Molnar: A Tale of Two Trains

Oct 27, 2015

I enjoy riding trains so much I even look forward to substandard dining while staring out the big windows, because the trip along the widening Hudson is as beautiful - and as slow - as the river itself.

But after returning from a recent trip to Europe, the ride from New York back to Castleton seemed absurdly long. It took five and a half hours to travel 240 miles. The same distance in Europe took just a quarter of that time because European trains travel four times faster.

Trains here are actually getting slower. It takes longer to travel between New York City and Washington D.C. today than it did 50 years ago – because of aging track and crumbling infrastructure.

Trains here are also getting increasingly unsafe. And yet, after May’s Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia, in which eight people were killed and more than 200 injured, the response was astounding. Instead of considering how to make trains safer, the question asked was how can we dismantle the system - because it’s not safe. The day after the derailment, the House Appropriations Committee approved a nearly 20 percent cut to Amtrak from the previous year. Sadly, even though we know this is a case where you get what you pay for, we continue to spend far less on rail transport than most developed countries. The result is one of the worst safety records in the world.

And now, most of our railroads are threatening to stop running freight and passenger trains as soon as next month, unless Congress gives them more time to install technology that can prevent deadly collisions and derailments.

All this makes no sense to me. Clearly, people need and want trains. Ridership is up every year, although the increase is slowing due to growing delays and safety concerns.

Here in Vermont, federal budget cuts last year halted service north of St. Albans, eliminating trains between the northeast seaboard and Montreal. Meanwhile, efforts to establish passenger rail service between Rutland and Burlington - an area lacking an interstate - has been waiting for years for funding to complete rail upgrades. We’re short just 11 miles, but still need $12 million to close the gap.

I continue to ride trains because I prefer them to long drives in traffic. But each ride brings to mind a trip I once made from Italy to Switzerland. The very high speed actually made it hard to enjoy the views - but I certainly wasn’t complaining.