Man, you railfans are a chatty bunch! I think my two recent posts on the competitive environment for long distance trains and long distance trains around the world have gotten the first and fifth most comments out of all of my posts. But as C.P. Norris wrote on the earlier post, "I think this debate needs to start with exactly what problem you're trying to solve." And Norris is right: I really should have started with this. So now, let's try to see how long distance trains fit in with our goals, helpfully stated for you at the top of the page.
First, regarding access for all: are all people equally deserving of access, or are some a higher priority than others? To the extent that some are a higher priority than others, it is as a counterweight to existing disadvantages, which means that poor people, Black and Hispanic people, and women should be higher priorities. We should also be looking for the best bang for our subsidy buck, so trains that serve the largest number of people per dollar should count more.
I don't have the numbers, but my impression is that the Silver Meteor and Silver Star are the long distance trains with the highest proportion of African American riders; I have certainly seen and spoken with many on those trains who were traveling between work in Northern cities and family or retirement in the South. I'm not sure what the income of Black Silver Service riders is compared with that of the African American community at large. But if any long distance trains deserve support on access grounds per person, my guess would be that it's the Silver Service.
Transit reduces pollution and carnage, increases efficiency and improves society to the extent that it gets people out of cars. Long distance trains, in addition, can do this by getting people off of planes.
I have a strong desire to preserve the long distance train network. So much of it has disappeared and not come back, and I worry that losing any more routes will start a snowball effect, swallowing up any remaining trains that are not profitable or state-subsidized. But I have to admit that I'm hard pressed to see how that fits with any of my goals.
The problem is that it's not really clear how many people the long distance trains are keeping out of cars and planes, and it's not clear how many more we can get out of cars and planes by improving service.
The only way I can think of that maintaining a route like the Southwest Chief can get people out of their cars is a long term one: that there's more political support for maintaining or improving a route than for restarting one. Just look at the stimulus rail money. Two projects (Ohio and Florida) were for corridors that don't currently have service on them; the rest are all for existing corridors, including the California High-Speed Rail project, which is a fancy bypass for the San Joaquins.
It would seem, then, that operating subsidies tend to motivate capital subsidies beyond what the freight railroads are willing to spend. That means that they may be worth keeping on certain long distance routes, if they can someday draw enough people out of cars and planes, with the right combination of capital investment and road and air disinvestment. The question becomes figuring out which routes those are.
When you comment on this post, please be clear about your goals, so that others can decide whether they share them.