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?