More choo-choos please.
November 16, 2010 12:54 PM   Subscribe

What can I do as a regular citizen to promote passenger train travel in the United States?

Recently, my husband and I took the Amtrak Empire Builder from Minneapolis/St. Paul to Seattle and back. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and can't wait to travel by train again. After reading the recent passenger train thread on MeFi, I'm curious to learn more about the state of the rail industry. And I'd like to know what can I do as a regular citizen to help endorse train travel and help develop it further.

Do we write congresspersons? Plead with Amtrak? Talk to city leaders?

Who do we talk to about this? People in my area are very curious about train travel, but our closest Amtrak station is Omaha - three hours away. I technically live in Minnesota, but my interests and focus is on South Dakota. If I write to congresspeople that I can't even vote for, will they care what I have to say? What kind of people get the ball rolling to develop new routes?

I guess if the answer is that I can do nothing, I can accept that. I'd like to learn what I could, however. Thanks in advance.
posted by bristolcat to Travel & Transportation (11 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
From a non US resident, I wonder if the TSA nudity v groping option at airports will get people more interested in alternative travel methods - you could start a blog about your train travels, comment frequently on other blogs, forums - with a fair amount of work you could get "a name" in a relatively short space of time then contacting those in power would be a little easier?

(I'm about to try the same in a completely unrelated field so maybe I have overly optimistic expectations but I have in the distant past written a moderately successful blog so you never know.)
posted by ceri richard at 1:00 PM on November 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: There is a National Association of Railroad Passengers which lobbies Congress.
posted by enn at 1:02 PM on November 16, 2010 [5 favorites]

I'm not sure if your question is directed at promoting it to government / authority figures or promoting it to the general public, but if you wanted to sell ME on it (I'm 90% sold already, but...), tell me how much more comfortable I'd be on a train as opposed to other methods. Tell me that I don't have to submit to a pornoscan or preflight groping. Basically, tell me the advantages. Maybe start a blog discussing The Glory of The Rail.

I think people in the US in general are simply not sure what a train ride would even be. I know I don't for certain, although I'm planning to do my first in the next few months. Help people see why trains are a better choice.

Get people clamoring towards the trains, and business and government interest follows. Marketing people and statisticians everywhere will notice the trend, and the development dollars will follow the consumers.
posted by frwagon at 1:20 PM on November 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

I am sure there will be better answers than mine, but talking to people about it is a great start. I love the train and look for opportunities to use it regularly, but many people have never tried it, or are put off by the expense. The main things to emphasize are, I think, these:

-no hassle of bag checking, security, airport parking and related fees, etc.
-being able to walk about, stretch your legs
-opportunity to meet and chat with strangers if you want
-bring your own food, buy aboard, or buy at station stops
-opportunity to customize on long trips, hopping on and off
-stations more likely to be located in city centers rather than distant outskirts, so you can step off the train and explore a downtown, museums, etc using public transport or on foot - try that with airplanes
-on relatively short trips (say, Boston to NYC or DC) taking the train can actually be faster end to end than flying, once you factor in ground transport to and from the airport and check-in time and the possibility of delays

It couldn't hurt to write a letter to the editor of the paper in some of the towns whose depots you stopped at, mentioning how the train brought you to the town in comfort and how much you enjoyed your visit, how you might not have stopped there had the train not brought you, etc.
posted by Miko at 1:36 PM on November 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

I LOVE trains! From Ann Arbor to Chicago in about 4 hours it is wonderful! A couple delays from time to time, but its very smooth, have more room. One is able to go to the food car and have a cocktail or two (or three ;))
Plus you have the scenery by rail that can be very beautiful.
No grooping, intergations or problems with any agencies. I only wish we built more rails. Another positive for trains is cost. Its cheaper than flying or driving when you figure out gas, parking and whatnot.
posted by handbanana at 1:38 PM on November 16, 2010

These links are from the Robert Cruickshank's blog, the California High Speed Rail Blog (

HSR Updates -

Midwest High-Speed Rail Blog -

Midwest HSR Association -

US HSR Association -

[full disclosure: my company has a contract with CHSRA, but I do not represent my company in this post, and i am unfamiliar with these organizations.]
posted by samthemander at 1:42 PM on November 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Vote and volunteer for and donate to Democrats.
posted by nicwolff at 2:11 PM on November 16, 2010

For a little light reading & some ideas, you might enjoy Waiting on a Train, in which the author writes about the US train system...while traveling by train. Fascinating stuff. It looks like there's a lot of state-level activity at the moment, FWIW, mostly in departments of transportation.
posted by epersonae at 4:03 PM on November 16, 2010

Traveled by train, round-trip Austin to Chicago, first US train trip (other than in town commuter trains) in over thirty years, my first trip to Texas, Chicago to Houston, a route that doesn't even exist anymore. I enjoyed the trip, but I do have time, and I love to read and to people-watch and just brain-scatter as the world flows by, and all these activities are perfect for a train trip.

