statement:

Amtrak’s Acela Express runs on the Northeast Corridor from Boston to Washington, D.C. Unlike Asian or European systems, the Acela shares its tracks with conventional rail, and thus is limited to an average speed of 68 mph (109 km/h) for the entire distance with brief segments up to 150 mph.

68 miles per hour is hardly “high speed” considering most interstate highways have speed limits of 70 mph, and we all know that means people dive 75 or 80 at least. With that in mind, consider a theoretical trip from New York to Chicago. The distance between these cities is about 790 miles, and you could potentially drive your car, fly on a plane, or take a train. Here are the cost and duration of those options side by side:

New York City to Chicago – 790 Miles

Mode of Travel Cost (Each Way / Round Trip) Time (Each Way / Round Trip)
Car $98 / $196 14 hr / 28 hr
Plane $80 / $160 2.5 hr / 5 hr
Train $95 / $190 19.5 hr / 39 hr

In this case, flying from New York to Chicago is the cheapest and the fastest by far. Taking a train is just about the most expensive (especially if you compare it to a more efficient car), and it is unbelievably slow. It takes nearly a full day to get from New York to Chicago by train. 20 hours! Twenty. It is the most expensive and slowest option in a world where people want fast and cheap. In 2011, this is unacceptable.

Compare that to a similar trip to Europe. Paris, France, and Vienna, Austria is about the same distance apart as New York City and Chicago, 780 Miles. Let’s look at the same options for traveling between them; car, plane, and train.

Paris to Vienna – 780 Miles

Mode of Travel Cost (Each Way / Round Trip) Time (Each Way / Round Trip)
Car $252 / $504 12 hr / 24 hr
Plane $115 / $230 2 hr / 4 hr
Train $134 / $268 4 hr / 8 hr

Again, flying is the cheapest and fastest, but the more interesting thing is the difference between driving and taking a train in Europe. Google maps Assumed 1.60 Euros per liter as the cost of fuel in Europe resulting in an expense of 175.29 Euros each way if you drive, which at current exchange rates is about $250. This is more than double the cost of driving the same distance in the US and about double the price of a train ticket between the two European cities. Even more shocking is the time it takes to travel this distance on a train in Europe compared to the United States. In Europe, it takes about 4 hours to go 780 miles compared to the US where it takes twenty hours, five times as long.

Of course, driving becomes the most affordable option when you put more than one person in the car, but the most important thing here is that it is painfully obvious why Americans rarely take the train, especially over long distances. Trains in the US simply aren’t going to get you where you are going fast or cheap, and those are far and away from the most important factors to most travelers when choosing a mode of travel.

Have you ever taken a train in the US, or in Europe? How else are they different aside from cost and speed? Would you like to see high-speed rail get built in the States? Let us know

Flights – Quotes as of 8/23 from Travelocity.com. Cheapest round trip NY to CHI and Paris to Vienna for depart Sept 12, return Sept 19.
Trains – Quotes as of 8/23 from RailEurope.com. Cheapest round trip NY to CHI and Paris to Vienna for depart Sept 12, return Sept 19.
Cars – Paris to Vienna estimated cost given by google maps, assuming 1.6 Euro per liter of fuel. NY to CHI estimated based on 27.5 MPG cars and $3.40 per gallon of fuel and driving the speed limit on every road.

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