The Golden Age

In response to criticisms about cramped planes, poor service, and hidden fees, commercial airline pilot and ask-a-pilot author Patrick Smith opines in the New York Times that there really was no golden age of air travel. “Yes, things were once a little more comfortable,” he says, but air travel costs only half as much today as it did 35 years ago. This is conservative: using the consumer price index, the average fare per passenger mile was 32.5 cents in 1980 compared with 14.2 cents in 2013, the latest year for which data are available.

Moreover, Smith says, more planes go more places with fewer stopovers shortening overall travel times. So even though there’s a little less legroom (“but only slightly”), travel times are shorter. He concludes by asking, “Do you really want to travel like people did in the 1960s? Are you sure?”

In the same way people nostalgically recall a golden age of air travel, many nostalgically think back to a supposed golden age of rail travel. Yet this was so long ago–roughly 1895 to 1925–that few people alive can really remember it. The nostalgia buffs remember that there were 9,000 intercity trains a day in 1920. What they forget is that those trains were expensive, slow, and uncomfortable. We can somewhat remedy the latter two problems today, but only by making them even more expensive.

In 1926, a trip from Chicago to Seattle with a berth in a sleeping car cost close to $300. That doesn’t sound too bad, but in today’s money it is $4,000. This high cost kept most people from using the trains. Rail travel peaked in about 1920 when, not counting commuter trains, the average American rode intercity trains less than 400 miles a year. Since the average American travels close to 15,000 miles a year today by automobile alone, 1920’s train travel is little more than a rounding error today.

The trains people rode in 1920 were slow, averaging around 25 miles per hour. What was perhaps the fastest train in 1920–the Twentieth Century Limited–averaged 49 mph from New York to Chicago. The fastest train in the hotly competitive Chicago-Twin Cities market went just 34 mph. Many trains averaged less than 20 mph.

One reason why trains were slow was that the cost of track construction and maintenance grows exponentially with speed: doubling speed more than doubles infrastructure costs. In the 1930s–what I call the Silver Age of passenger trains–railroads responded to growing auto ownership by running high-speed trains–trains whose top speeds were 100 mph or more–in several major corridors. But such high speeds could only be justified by high ridership. Counting intermediate stops, the fastest trains in the country averaged 71 miles per hour, but most trains were much slower, with a nationwide average of around 35 mph.

During the golden age of rail travel, the wealthiest–what we could call the 1 percent–got to ride in private compartments for overnight travel and parlor cars for day travel. But most couldn’t afford that, so those who were merely well off–perhaps 25 percent–rode in sections–seats that folded down into beds separated by curtains at night–for overnight travel and in stiff coach seats for day travel. The vast majority of people rode trains, at most, once or twice in their life times, and didn’t even enjoy these amenities. Air conditioning wasn’t available to anyone until the end of the 1920s, and most trains didn’t have it until the end of the 1930s.

Today’s trains are air conditioned and somewhat faster and more comfortable than trains from the 1920s. In the Northeast Corridor, the Acela averages 78 mph, while other trains average 56 mph. Outside the Boston-Washington corridor, Amtrak trains average 45 to 50 mph.

Trains are still very expensive. Airfares average 14 cents a passenger mile, intercity bus fares average about 10 cents, and driving averages 25 cents. But Amtrak fares average 34 cents per passenger mile, and the high-speed Acela collects 93 cents a passenger mile. Subsidies to Amtrak average 22 cents per passenger mile, compared with 2 cents for air and auto/bus travel. (Amtrak claims the Acela makes money, but that’s only by not counting maintenance costs or that pesky $50 billion maintenance backlog in the Northeast Corridor.) That means (including subsidies) rail travel is twice as expensive as driving, three times as expensive as air travel, and more than four times as expensive as intercity buses.

While 9,000 trains a day sounds like a lot compared with Amtrak’s 300 or so, it really isn’t many for a country the size of the United States. Switzerland, which is about the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined and whose total rail system is barely long enough to extend from New York to Los Angeles, has 9,000 trains a day today. Around 17.3 percent of all surface passenger travel in Switzerland is by intercity train, compared with less than two tenths of a percent in the United States. To attract all those riders, Switzerland has four times as many miles of railroad per square mile of land as the United States.