Young people, a few people from outside the US, people who live in the in-between places not served by airline, and poor people -- that's who I saw, and met. A number of drunks, they brought their own bottles and spent their time getting plastered in the lounge car and told really stupid, drunken jokes, both in the lounge car and when they came back into the regular passenger section to snooze it off, good reminders not to drink to excess. (I don't drink but maybe you need the reminders; I've got my past to remind me.) I traveled in summer; you may see less young people, less people from outside the states, less vacationing in general if you're not traveling in summer months; I don't know, but I expect so.

I should say that I don't know yet, because I intend to travel by rail or drive from now on; I don't want to be violated any longer, last autumn was it for me, twice ran through "extra" processing, because they can. Our rights are going very fast, and that's about all I'm going to say in this particular thread, don't want to derail it. As it were.

That said, I did need to present *official documentation* to pick up my ticket, to purchase my ticket if I recall correctly, to board the train. There are loops of recorded insanity playing in the stations, and also the guys on the train make these announcements, telling any and all passengers that the train can be searched at any time, blah blah blah. In Chicago, on the way back, we literally almost did not make it onto the train because of the officiousness of some doof who held us all in line, like kindergartners for their cookies. To ride a train. Sweet, huh?

Regardless. I really enjoyed the trip, I love going down the steps and opening the windows in the doors that the signs say not to open, and look out those windows at the world streaming by. (DON'T stick your head out if you do this, I barely even put my hand out, to catch the breeze.) A couple of times the train guys -- conductors, are they still called conductors? -- came down the steps and got all frowny but I just treated them as people and they did the same with me, and we watched the world streaming by together, except for one, new to the job I'd bet. I'm from the Chicago area originally, I know Illinois well, which doesn't mean I like it but I sortof love it, maybe like a dorky cousin, and it's really nice to watch it unfold without having to have your hand on the steering wheel, plus WAY up higher than in any old car.

Texas, too, which I know quite well, watching it change from the red-dirt piney woods of East Texas and into flats and then almost into the hill country as we slide into Austin, you can see bits of the hill county beginnings. Again, you're not going to be able to see this from a car.

I met a great woman, Mette, from Denmark, on the way back to Austin, and we chatted off/on for much of the trip, and once she got over thinking I was maybe hitting on her -- which I maybe was, though probably not -- we really had some fun, talking about Danish culture and US culture, and my paternal people are from Denmark, one of the reasons I was in Chicago was to meet for the first time one of my Danish cousins at a family reunion, and I love Danish movies, and blah blah blah, we really did have lots to talk about. She speaks five languages and teaches three, a grade school language teacher in Copenhagen; we've kept light email correspondence, she sent me an email Sunday, I sent back last night.

Also. Time. You get time to leave where you've left and prepare to get where you're going; I love this piece of it. With my cell phone I didn't have as much time as I otherwise might, I may in future trips turn it to silent and tuck it away most of the time. I didn't take my puter so I don't know that there was internet connection, I don't recall for sure, if I had to bet I'd say no. Not yet, anyways. I'll take my puter on any future trips, for sure, a great time to write.

Get ready for long waits as the train gets off onto a secondary track so a freight can go past. But don't get huffy about it, as you might think you will, as they kept to schedule pretty well; apparently these waits are expected, and they leave room for them.

Cons. If you get in a car with someone you might not want to be with, maybe even someone dreadful, 27 hours is a lot longer than two and a half hours. For the most part, on the route I was on there was lots of empty seats, so I could have moved if I'd really wanted to, but I took it as part of the experience, I think I know a little bit now what it's like to be married.

Food. Yes, they call it food. When's the last time you ate food from the fast food section of a convenience store, the kind you take out of the cooler and heat in the microwave and then force yourself to put it into your head, knowing the whole time that you're destroying your body and soul? Do you like candy bars, cokes, trash food of every description, all at movie theater prices? Well then, train travel is for YOU! Otherwise, bring some supplies, pretend you're on an overland thing, imagine the train as a Conestoga wagon but you can't get out of the wagon and pick wild mushrooms or onions or hunt some stupid deer or an antelope playing, you've got to bring all your provisions with you. Fruit. Bread. I like that vegetarian pretend lunch meat made from tofu or beans or dirt or whatever, and it seems to hold well without cooling. Water. Tea, and a cup; in my experience the staff in the snack car and the diner car were real nice, and would give you (me) ice and also hot water for tea, and no one cared if you brought your own food, not that I saw.

