Improving American Rail, part 1: Kill Amtrak and go regional

The sheer size of the United States dictates many aspects of the country’s culture, politics and day-to-day events. Everything from TV schedules to travel times are the byproducts of this massive country. Indeed, federalism seems to make the most sense for a country of this scale. When there is a distance of almost 4800 km coast to coast it’s no wonder governing powers need to be shared by state government’s and centralized powers can easily come off as distant and unrepresentative. Unfortunately, the federal government has a decently firm grip on intercity and regional passenger rail; if passenger rail is going improve in the United States it should start with the top, that is by having the top dissolved. Passenger rail would be better run if regional entities took control with limited federal engagement.

The system of checks and balances between the states and the federal government works decently well and the system has been designed well enough that the states can act as incubators for change before they reach the federal level while the federal government does the important job of making sure states stay in line. And this is great, except the problem is the lack of any sort of governing power or cohesive planning at a regional level that overlooks the sometimes arbitrary state-boarders. Some limited regional governance could do a wealth of good in some realms, one of them certainly is transportation and passenger rail transportation. In fact, instead of one national passenger rail service, there should be a collection of regional rail services with funding and governance shared between the states and jurisdictions served with limited oversight and service coordination at a national level. Such a system gives greater power to regions to plan and implement services relevant to them.

A key to creating such a system is killing Amtrak. On multiple occasions I’ve come across opinions outlining how one impediment to improving passenger rail services in the United States is the negative image the public has of Amtrak. It is not a service to be proud of nor does is it something people can identify with, rely on or conveniently use. Disbanding Amtrak and moving to a system of regional rail services removes a dysfunctional and unpopular rail service from our public consciousness while allowing regions to develop systems, which they can claim as their own. Something like this can be branded and identified with particular parts of the country and turned into a source of regional pride and unity; it’s a regional version of the national rail systems in Europe, which are so often identified with a country as a whole.

The results of changing to this type of organization would be a collection of tiered systems at the national, regional, and local levels. At the top would be a national rail organization with the express goal of coordinating services, acting as a liaison between passenger rail services and freight services, distributing federal funds to passenger services and operating a selection of national interregional passenger rail services.* Rail standards would be organized by the federal government and the responsibility for enforcing standards would also be the prerogative of the federal government/national level rail organization.

Below national/federal level operations would be the regional services. These services would be operated with a regional hub or multiple hubs with connections between regional services made in select cities. The regional services would have more power to invest in and operate their own services at the regional level with efforts to coordinate connections between regional systems, air transportation and local transportation services. Although federal level operations would be necessary the primary operations would be carried out by the regional systems. The systems would be: New England/Mid-Atlantic, the South, Florida, the Midwest, the Great Plains, Texas and the south central states, the Pacific Northwest, California and the Southwest, the Mountain States (see below for more detailed thoughts on size/scope of such regional systems).

This map shows a theoretical passenger rail systems in the United States with operations primarily controlled by regionally owned and operated services. The areas serviced by regional systems are outlined in black (New England/Mid-Atlantic, the South, the Midwest etc...) with high-speed routes in red (300-350 km/mph), conventional services in orange (~200 km/mph) and long-distance/overnight routes in blue (~150 mph)

This map shows theoretical passenger rail systems in the United States with operations primarily controlled by regionally owned and operated services. The areas serviced by regional systems are outlined in black (New England/Mid-Atlantic, the South, the Midwest etc…) with high-speed routes in red (300-350 km/mph), conventional services in orange (~200 km/mph) and long-distance/overnight routes in blue (~150 mph). Canadian services are high-speed corridor between Windsor and Québec in pink, Great Plains regional services in orange and long-distance overnight routes to Vancouver in blue.

The regional systems would then be broken down into local operations. These would resemble the regional and suburban rail systems in Germany operated by Deutsche Bahn. These operations divide the national system into smaller regions usually concentrated around major cities and urban areas. Such districts would extend well beyond the core urban areas in such regions to facilitate overall rail and other mass transportation connections in more localized regions. The services would resemble the S-Bahn suburban rail services in most German cities (those are operated by Deutsche Bahn) and the DB Regio trains, which service larger regions around urban cores.

This map shows how the entirety of German is divided into Verkehrs- and Tarifverbünde, transportation governing districts similar to RTAs. Although there are various combinations ranging from entirely public to public-private what is important to notice is how there is not one part of the country that doesn't fall into one of these districts and access to a transportation authority is guaranteed. Although I wouldn't propose something as extreme as making sure every part of the United States is divided into such a zone, at least the denser parts of the country should.

This map shows how the entirety of German is divided into Verkehrs- and Tarifverbünde, transportation governing districts similar to RTAs. Although there are various combinations ranging from entirely public to public-private what is important to notice is how there is not one part of the country that doesn’t fall into one of these districts and access to a transportation authority is guaranteed. Although I wouldn’t propose something as broad as this for the United States, it would be impressive to see in some of the countries denser areas.

These regional districts would in some instances overlap with even more localized transportation districts operating public transportation services in concentrated urban areas.  Regional transportation authorities organized by local and state governments would operate transit at the most local levels; these would also be independent of the larger regional operations. The larger districts operated by the regional organizations would work with regional transportation authorities to coordinate services.