So what would it take to get 18 percent of travel onto trains? To have as many trains as Switzerland, proportional to population, the United States would have to run more than 340,000 trains a day. Proportional to land area the number would have to be 1.5 million a day. European trains subsidies per passenger mile are comparable to Amtrak subsidies. Since Amtrak loses about $1.5 billion a year running less than 340 trains a day, it is likely that that the operating losses from running at least 340,000 trains a day would be more than $1.5 trillion a year, while the capital costs would be in the tens of trillions of dollars. And after spending all that money, 83 percent of automobiles would still be on the intercity highways.

So the golden age of rail travel wasn’t really that golden, at least for most Americans. However, the name is apropos as it would take a lot of gold to try to make rail travel even marginally significant in the United States today. So, do you really want to travel by train like people did in 1920? Are you sure?

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15 thoughts on “The Golden Age

  1. prk166

    Speaking of the golden day of air travel, it reminds me of a decade or so ago when the then CEO of Delta was interviewed for an article. This was after Southwest ( SWA ) had a streak of profits, many recently being due to fuel hedging. The CEO stated that Delta didn’t do fuel hedging, it wasn’t something that airlines did. Yet for some reason they were still providing a meal on longer flights as part of the ticket. Airlines were in the biz of carting around food but not in fueling their machines, eh?

    The funny thing is that within a few years they had dropped meals on flights as part of the ticket, at least in coach. And they had also turned around and pulled the hair-brained scheme of buying an old refinery outside of Philly . I’ll bet he misses the good ol’ days! 🙂

  2. prk166


    The nostalgia buffs remember that there were 9,000 intercity trains a day in 1920. What they forget is that those trains were expensive, slow, and uncomfortable.
    “~Anti-planner

    I was wondering about this the other day. I was finished up reading Grant’s Twilight Rails and was wondering how many passenger trains there used to be. More so I was wondering how many of them were of the Twin Cities 400 or the Hiawatha. How many of those premier passenger trains were there compared to the passenger trains that were mixed freight on some short line or some gas powered car playing the rails of the midwest prairie?

  3. C. P. Zilliacus

    The Antiplanner wrote:

    So even though there’s a little less legroom (“but only slightly”), travel times are shorter. He concludes by asking, “Do you really want to travel like people did in the 1960s? Are you sure?”

    That’s the my biggest gripe when it comes to air travel – the lack of room for my legs. That hurts and possibly lead to (or increase the risk of) deep vein thrombosis.

    The sometimes obnoxious behavior of air passengers, full aircraft, the queues for the TSA’s “security theatre,” and other hassles related to air travel are annoying but otherwise things i can deal with.

    That means (including subsidies) rail travel is twice as expensive as driving, three times as expensive as air travel, and more than four times as expensive as intercity buses.

    This just in and relevant to this discussion: Amtrak and Express Coach Lines: What’s Competition Have To Do With It?

  4. paul

    There are many differences between Switzerland and the United States. The country has very little arable land and that is concentrated in the valleys where the people then live. It was therefore easier to build railroads along these corridors and not have to fan out to serve flat areas with a diffuse population. An abundance of hydro power couples with having to import oil and coal makes electric railways economically attractive. Because of the geography the towns are densely concentrated around a city center and there is great reluctance to allow more building on the arable land around cities and towns. This results in cities being more walk able and less car friendly. This results in most Swiss living in relatively small apartments or condominiums. Swiss people I have talked with use the English words “condominium” and “house” interchangeably and don’t seem to make a distinction if housing is multi unit or separate. Housing is hugely expensive. I know a Canadian who was offered a position in Zurich for US$180,000 per year in 1995. After he realized how far out of Zurich he would have to live in order to afford to buy property he declined the position.

    Switzerland also has a huge advantage of many foreigners wanting to visit or travel across Switzerland. To drive on their freeways requires a sticker on the car that is good for a relatively long period of time, such as a month. So anyone driving across Switzerland for a day or a few days has to pay much more per per mile than someone who lives there. It seems everything is organized like this with Swiss residents being able to buy discount rail passes at a large discount while tourists have to pay much higher fees. This amounts to a huge travel subsidy for the Swiss to keep their railroads running.

