Why is Amtrak Slow? (And how you can help)

Train travel is a great way to get where you’re going while also seeing areas you otherwise wouldn’t. In fact, most of the developed world heavily travels by train. However, the United States of America doesn’t have the same type of love affair with rail as we do with automobiles.

While Europe and most of Asia has adopted not only train travel but high speed rail, America is left with antiquated infrastructure that often causes traveling by train to be slower than traveling by car. With Amtrak being the only major commercial rail travel company available, one has to ask “Why is Amtrak so slow?”

There are two main reasons why Amtrak routes are so slow — freight trains and old infrastructure. Train dispatchers routinely prioritize freight loads over commercial passengers, which causes over 700,000 minutes of delay per year. Additionally, Amtrak trains move almost 2 times slower than trains in countries with modern infrastructure.

Let’s examine how fast Amtrak trains really are, then look into each contributing factor for the delays. Finally, we’ll tell you how you can help make them faster.

How Slow Are Amtrak Trains?

Source

Amtrak trains operate at different speeds depending on the length of track they’re providing service on. Over half of Amtrak trains operate above 100 mph (161 kmh), while a small minority can operate up to 150 mph (241 kmh). For comparison, bullet trains operate at up to 199 mph (320 kmh).

However, more goes into how quickly a train gets from one location to another than simple miles per hour.

Freight Delays

As I stated in the beginning, one of the major reasons for Amtrak slowness lies in the strained relationship that Amtrak has with railroad companies. Since it would be cost-prohibitive for Amtrak to construct a brand new national railroad for their purposes, they have an agreement with these companies to lease the existing tracks.

Below you can see the six largest host railroads for Amtrak trains.

Railroad CompanyTrain-miles
Metro North Railroad1.3 M
Canadian National Railway1.4 M
Norfolk Southern Railway2.3 M
CSX Transportation5.0 M
Union Pacific Railroad6.1 M
BNSF Railway6.9 M
Host railroads for Amtrek (source)

This fact alone does not cause delays. However, some railroad companies routinely prioritize freight trains over their passenger train counterparts. This means that Amtrak trains are often spent waiting on a side-track for a line of freight trains to move on through.

As stated in in the introduction, this accounts for a total of 700,000 minutes of delay per year (as of 2020). Of the 6 companies above, some are worse offenders than others. Let’s take a look at how Amtrak graded these railroad companies in 2021.

Railroad company2020 Grade
Canadian PacificA
BNSFA
Canadian NationalB+
CSXB+
Union PacificB-
Norfolk SouthernC
Amtrak railroad host report card, 2020 (source)

For a deeper dive, look at the research that Amtrak has put together about this issue here.

Infrastructure

The other issue which keeps Amtrak lagging behind other international rail providers is the lagging infrastructure. While major efforts are being made to upgrade Amtrak’s offerings, the United States still falls behind countries in Europe and Asia that prioritize rail travel.

The high-speed rail in these places routinely travel at 320 kmh (199 mph) and they have a much better reputation for punctuality than their American counterparts.

While it would be easy to point a finger at elected officials for this discrepancy, the sad truth is that the vast majority of Americans simply don’t value passenger rail travel. Less than 10% of all Americans ride on trains per year. However, there is evidence that this trend is changing.

In 2019, Amtrak passengers took a record 32.5 million trips — more than ever before in its 50 year history. This is up from 28.7 million only 9 years earlier. Although COVID-19 caused ticket sales to plummet in 2020, there is strong evidence that ridership will bounce back better than before.

With more passengers comes more visibility and a stronger likelihood than public officials will take notice. With federal assistance, Amtrak could both upgrade its infrastructure network and eliminate costly delays. While there has been little federal movement to solve these problems, that could very well change in the near future.

If a national rail system is something that you care about, there is a way you can directly help.

How to Help

To recap, there are two major problems to solve here: the tendency for railroad companies to give priority to freight trains and the lack of high-speed infrastructure. First, let’s explore to tackle the railroad companies.

Rail Passenger Fairness Act

As stated on Amtrak’s site, you can tell your member of Congress that freight railroads are ignoring the law. You can call your representatives and tell them to support the Rail Passenger Fairness Act (S.1500 and H.R.2937).

The Rail Passenger Fairness Act will allow Amtrak to bring civil action to enforce rail preference rights. Plainly put, they’ll be able to sue railroad companies for violating the law. By introducing punitive incentives to the behavior, we can expect the behavior to significantly shrink.

About High-Speed Rail

There’s good news for folks in the northeast. Amtrak has stated that they will introduce new high-speed train-sets along the Northeast Corridor. They’re also working to expand stations and improve track capacity.

However, for the rest of the United States there is little to no movement for Amtrak to upgrade to high-speed rail. Even though Amtrak received $80B as part of President Biden’s $4 trillion infrastructure bill, this plan doesn’t actually include high speed rail. In fact, Amtrak is mainly concerned about performing necessary repairs to get its nationwide network repaired and updated.

While this may not bring you hope, there are regional initiatives to bring high-speed rail to the United States. A company called Brightline built a high-speed line to connect West Palm Beach to Miami. Soon, that line will connect north to Orlando.

In Texas, the Texas Central Railroad is developing a high-speed line between Dallas and Houston. It should only take 90 minutes, compared to the 3.5 hours it usually takes to drive.

Finally, California is connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco with high-speed rail at an estimated cost of $68B.

So, is there any hope that the United States will have ubiquitous high-speed rail access in our lifetime? Unfortunately, I think the answer is a resounding “no”. But there will be some regional bright spots we can all look forward to.

And if it’s something you value, there’s always one thing you can do more of: travel by train!