If you get too close to one of the doors between cars, and that door isn't working properly, and doesn't close after someone has passed through, I can tell you from grim experience that it's quite loud. Obviously it's loud when the door opens, anyways, but if it doesn't work right there's that waiting for it to close again, and that waiting seems to stretch out for hours, or days, once an entire decade slid by with the wheels churning on and on and the hot air coming on into the car, and then the grittiness of being in that car and eating too many junk food sandwiches and not getting enough sleep can seem like three hangovers at once. You can wash up on the train, brush your teeth, comb your hair, change out your greazy clothes, but there's some things that nothing but a shower and a real bed will change. In my experience, anyways, probably you're tougher than I am, what with me being old and all.

No surprise here -- the cars are old, and showing it. The A/C went out in one car I was in, in Texas, and that was interesting. There is about four hundred thousand times more room than on a Southwest Airlines seat but sometimes there is still some mope kicking your chair or tell you a stupid joke (see above, re drunks). The route I was on had these super-scenic-watching cars, with windows floor to ceiling and even up, it was really nice to sit in the sunlight and read, look up and watch it right there outside the glass...

But I seem to have wandered far afield of your question -- How to spread the train news? For me, I've just pretty much told everybody about my trip, now including you.

I intend to take a train trip to CA, stopping overnight in Alpine (West Texas, real cool little town in Big Bend country, I've an old friend there) and in Tucson for a night (stay in the Hotel Congress, downtown Tucson, eat in that great little cafe there, scratch myself), then Phoenix (family, great art museum and fun library), then on out to all points Left; San Diego, maybe LA (if I can learn from Miss Lynnster what in the heck I ought to do there, what I *can* do there without a car) then on up the coast to SF blah blah blah blah. I'm gonna buy one of those passes, which don't seem to me to be a good deal unless you've got some time, which I do just now, take my puter and go, i expect I'll have a time...

I recommend train travel.

All aboard!
(and yes, they do actually still say that..)
posted by dancestoblue at 7:02 PM on November 16, 2010 [3 favorites]

I used to be forced to ride the train between syracuse and new york fairly often, and my last trip was a cause for celebration, even though theoretically train travel sounds great to me on the surface. i have traveled by train in several countries in europe and preferred it sooooooo much more, and i don't mind commuter rail in nyc *as much* so i don't think it's trains that i don't like or their relative slowness....
1. primary hugest biggest problem is that i don't trust amtrak to be on time. like, ever. i actually plan in extra time because i know the train is allllllways late. maybe it's just the route, but that's a pretty heavily traveled route. amtrak doesn't care to improve the problem evidently, because they don't consider it their fault -- csx owns the lines and can cause a passenger train to just sit for an hour if necessary. amtrak doesn't advertise/calculate these delays into their schedules, and they never apologize. to get me to ride on the train again, i'm going to need to see some evidence of drastic improvement in that sort of thing.

2. station websites are consistently uninformative. biggest lack of information is specific, up-to-date, detailed info on parking. i have to drive 45 min to get to any train station. it would still be a good alternative *IF* i knew for certain i'll have somewhere to leave my car. bonus points for free parking.

besides talking to whomever, and i am not sure who that is, you are also going to need to convince people like me that things have improved. i could be sold on it, but it's going to take convincing evidence.
posted by Tandem Affinity at 8:31 PM on November 16, 2010

I think it's people who would in theory love the train, but have had some bad experiences, who should be involved in the conversation as well - because American passenger trains need a lot of public help and support to run better. It's the idea that there's a large potential userbase who isn't currently using the trains because of the negatives that could spur change.

some doof who held us all in line, like kindergartners for their cookies. To ride a train.

Security is lighter on trains, but when you consider that they are a truly excellent target for bombing, I understand the need for documentation and management of boarding. Having grown up on the Northeast Corridor, I remember many train derailments which killed people and tied up the transportation system for hours. I think the risk is not necessarily that a terrorist would be seeking to bomb a poorly populated train in the emptier parts of the middle of the country, but that a well-placed incident that messed up tracks or switching could tie up the major cross-country freight arteries, which we're still quite dependent on.

National security is actually another reason I think it's important to maintain rail service. On 9/11, people got out of New York on boats and trains - not driving. Much of our food supply travels by train.
posted by Miko at 7:31 AM on November 17, 2010

« Older How can I reduce the time to clear bruising and...   |   Do you know of any counseling services at Overlook... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.