  5. The Antiplanner Post author

    C. P. Zilliacus,

    You are taller than I am, so maybe it isn’t fair for me to say so, but legroom costs money. The major airlines now have three cabins: first, premium, and coach. Premium looks exactly like coach but has a few inches more legroom. If you are a frequent flyer, you get upgraded to premium automatically. Otherwise, it’s a small extra charge.

    First class today on many routes is less expensive than coach class was 50 years ago, so people who want more room are free to buy it, while people who want economy are free to be cramped. People who want to be subsidized so they can have more room and economy (and I know you aren’t one of those) need to rethink how the world works.

  6. C. P. Zilliacus

    The Antiplanner wrote:

    You are taller than I am, so maybe it isn’t fair for me to say so, but legroom costs money.

    Also wider. [smile]

    The major airlines now have three cabins: first, premium, and coach. Premium looks exactly like coach but has a few inches more legroom. If you are a frequent flyer, you get upgraded to premium automatically. Otherwise, it’s a small extra charge.

    When available, I have gladly paid for it. But unfortunately, not always available (and it’s not so bad for short flights, but it’s great (and worth the extra fare) on a nonstop coast-to-coast – or over the Atlantic Ocean). Note that I do not fly all that much, so my sample size of flights is limited.

    My other gripe that relates to this is that seats on aircraft are getting smaller as the population of the U.S. is getting bigger and wider.

  7. Not Sure

    “My other gripe that relates to this is that seats on aircraft are getting smaller as the population of the U.S. is getting bigger and wider.”

    Which leads to my gripe- those bigger and wider passengers are quite often not even remotely shy about intruding on the space I’ve paid for.

  8. msetty

    This post requires a detailed, multi-page reply when I have more time, but which I won’t waste on the yahoos here, other than what I can write in 20-30 minutes.

    The Antiplanner is under the impression that the current state of affairs for passenger rail and transit in the U.S. is somehow the long-term norm compared to Europe and Japan, among other places.

    But I’ve seen operating costs figures for private intercity rail operators in Europe with costs between $10 and $25 per train mile–including their share of track, overhead and access costs paid for fixed infrastructure–vs. the $100 per train mile+ for our lame excuse for a national rail system, Amtrak.

    Yes, Europeans pay large subsidies for railroad infrastructure, but that mostly covers local and regional trains, e.g., the same functional space as “commuter trains” here. Also freight service, which is often unprofitable in Europe due to very short distances, and in some cases, over-investments in marginal high speed rail lines (the most egregious cases of the latter in Spain and Italy). On an allocated cost basis, European (and Japanese) intercity passenger trains make reasonable profits and are not directly subsidized (e.g., you wouldn’t need Europe’s huge, expensive rail infrastructure and capacity except for the local and regional trains to serve a few thousand daily intercity trains, versus their tens of thousands of daily local and regional trains) .

    So I would say, contrary to Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor propaganda put out by Amtrak, on a real accounting basis as opposed to “Amtrak math” the Northeast Corridor is the real big loser. Who knows what the long distance trains actually cost, since Amtrak cost structure is still quite a mystery to outsiders. Much of the apparent NE Corridor subsidy rightfully should be assigned to the thousands of daily commuter trains, if European real world practices are any guide. Also, states like California are paying $50+/train mile for Amtrak service, though these sorts of costs are typically $20-$35 per train mile in Europe for intercity trains, depending on type of equipment, utilization and even includes less (relatively!) efficient operators like DB in Germany. Of course the Swiss are also more efficient than the Germans.

    A better guide to this issue than The Antiplanner is a recent post on Strong Towns by Chuck Marohn, http://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2017/6/4/this-is-why-infrastructure-is-so-expensive. Chuck is exasperated by the “general inefficiency” of the U.S. in infrastructure, health care, education, the Pentagon, you name it, but also has become highly wary of “pure libertarian” solutions thanks to his 2015 “debate” (sic) with The Antiplanner (http://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2015/12/8/best-of-2015-chucks-debate-with-randal-otoole.

