Rupert Cornwell: Out of America

Take me right back to the track, Jack


This week I made a rare American journey. Not in geographic terms - it was just a last-minute round trip from Washington DC to southern Connecticut, about 280 miles each way. But the distance was too far to drive, especially with New York to be either crossed or circumvented. And as a last-minute booking it was shockingly expensive by air (which didn't offer a very good connection anyway). So I committed a highly un-American act. I took the train.

The timing was very tight; I was scheduled to arrive half an hour before my meeting, while the last Amtrak express back to Washington left half an hour after it was due to end. Mindful of recent Amtrak horror stories, I packed an overnight bag, all but convinced that something would go wrong. Violent thunderstorms were being forecast, and a few weeks before, a power failure had halted all trains on the north-eastern corridor for four hours. Personal experience, too, was not encouraging. Almost always when I travel by rail here, there's some delay, for reasons mostly unexplained. In short, it was a major gamble.

But it paid off brilliantly. Both trains, Acela expresses with business-class seating, were punctual to the minute. I made the meeting easily and got home by midnight, the overnight bag untouched. And the obvious thought struck me: why can't it always be like this, trains you can trust, that run on time? Alas, Amtrak, which is a quasi-state corporation, has been a political football ever since it was set up in 1971 to take over most of what was left of America's once glorious passenger rail system. In 35 years, it has run up total debts of $3.5bn (£1.9bn) and never once made a profit. Its 2005 loss was $550m. For decades now, Amtrak has been caught in the classic dilemma, between passenger demands for a better service and demands from politicians that it tighten its belt and turn a profit.

As anyone who witnessed the post-war decline of railways in Britain will know, those two are all but irreconcilable. Trains are a social service, with a social cost, but with massive if unquantifiable social benefits as well. But under the Bush administration the Amtrak problem has come to a head. If it doesn't make money, then shut it down, say its conservative ideologues: the markets know best.

Last year they tried to get rid of Amtrak's $1.3bn subsidy in its entirety - conveniently ignoring the vastly larger per capita subsidies doled out to the airlines and road system. They failed, but the subsidy was slashed by a third, to just $900m in the proposed federal budget for 2006-07. The results of this chronic underfunding have been utterly predictable: a deterioration of essential infrastructure and a lack of maintenance which David Gunn - the Canadian who is generally regarded as the most effective chief executive in Amtrak's history - warned would bring the firm to collapse.

Then Mr Gunn went further last year, suggesting that collapse was exactly what the administration was after, as part of a grand design to break up Amtrak and part-privatise the most profitable bits. Mr Gunn's bravery in telling the truth earned him the sack in November 2005. Eight months later, no permanent replacement has been named. Amtrak, meanwhile, staggers on.

All of which makes my happy experience last week so frustrating. If ever there was a time for an American government to boost spending on rail travel, it is now, in this age of ever more congested highways and ever more stressful air travel, as petrol prices soar past the (for Americans) exorbitant level of $3 a gallon. Rail travel, moreover, requires barely half the energy per passenger mile consumed by planes and passenger cars.

The north-east corridor is not the only place suited for high-speed rail travel - take the Texas triangle of Dallas-Houston-San Antonio, or Los Angeles-San Francisco, or St Louis-Chicago-Milwaukee. Then there are slightly longer overnight sleeper routes, all of them attractive propositions.

And despite the decades of neglect, the vestiges of a great train network remain, waiting for the resurrection. A couple of months ago, I was in Abilene, Kansas, listening to locals bemoan the lack of trains to Kansas City. "But there's a station, tracks and trains. I've heard them," I said. "Yes," came the answer, "there's trains, 40 of them a day. But they're all freight."

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Project Manager

Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

IT Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Nigel Farage has urged supporters to buy Mike Read's Ukip Calypso song and push it up to the No 1 spot  

Mike Read’s Ukip calypso is mesmerisingly atrocious — but it's not racist

Matthew Norman
Shirley Shackleton, wife of late journalist Gregory Shackleton, sits next to the grave of the 'Balibo Five' in Jakarta, in 2010  

Letter from Asia: The battle for the truth behind five journalists’ deaths in Indonesia

Andrew Buncombe
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London