Why the hell is train travel still so expensive?

Train travel was so simple once.

Trains! We want so desperately to love you, use you and abuse you to cut travel scars across the great big face of this countryside like those lucky jerks in Europe. And it would be nice to not be forced to relinquish our liquids before we board, or be crammed in like cattle on the Megabus, be forced to suffer interminable delays watching airport CNN ad nauseum or feel guilty about guzzling up fuel and spraying it across the sky. Yet every time we go to book a trip on you, your prices are practically as high as riding on an airplane, which makes none much sense at all.

This very week, Amtrak is testing a 165-mph high-speed train, which still clocks in 40-100mph slower than the ones in Europe and Asia. While we wait for super speed rail to come along (or until they discover that motor from Atlas Shrugged, at least): Amtrak is having a sale this week: It’s $25 to go one way to Philly or $29 to Wilmington, Del., which, come to think of it, is not really a deal over taking the bus, seeing as a one-way to Philly normally runs about $36. You have to book by Thursday, and the travel is only good for Nov. 28 – Dec. 13. So that kinda sucks. Does anyone out there take trains regularly any more? 

For an answer about why Amtrak is so expensive, you can check out these Quora answers, which go into the whole political hot-potato aspect of it, including underfunded government subsidies, unionized rail workers and high operating costs. It won’t make you feel any more optimistic about the future of train travel, especially when you realize Amtrak hasn’t been profitable since 1971.

The Baltimore Sun reports even plans for that new Amtrak system upgrade and speed train they’re testing still lack a dedicated funding source.

Price aside, wouldn’t we all rather travel by train? It was how I first visited my family in NJ when I left for college in DC, and you can’t help but feel the old world romanticism rumbling up with every clackety clack as you cross the seaboard, pausing from reading your novel or scratching in your moleskine to gaze pensively at the countryside out the window. Traveling by airplane is sort of a warp zone flyover thing, where you can fall asleep on on coast and wake up on another; traveling by bus gets tiresome as you stare at the hypnotic gray highway pavement as all of I95 blends together.

Train travel you at least get the sense of the physical distance you are cutting across. You can blame Before Sunrise for instilling a generation of young men with fantasies of meeting dream girls on trains in that special space of free fall between there and here when you’ve got nothing better to do.

But romanticism falls flat against the wall of cold hard fiscal reality. So I’ll stick with the Chinatown buses and their ilk for now. Because $10 for a bus ride to Philly beats a “sale” price of $25 any day.


  1. conaldarcy

    I read somewhere that passenger rail has never really been profitable (except perhaps before automobiles), but was always subsidized by freight. Once trucking took over most of the transportation of goods, freight rail lost money and passenger rail needed to up the costs.

    Damn shame, really. I love riding trains.

    • ianmac47

      The truth is passenger transportation has never really been profitable. Buses and driving appears cheaper, but only because its so heavily subsidized through federal tax dollars for the interstate highway system. Over the lifetime of Amtrak, the federal highway system has received somewhere in the neighborhood of 10x more federal money.

      In the US, Congress has chosen the automobile as the big winner, mostly because automobile companies in the middle part of the last century wielded more political power than the railroads. This system worked well as long as the world wanted our cars. We exported Fords and Chryslers and blue collar union members had a middle class lifestyle. But the world changed, and our car companies didn’t. Now we not only import better, cheaper cars, but also the vast majority of rail technology. Its not much of a coincidence that rail service in Japan and Germany are faster, cheaper and more efficient, and that whenever we buy new subways, light rails, train engines, and rolling stock, it comes from either of those places.

  2. beezy

    $25 one-way is a total deal!

    Amtrak is comfier, more convenient, and door-to-door faster than air travel within the Northeast Corridor (DC/Baltimore/Philly/New York/Boston). Not to mention that you can buy beer onboard, the food is better than airline food, you have wifi/cell service for free.

    Megabus is marginally less expensive than $36, [consider the extra $20 to the cost of your entire trip] but significantly less comfortable and god forbid you try to come back to NYC on a Sunday evening via the Lincoln Tunnel. The Chinatown bus is even cheaper, but comes with zero accommodations and no guarantee of a seat (true fact: if you’re white, you will probably get a seat. Everyone else, good luck).

  3. versayce

    I took Amtrak from NYC -> Montreal for about $60 each way, which is a lot cheaper than flying or renting a car. I think Greyhound is slightly less, but it’s definitely less comfortable, though a shorter ride.

  4. $25 to go to Philly is really pretty decent. You could spend close to that much on gas if you were driving. Yes, the Chinatown bus is dirt cheap, but they don’t have particularly stellar records of safety or reliability.

    Anyway – if you join the Amtrak membership rewards program, you can get some really good deals, especially if you get the credit card. I’ve got a few free trips to Boston worth saved up, just from charging a few day-to-day expenses to that card over the course of this year.

    As for the general issue of cost-competitiveness – the reason it’s generally cheaper to travel on roads than on rails is that roads are supported by billions and billions in Federal funding. Amtrak gets much less support. The idea that a mass transit agency should be profitable is a bit screwy – it exists to provide a public service. Do you think that roads and highways earn a profit for the government? No, in fact, they’re a much, much vaster money hole than train travel, because they’re inherently so much less efficient.

  5. I also remember reading that US freight rail is actually quite good, and that as a result we don’t have as much freight trucking clogging up the roads. So just imagine how much traffic Bolt Bus would run into if we were shipping coal on the highway instead of via rail.

    Wish I could remember where I read that, though.

  6. Bill Gerhart

    I really wanted to go back to New Jersey for my reunion by rail. Unfortunately, from Ft. Lauderdale it is over $100 more expensive to go by rail, than to arrive 8 times faster by plane!

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