Amtrak Absurdities. And David Bowie.

I’m not going to make an argument for train travel in the US. Even a contrarian like me knows that’s a hopeless case. But I’ve been reading about trains lately and have amassed a bunch of fragments that I’ll stuff into this virtual cabinet of curiosities in case someone else can use them.

Train travel is 30-40 percent more fuel efficient per passenger mile than air or auto

Let’s go from Atlanta to Chicago. Here are our choices:

  1. We could drive. It’s 718 miles and would take  12 hours. Fuel costs for a 2008 Corolla: $52.
  2. We could fly. Here’s a fare for $167. Flight time: 1  hr, 43 min.
  3. Or we could take Amtrak.  Cost is $245 one way, and we’d be there in only 37 hours, 41 minutes. I am not kidding.

Major Population Centers (# ranked) in the US not served by any passenger trains.

  • # 6 Phoenix, AZ
  • # 15 Columbus, OH
  • # 25 Nashville, TN
  • # 27 Louisville, KY
  • # 30 Las Vegas, NV

As car ownership and the Interstates grew, passenger rail travel options decreased.

  • 85% fewer passenger cars operated in 1965 than in 1929. When Amtrak was established in May 1971, all but 182 of the 364 passenger trains that operated on April 30, 1971 were discontinued. Now it operates 44 routes.

Total km of Track (from CIA Factbook):

  • European Union: 228,710 km (2010). The land area of the EU is less than one-half the size of the US
  • US: 224,792 km
  • Russia:  117,157 km
  • Germany:  41,981 km. World rank #6. Germany is slightly smaller than Montana with the fifth largest economy in the world
  • France: 29,640 km. World rank #9. France is slightly less than the size of Texas
  • Japan: 26,435 km
  • of Roadways: United States: 6,506,204 km. European Union: 5,814,080 km
  • Oil Consumption: United States 18,690,000 barrels per day. European Union 13,630,000 barrels per day
  • Natural Gas Consumption: 1 United States 646,600,000,000 cubic m. European Union 487,900,000,000 cubic m
  • Oil Imports: United States 11,310,000 barrels per day. European Union 8,613,000 barrels per day


  • The first gas shortage in 1977 could have seen a return to passenger rail. Instead, the number of routes continued its decline. So much for energy conservation political posturing then — or now.
  • Having roadways doesn’t mean you can’t also have passenger trains.
  • The rails are in place in the US: why aren’t they used for people as well as freight?
  • If Americans don’t want to use public transportation, why do they fly? If supporting a national rail system is socialism, wouldn’t the same be true of supporting an interstate highway system (arguably the largest Big Government Federal social engineering event in US history).

Amtrak’s Greatest Missed Opportunity?

”]Between 1972 and 1976, David Bowie toured the US five times. He didn’t fly a single mile, and in fact, took ocean liners across the Atlantic. In the US, he used buses — and Amtrak. He made multiple trips on the Super Chief (aka Southwest Limited) between LA and Chicago. He rode the Floridian, which ran from Chicago through Louisville KY, Nashville TN, Birmingham AL, Jacksonville FL, and down to Miami (and points in between), which was shut down in October 1979. He took the Coast Starlight from Seattle to LA, and the Sunset Limited for Phoenix. This is a trip he couldn’t take today. And others.

Too bad no one was paying attention. Would passenger train travel be different today if someone had?

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