Major hubs would be located at the center of regional systems (such as Chicago or New York City), while secondary hubs would connect regional and local services to the larger regional systems (think lower speed regional trains connection larger communities in New England to Boston, where transfers to the larger New England/Mid-Atlantic system would take place). Key transfer points would be located in cities at or near the boarders of regional systems, some of these cities serviced exclusively by one or potentially by operations for both regional systems. Examples of such transfer cities would be Pittsburgh (Midwest and New England/Mid-Atlantic systems) or Louisville (The South and Midwest systems). Some routes could even include international connections to the Canadian and possibly Mexican passenger rail systems. Detroit could easily become a minor hub within the Midwest system as well as a major transfer point between a Canadian high-speed rail Windsor-Toronto-Ottawa-Montréal-Québec corridor and the Chicago-Detroit high-speed rail corridor(s).

The overall goal of this model is to afford region’s greater ability to make transportation decisions for themselves and invest in services appropriate to their needs. Great autonomy from the government would be necessary as well to free sources of funding from political wrangling. This is just the beginning though; over the course of the next few weeks I will try to examine other details of how such a system would look if implemented, including the Midwest specifically, financing etc…

National rail operations

Regional Services States served Districts Hub(s) Pop. served
New England & Mid-Atlantic ME, NH, VT, MA, RI, CT, NJ, NY, PA, DL, MD, DC, VA, WV Greater New York City (Long Island, Connecticut, and the Hudson Valley) Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, Washington 72 mil.
Greater Boston and New England (Massachusetts, Rhode Island, southern Main and New Hampshire)
New Jersey
Chesapeake and Capital Region (Maryland; Washington, D.C.;
Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania
Central New York State
North Carolina
Delaware River (Philadelphia, Delaware, eastern Pennsylvania)
The South KY, TN, GA, SC, NC, AL, MS, LA Greater Atlanta (Northern Georgia, Southern Tennessee) Atlanta, New Orleans, Charlotte, Nashville 47.3 mil.
Carolina Coast (Atlantic Coast of Georgia and the Carolinas)
Central Carolinas (Central North and South Carolina)
Gulf Coast (Gulf Coast including New Orleans, Beloxi, Mobile and Pensacola)
Birmingham a& Alabama (Northern Alabama)
Florida FL Central and West Coast Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, Jacksonville 19.5 mil.
East Coast
The Midwest IL, WI, MN, MI, IN, MO, IA, OH Greater Chicago (Northern Illinois; northern Indiana; southwestern Michigan; Kenosha County, WI) Chicago, Indianapolis, Detroit, St. Louis, Cleveland 65 mil.
Southeast Wisconsin
Greater Detroit & East-Central Michigan (Greater Detroit, Lansing/East Lansing, Ann Arbor, Toledo)
Northeast Wisconsin
St. Louis and Central Illinois
Southwest Ohio (Cleveland, Akron, Youngstown and far western and Pennsylvania)
Twin Cities and Mississippi Valley (Mississippi Valley, Greater Twin Cities, western Wisconsin)
Central Iowa and Quad Cities
Texas & South Central US TX, AR, OK Central Texas (Austin, San Antonio and Corpus Christi) Dallas, San Antonio, Oklahoma City 33.2 mil.
Houston and Gulf Coast (southeastern Texas and the Gulf Coast)
Northeast Texas (Dallas-Fort Worth and northwestern Louisiana)
Oklahoma (Oklahoma City and Tulsa, Joplin and Fort Smith)
The Great Plaines KS, NE, SD, ND Kansas City, Omaha 6.2 mil.
Mountains CO, NM, WY, MT, UT Front Range (Fort Collins to Pueblo) Denver, Albuquerque 10.5 mil.
Greater Salt Lake Region (Logan to Provo)
Pacific Northwest WA, OR, ID Willamette Valley (Astoria to Ashland) Seattle, Portland, Boise 5.7 mil.
Puget Sound Regoin (Clearbrook to Centralia)
California CA, AZ, NV Southern California (San Luis Obispo to San Diego) Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Francisco 47.4 mil.
Central Valley (Sacramento to Bakersfield)
Arizona (Phoenix to Tuscon)
Greater Bay Area (Santa Rosa to Monterey and Stockton and Sacramento)

*Most of these services would probably be long-distance overnight trains. Such operations would likely resemble Europe’s CityNightLine and EuroNight train systems with slower, but cheaper overnight transportation options. 

Edit to Active Transportation Alliance article: Jackson Park’s proposed visitor’s center

In a piece I published on February 22 about the Active Transportation Alliance’s proposal for road diets and pedestrianization I questioned why there wasn’t a greater emphasis on removing parking lots and roads in more of Chicago’s parks, including Jackson Park on the South Side. To my joy I found a very serious plan to do just that: if you haven’t heard about it yet, there are calls to build a new visitor’s center in Jackson Park as part of a larger plan (spearheaded mostly by members of the community) to improve the park. The center would be built on what is currently a parking lot. Three cheers for better use of public space!


