The charms of low-speed rail
September 25, 2009, 6:24 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized
Somewhere along the way...

Somewhere along the way...

I do not deny either the charms of  high speed rail, nor the economic and social/cultural case for it in a lot of markets. In the UK I am not sure about the routes being proposed — the ideas feel too London-centric and Scotland-tropic — and worried that pricing will be a pitfall. People fly Edinburgh to London not because they want to but because it is for the most part a lot cheaper; TGV works because of TGV pricing.  (On the routes, since you ask: make Birmingham the high-speed hub to the greatest extent possible, with direct lines  to Stratford and thus Chunnel, Leeds via Manchester, Bristol via Heathrow on an L-shaped line that eventually carries on to Cardiff over the top of the Severn Barrage. Birmingham to Glasgow/Edinburgh via Manchester (or Liverpool) later, maybe after direct Exeter-Bristol-Birmingham line.)

But that is all by the by. What I meant to post to say is that low speed rail has charms too. Last month I went from Denver to San Francisco with Amtrak, a journey that took a  34 hours: 08:00 from Denver and delivered by bus to the Caltrain depot at about 17:30. The train was rerouted North, up the front range and then across the very empty bottom of Wisconsin Wyoming [Doh! Why do I keep doing that? Thanks Kevin] before getting to Ogden and Salt Lake City; then through Utah and over the Donner Pass and down into California. Not as scenic as the route due West from Denver, but not too bad (and means I have the other route to look forward to some other time). I had time to read the best part of two good books (Patricia Nelson Limerick’s wonderful Something in the Soil, picked up at the equally wonderful Tattered Cover and much enjoyed, and Mike Hulme’s very stimulating Why We Disagree About Climate Change, which I should review here sometime), to listen to some podcasts and music, watch a good chunk of the second season of Friday Night Lights (Jesse Plemons, inter alia, is just terrific), get a moderately good night’s sleep and stare out of the window at deserts, bison, mountains, forests, coal trains, the moon, windfarms (a lot of windfarms), emptiness, America, and all that. All in all pretty terrific. Good for a road warrior on a tight schedule? No. Calming and enriching? Yes. Cheap, too.

And yet there is only one train a day and it is more than half empty. I’ve never done a trip of similar distance by road, so can’t say if that really has greater charms, but sort of doubt it. Why do not more people see the charms of this? Is everyone really that rushed? Or do other people find it easy to take time out in the normal run of things, and not have to spend 1000 miles or whatever in a metal can in order to calm down and chill out?


3 Comments so far
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…across the very empty bottom of Wisconsin…

I think you mean “Wyoming” — quite a difference, really.

I took that trip on the California Zephyr the opposite direction earlier this year, and was also routed over the northern route as part of a long trip that went Salem OR – Emeryville CA – Chicago IL – Schenectady NY – Montreal QC, returning by way of Schenectady, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

I fly because I must most of the time, but sometimes, when I have the choice, I’d much rather take the train.

Comment by Kevin Standlee

Damn those pop-ups.

But I digress; I too love train travel, but time and pricing are currently against it, mostly I suspect because of externalities. It would be nice to think that some of that thought about the carbon footprint of different forms of travel might be brought to bear on pricing rail, especially in Europe. It’d also be nice to think that Bosses would appreciate the value of time spent traveling slowly.

Comment by Jeremy

Just looked in to getting to Copenhagen by train for Cop15. Mid afternoon eurostar departure for Brussels then Cologne on the Thalys, then sleeper — about 18 hours all in and no idea of price. Changes detract from the fun though.

Comment by Oliver

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