“All aboard”: Ten planning lessons from riding USA railways

Moonlight over Fort Madison, Iowa

After completing a long-distance trip across much of the United States this week, it seemed appropriate to list those planning lessons learned from this and previous rail travel experiences. While much of my ridership has been in urban settings in cities across the United States, Canada, and parts of Europe, lengthier trips include, but are not limited to:

  • 2005 – Anchorage, AK to Fairbanks, AK
  • 2009 – Manchester, UK to Edinburgh, UK
  • 2009 – Edinburgh, UK to Oban, UK
  • 2009 – Inverness, UK to Edinburgh, UK
  • 2012 – Indianapolis, IN to Chicago, IL to East Lansing, MI
  • 2013 – Dublin, Ireland to Ennis, Ireland to Killarney, Ireland and back
  • 2014 – Windsor, ON to Toronto, ON to Vancouver, BC
  • 2022 – East Lansing, MI to Chicago, IL to Albuquerque, NM

Here are the ten planning lessons derived from this week’s trip and previous ones in the United States with some additional comments/details shown in italics. Peace!

Station in La Junta, Colorado

  • Those cities with passenger rail service have a notable advantage over those without it, as rail offers the traveling public another affordable transportation option. FYI – It should be noted that overnight travel by “bedette” or sleeper can be quite pricey here in the states. Ways to make such options more affordable should be explored, beyond just offering the “BidUp” option.
  • Passenger rail services, whether intercity or local, occupy considerably less land area than highways. This allows railways to traverse both dense urban landscapes and stunning scenic areas with fewer negative impacts compared to highways.
  • Whenever possible and practical, railway stations/depots should be always designed/redesigned as multimodal hubs that interconnects with other trains, intercity bus lines, mass transit, scooters, rental cars, taxi/car hires, and bicycle options.
  • Not enough cities/places take intercity passenger rail seriously enough to market themselves to passengers. They are missing out on the enormous potential of added visitors and tourism dollars. Above is a sticker promoting Milwaukee to train passengers on the Bluewater Line between Michigan and Chicago.
  • Intercity rail certainly introduces passengers to the grimey industrial underbelly of many cities. These corridors should be viewed as community gateways where a good first impression is important. Enhancement and beautification efforts could include decorative landscaping, welcoming signage, trash/debris/junk/graffiti removal, multi-use trails, greenways/nature corridors, art installations, and non-intrusive light displays.

Reflecting on train travel

  • Given the common occurrence of delays, cancellations, and postponements of airline flights, a consistent and relaxing transportation alternative is most welcome…especially one with lots of legroom and space to move about. BTW – for those who think trains are never on time – all of our trips on Amtrak over the past two weeks departed exactly on time and arrived either early or on time, including the longest stretch between Chicago and Albuquerque which arrived 10 minutes early.
  • As enjoyable as train travel can be, there are times where one begins to feel cooped-up like a sardine similar to a long-distance flight. While lounge cars and brief fresh air stops help, perhaps other ideas should be considered, such as a fitness/exercise car, one extended fresh stop depending on travel distance, a changing room/larger bathrooms for coach passengers, or employing outside air through the passenger cars instead of recirculated air. BTW, when we rode VIARail across Canada in 2014, extended fresh air stops of 2-3 hours were offered in Winnipeg and Jasper. This also gave passengers a chance to spend money while in those cities. These proved to be great chances to explore, exercise, and decompress. Meanwhile along Amtrak, the longest break offered this week was in the 30-45 minute range.
  • Somehow, the cost to build new rail lines, even in less densely built places in the United States, must be brought more in line with our European counterparts. It should not be multiple times costlier to add/extend rail options here.
  • One wonders how much time and money could be saved by double-tracking more rail segments where freight and passenger service are currently using a single track or where there is significant freight traffic operating in both directions.
  • There is a sweet spot between too many stops and too few along a rail corridor, whether it’s a commuter  line or cross-country one. During peak operating hours, express trains should be prioritized on commuter lines, particularly those tied to a time-sensitive connection like an airport or another intercity rail/bus station. For cross-country lines, stops should be based on usage, not past history.

Somewhere in Southeastern Colorado


If you love train travel or are just intrigued by railways in general, here are two books that may interest you, which are available though Amazon.com*

…….Link – Amtrak……………………………………….Link – A Kiwi on the Amtrak Tracks

*A small commission is earned from purchases that are made using the above links to Amazon. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

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