The Museum of Science and Industry as seen from the Osaka Garden.

The proposed $10 million center is getting more support and a Frederick Law Olmsted expert may be working on the project very soon. It is situated between the Columbia Basin and 59th Street Harbor.

For more information on these proposals go to a Crain’s Chicago Business article here or the Jackson Park Advisory Council’s website here to learn more about Jackson Park.

A culture of sustainability: the USA doesn’t have one and we need to get one

Five months ago I still lived in Freiburg, Germany. I was lucky enough to live in the world renown Vauban neighborhood (link). It is touted as a premier example of sustainable development encompassing innovative planning and building practices for environmental, social and economic sustainability including everything from Passivhaus design and natural drainage ditches (yes, the ditches are a big deal) for excess grey water. It was a level of sustainable living unlike any other. Every detail is considered to lower energy use, car use, increase livability and attract all segments of society. Its a true culture of sustainability, which extends well beyond the edges of the neighborhood and as it becomes a ubiquitous quality of German culture at large. It makes advocates of sustainability like myself giddy.

Two weeks ago I was in Chicago and tried to recycle a used plastic bottle. This seemingly simple task proved more difficult than expected. Hoping I’d be able to recycle it while getting coffee I was provided with a great anecdote that succinctly describes American views of sustainable practices and puts them in stark contrast with those in Germany: I asked the barrista if there was recycling and rather than explain there wasn’t they simply took the bottle from me, threw in the trash and made a remark about how it doesn’t really matter, because things wouldn’t get recycled anyhow. Not only was a basic element and widely accepted sustainable practice unavailable, my attempts to practice it were essentially scoffed at. I was sorely disappointed and desired to be back in Germany.


Fußweg and Fahrradweg in Vauban (Freiburg, Germany) with a small grey water ditch adjacent. Small wood and stone foot bridges connect the homes on the other side of the ditch to the main path. The tram line is one block to the left of this photo.

What I realized from this experience was that despite wonderful gains in the United States, we still have a long way to go before we catch up with some of our peers’ standards of sustainable practices.* This is more a reflection of a culture of waste. I don’t try to contend that this is a new idea, that there is a culture of waste in the USA, but rather if Americans better identify where and how we are being wasteful we can do more to change our habits and begin moving towards a culture of sustainability in truly visible ways; perhaps it would even be possible to see full scale developments such as Vauban at some point.

Its time that we go back to the very beginning and start by reconsidering some basic tenants of environmentalism and sustainable habits. Naturalism and conservationism, tree planting and recycling are all practices that deserve to move back into the conversation about environmental protection and sustainable planning again. It is impossible to develop and live within a culture of sustainability if a variety of practices and beliefs are not taken into account. Although its grand to promote bicycling and walking in cities, sustainable land use patterns and decrease sprawl none of that does any good if we are concurrently wasting materials and not doing every bit possible to live within the limits of the planet.

Indeed the term “reduce, reuse, recycle” is a plenty good reminder of how sustainable practices and living is a system of habits which positively reinforce each other. Reducing  consumption while increasing recycling is the easiest equation for less waste. That’s a simple example though. Consuming less land, less energy, driving less, wasting less food and so on, all of these reinforce other methods of environmental stewardship. For truly meaningful results though, we can’t live in a culture of waste of worse a culture in which some parts of this commitment to the environment are seen are more feasible or given more credence than others. Even if doesn’t all happen at once, at some point all methods must be embraced.

Information on recycling from the EPA.

Information on recycling from the EPA.

This is not to disregard progress being made in the USA though. The prevalence of energy saving products, more fuel efficient cars, compact florescent lightbulbs and an active conversation about how to improve our urban spaces are all commendable points. That doesn’t mean we live in a culture of sustainability though. From my perspective many of these efforts are done either to allow for other wasteful habits or they only happen because now its convenient to partake. We still don’t live in a culture in which we do things because we know its the right thing to do, but rather one in which its necessary to wait until we want to do it or are no longer inconvenienced when we do so. That’s the kicker. Whereas many European countries include comprehensive recycling plans many Americans still lack access to the simple service. It wasn’t until only the last few years that all Chicagoans served by the city had recycling bins in addition to trash bins.

Time now then to get back to the basics as a means to jump start sustainable initiatives. We need to create a culture of sustainability with a strong foundation and that includes actively doing simple things in our day-to-day lives and taking the time to remind ourselves not to forget about such things. Wind farms and electric driverless cars are glamorous and exciting and bring to mind images of sci-fi movies, but expecting such things to hold the answer to more sustainable lives is silly expectation. That is where I think we’ve gotten ourselves in the USA though: it’s easy to get starry eyed about something exciting, and lots of things can come off as more exciting than planning a tree, turning off the lights, recycling or putting in energy saving windows, but if we fail to make those the truly unwavering foundation of sustainable living patterns we won’t get anywhere. 

Let’s look back at some basic tenants of environmentally friendly and sustainable living and consider how those fit into our lives now. Over the next few weeks I will periodically be posting thoughts on recycling, naturalism and conservationism, energy and water use.