    While U.S. operating and capital cost results in passenger rail and transit are pretty bad by European and Japanese standards (even ignoring density and similar conditions), the same is even more true of our roadway planning. The new bridges across the Ohio River in Louisville are a huge case in point. Here a multi-billion investment in 12 toll bridge lanes–-and new tolls of $1 to $4 per car–resulting in a drop from 122,000 AADT to 66,000 AADT, well within the capacity of a 4-lane bridge. http://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2017/4/26/the-latest-from-the-louisville-traffic-experiment.

    The irony is that I do agree with The Antiplanner about road pricing, but results like Louisville also strongly suggests that 98% of the new urban highway capacity suggested by “libertarians” such as the Reason Foundation and Cato Institute would probably never be needed with proper road pricing. But THIS message doesn’t sit well with these self-styled libertarians, the road construction lobby and their political patrons, let along other auto/highway apologists. The fact that road pricing would enable improved performance by transit they’re probably not too keen on either.

  9. msetty

    Preemptive strike.

    If the auto/highway/self-driving car/we “need” more urban road capacity apologists on this blog want to accuse me of being dogmatic about rail and transit, fine.

    But your side has much bigger dogmatism problems such as that revealed by the huge failure of the Louisville toll bridge mega-project failures, and the practicality of “solutions” offered by The Antiplanner, as pointed out by Marohn in his 2015 blog post I mentioned.

  10. metrosucks

    But your side has much bigger dogmatism problems such as that revealed by the huge failure of the Louisville toll bridge mega-project failures, and the practicality of “solutions” offered by The Antiplanner, as pointed out by Marohn in his 2015 blog post I mentioned.

    Odd how msetty bloviates about the failure of a single tolled facility that, for all we know, should not have even been built, but ignores the constant and predictable failure of light rail lines everywhere. He also ignores the numerous tolling success stories, with particular attention to the toll express lane projects popping up everywhere.

    How about the $1.5 billion pissed away on the Trimet Orange Line, msetty? No, I suppose that one is OK since it’s toy trains on steel rails. Even though it has pathetically small ridership and replaced already present bus service that was FASTER than the toy train, it’s still OK, because, msetty is turned on by toy trains, steel rails, and billions in developer subsidies to reorient a previously suburban area into high density paradise. (Of course, the densification campaign studiously & conveniently ignored Eastmoreland where all the government rulers and planners live). No sardine cans for our betters!

    Odd, but for a flaming hypocrite who lives on a ranch outside Napa, while telling the rest of us mundanes to live in urban sardine cans, entirely expected.

  11. the highwayman

    Most traveling is intracity and not intercity, though if you’re in a rural area then that is something else.

    Still the USA has also had 100,000+ miles of rail line stolen since WWI.

    Government is anti-rail, roads are not expected to be profitable to survive. :$

  12. CapitalistRoader

    The irony is that I do agree with The Antiplanner about road pricing, but results like Louisville also strongly suggests that 98% of the new urban highway capacity suggested by “libertarians” such as the Reason Foundation and Cato Institute would probably never be needed with proper road pricing.

    The Reason Foundation certainly does advocate congestion pricing but incrementally, not whole-hog toll road conversions like RiverLink.

    But I realize that “progressives” such as Strong Towns are vehemently anti-automobile in hopes that everyone, regardless of circumstances, will be forced to use collective, filthy, dangerous government owned vehicles.

    Because virtue:

    Sharing bus seats with strangers thrusts me into a form of the public square, which can be uncomfortable and ripe for opportunity all at the same time as I encounter a diversity of people. It strips me of my (perceived) independence. It forces me to rely on and trust other people and others’ schedules in order to get to my destination. It is humbling. Virtue is not usually one of the benefits touted by supporters of public transit, yet it can be a valuable outcome of the system. I believe public transit has the capacity to shape me for good as a person, not just my physical environment and local economy.
    Sara Joy Proppe, Learning Virtue Through Public Transit, Strong Towns, 31 May 2016

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