Rupert Cornwell: Is the American railroad dream back on track?

National Train Day: After decades of neglect, now is the time for the US to bring its investment in trains up to speed

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You are forgiven for being unaware of it – for so, probably, are 300 million Americans. But next Saturday, the US will be celebrating National Train Day.

The event marks the anniversary of the driving, in May 1869, of the famous Golden Spike along the section of the first transcontinental railroad at Promontory Summit in Utah where the tracks from east and west first met. Amtrak, the national passenger rail company, is as usual laying on much jollification at big city stations around the country. This year, however, aficionados may feel a genuine tingle of excitement in the air. Whisper it with much caution but, just possibly, the train is on the way back in America.

Rail travel in the US is a conflict between dreams and grim reality, in which the latter has long since prevailed. We all know the dream, of look-out carriages and cocktail bars, and movies such as North by Northwest, with Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint playing elegant hide-and-seek in the sleeper car. It is a magical world of ever-changing landscapes, of whistles echoing across the empty prairie – but one in which, amazingly, the trains also run on time. Maybe it really was like that, back in the 1940s and 1950s, before jet planes whisked you from New York to Los Angeles in five hours flat. But I will never know.

Half a century later, however, I at least had a brush with the dream. It was in Wisconsin on a late October day in 1992. George Bush Snr was about to lose the presidency to Bill Clinton, and you could feel it in the air. Putting a brave face on the looming disaster, Bush embarked on a Harry Truman-style whistle-stop tour. We reporters tagged along in the look-out car, watching the fading colours of autumn slip by outside. The fact that defeat was preordained only made the occasion more elegiac and mournful.

Even now, when you enter some of the great cathedrals to America's railway age, such as the Union Stations in Washington and St Louis, or Grand Central Station in New York, the dream briefly comes alive. But then you descend to the business end of proceedings: to the grimy platforms, barely functional trains and endless delays, and reality takes over.

Mostly, though, there's not a cathedral to greet you. In 1962 they ripped down New York's wonderful old Penn Station, all pink granite and Doric columns, and stuck the replacement under a new Madison Square Garden sports arena.

The "new"Penn Station, commuter hub and pivot of Amtrak's flagship East Coast route, boasts of being the busiest centre for passenger travel in the US. It is, however, incontestably the most unpleasant: a shabby, crowded and fetid pit. Somewhere down below surely flow not only rail lines but the river Styx. As a monument to the decline of passenger rail in the US, nothing beats it.

To be fair, long-distance rail travel in the US can still be fun, if you're a patient, forgiving sort. But don't expect high speed, and certainly not punctuality. The Acela service between Washington and New York, the fastest of all, covers the 220 miles in around two and three-quarter hours, at what, by foreign standards, is a plodding average of 80mph. And that's if you're lucky.

In my experience, the Acela has an on-time record of roughly 50 per cent. But at least in the north-east Amtrak has a dedicated track. Elsewhere, it must use lines owned by freight companies – which means that if one of those mile-long goods trains is in the vicinity, the passenger train must back into a siding to let it trundle through.

So why not build more track, you ask? The problem is that no one has really lobbied for Amtrak. This allows Congress periodically to indulge in a self-righteous fit of fiscal rectitude and refuse more money, even though Amtrak's annual subsidy of $1.5bn is a budgetary pittance, and railways everywhere need public funding if they are to function efficiently as a public service.

But a tipping point has surely now arrived. Before becoming vice-president, Joe Biden was America's most famous commuter, a regular on the 70-minute Acela trip between Washington and Wilmington in his home state of Delaware. Barack Obama is another believer, insisting on $8bn for high-speed rail in last year's $787bn stimulus package.

Above all, everything argues for a reversal of the decades of neglect of rail travel here. Along the Washington-New York-Boston corridor especially, airspace is horribly congested. With oil and petrol prices set to surge, the car will be a less attractive alternative. In terms of climate friendliness, too, trains win hands down. And awareness is growing that, when it comes to trains, the US is a laggard. America being America, that state of affairs is unlikely to last.

Tellingly, the big beasts are gathering at the trough. Local radio in Washington DC, for instance, is full of ads by Siemens, the German leader in the field, holding out the vision of speed, comfort, energy efficiency – not to mention thousands of good jobs for Americans, building a new generation of trains, here in the good old USA.

No one is suggesting European-style high-speed trains for transcontinental trips. But they are ideal for European-length journeys – up and down the East Coast; along the West Coast, between Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Oregon and Seattle (and why not Vancouver, too?); and on high-density routes between cities such as Chicago and St Louis, Dallas and Houston, and Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Cleveland.

Naturally, all this is a good way off. But when better to fantasise that reality may at last catch up with the dream than on National Train Day 2010?

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