Planes, trains, and automobiles: A ‘progressive’ discovers that rail isn’t a viable option for the United States

Last week I took the train from the Twin Cities to Chicago for a work trip. I enjoyed it, and it set me wondering whether we ought to expand rail travel in the United States. Would this journey be a viable alternative to driving or flying for my family of four?

To answer that, I thought it would be interesting to compare journeys. Take three ways of traveling between the Twin Cities and Chicago — plane, train, and automobile — and compare the practicalities and costs of each.

This morning, I saw that I was not the only person pondering this question. Over the weekend, Laura Mitchell, Board Chair of Our Streets Minneapolis which is “Leading MN and the nation towards a future where streets prioritize public health and climate, racial & economic justice for all,” tweeted:

That is the sound of Ms. Mitchell’s train of “public health and climate, racial & economic justice for all” smashing into the buffers of reality like the Silver Streak.

What she is painfully, publicly, and belatedly discovering, is that a train journey between one station and another is only part of the story. Unless you live right next to the station and are traveling to a destination right next to the other station, you have to consider the journey at either end; to the station and from the station to your ultimate destination.

As I’ve noted before, in a country like, say, Britain, that is a reasonable description of most people and most journeys:

You can, in fact, go pretty much directly from Buckingham Palace to Edinburgh Castle by train. You walk 10 minutes to Green Park tube station, then travel on the tube for six minutes to King’s Cross St. Pancras, where you board a train to Edinburgh Waverly. Once you arrive there, its a 10 minute walk up Market Street to the Castle. From Buckingham Palace door to Edinburgh Castle door you’ve travelled about 400 miles in a little over five hours and you’ve walked for just 20 minutes. I’ve made a very similar journey from London to Edinburgh many times.

You can do the same between almost any two urban centers in the United Kingdom. If Charles III wanted to go to Anfield to watch Liverpool, he could do the couple hundred miles in about three and a half hours walking, again, for just 20 minutes. If he wanted to go and watch Leeds United play at Elland Road, he could, again, do the couple of hundred miles in about three hours walking, again, for about 20 minutes. (I could go on, but you get the picture)

One reason for this is that, in most of Britain’s urban centers, all the stuff you would want to see is clustered in the city center. They are dense, in other words. This also means that, in London say, it is very hard to live more than about 10 minutes walk from a train or Underground station.

Ms. Mitchell says that “we need to invest in making our sustainable transit cheaper and faster to truly compete with car & plane travel,” but this is delusional. The only way to make the train trip between St. Paul and Chicago quicker would be to cut out all the intervening stops but that also cuts out a lot of passengers. All the people who get on in La Crosse will have to travel to St. Paul to board the train, and how will they get there? If they are driving, they might as well just drive to Chicago. Neither will lopping off a load of paying customers make the service cheaper since the fixed costs will have to be spread over fewer customers.

The United States isn’t Britain. Its transport needs are, therefore, obviously very different. Educations rarely come as clearly as Ms. Mitchell’s, but they do come.