Americans Have Had It With the Hassles of Flying. Will They Take the Train?

Americans are getting more and more frustrated with air travel. The airline industry is getting worried. Will passenger rail get the spoils?

Security lines, delays, and baggage fees are adding up to big frustrations for air travelers. Is the airlines' loss rail's gain? Photo: ## Other Hubby##
Security lines, delays, and baggage fees are adding up to big frustrations for air travelers. Is the airlines’ loss rail’s gain? Photo: ## Other Hubby##

A new survey by the U.S. Travel Association [PDF] found that 27 percent of respondents thought flying had become more of a hassle in the last year. They’re annoyed about delays, safety, and all the extra fees associated with baggage, premium seats, and boarding priority. Security screening is a pain, and costs have increased.

It’s beginning to affect the bottom line. Sixty percent of travelers said they thought they would take more trips if airport hassles were eliminated — on average, 2.63 more each year. A third of respondents said these annoyances resulted in them traveling less than they used to or planned to. The Travel Association thinks the trips not taken have cost their industry $27 billion.

Could Americans’ disillusionment with air travel be an opening for rail? It happened before: In 2000, Amtrak introduced Acela service on the Northeast Corridor, and a year later, 9/11 led to increased fears and tightened security at airports. The result: Amtrak’s share of the travel market between New York and Washington went from one-third to three-quarters.

A Harris interactive poll a few years ago showed a third of business travelers and two-thirds of leisure travelers would ride high-speed rail if it existed, instead of flying [PDF].

The survey neglected some drawbacks to flying. “They didn’t ask about airport access,” said Dan Schned of the Regional Plan Association. “I wish they had. Trains drop you off in the middle of the city, closer to your final destination. Getting to and from an airport outside of town can be expensive and time-consuming.”

Still, the air travel survey may not present many opportunities to Amtrak as it exists now. Though some problems, like extra fees and security screenings, aren’t an issue for rail travel, and there are other perks like being able to stay connected to the Internet, other concerns may be even more acute for rail passengers today than for fliers.

After all, 30 percent of travelers said their number one concern about air travel is delays. Outside of the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak is notoriously unreliable, and even scheduled travel times are long. Sharing track with freight rail leaves passenger rail at the mercy of the shippers. Schedules for long-distance service can be highly inconvenient.

Nevertheless, whether because of growing frustration with air travel or some other reason, Amtrak ridership is booming: The service has broken 10 ridership records in the last 11 years. And in key places around the country, rail is becoming a far more viable travel option.

In California, the funding nightmare for high-speed rail has finally turned around, with hundreds of millions of dollars coming its way from cap-and-trade revenues. In Florida, a privately-operated high-speed rail service is due to launch next year. In the Midwest, trains are operating at speeds above 100 mph, in places, between Chicago and St. Louis. With improved service like this, rail has the opportunity to take much more of the travel market as air travel gets bogged down in excessive fees and hassles.

  • Jack Jackson

    depends. I have to meet clients 3-4x a month in Chicago. I live in Philly. so no…

  • GrantD

    The main issues with Amtrak are 1). service unreliability (very long delays, cancellations, etc.) 2). the infrequency of service (one train or less a day, often at very inconvenient hours) 3). service gaps (e.g., no service to Phoenix, Las Vegas, Columbus, several other large major cities) 4). poor intermodal service at the final destination (few rental car facilities, poor American urban public transit). 5). the general uncompetitive price structure compared to air and bus travel. American mid- and long distance rail travel is a niche travel form. For short and mid-range travel, most people take their own car, for long range travel, most people fly. If you like to save money, you take a bus. Amtrak as it exists has a hard time competing with these three modes, except maybe in the northeast corridor, atypical of the U.S. in many ways.

    Some of these problems could be solved with massive investment and funding increases but who’s going to approve that? Many Americans have never set foot on a train and don’t particular see how their life is any the worse. Many rail rights-of-ways have been sold or otherwise lost. Getting American national rail service up to the levels seen in Europe or Japan would take trillions of dollars and decades to accomplish. Under the current political climate, I don’t see that happening.

  • G1991

    A high-speed train service could present an opportunity between Philly and Pittsburgh, though. That would be beneficial to a lot of people since the distance between Philly and Pittsburgh is in that “happy zone” for high-speed trains. Too close to fly, too far to drive.

  • DK

    I live in DC but have family in Pittsburgh. I’d like to take the train but rarely do because the trip is often 8+ hours to go 240 miles! The train also arrives in the dead of night. Let me know when they open a new high speed corridor and the trip is down to 2 hours or so.

  • Brad

    Rising oil prices will make rail more attractive again. I think once the ball gets rolling we won’t even need that much government intervention; private industry will step up and America will enter a new passenger railroading age. I can see this happening quite quickly, in a matter of 2 or 3 decades. Even mid-sized American towns will have 2 or 3 trains through a day, and in cities where rail is present already train stations will be as busy as airports today.

  • Bolwerk

    Just getting existing corridors up to first world standards would be enough, and need not cost trillions.

  • lop

    Most corridors aren’t electrified. So passengers trains run on diesel. You can electrify them, but not for a handful of trains per day, never mind one or less.

    With elevated gas prices some coal and nat gas to liquid projects are coming on line, with more planned. That limits how high pump prices can actually rise.

  • Sam

    There’s no reason they couldn’t be electrified. Russia electrified its massive rail network decades ago. Or the trains could run on gas-turbine engines.

    I also think Brad is lowballing the number of trains we’d see… with improved price point, there’d be more like 5-6 a day on most corridors, with 10-15 a day on main corridors.

  • flyingember

    I always look at Amtrak as an option for trips. I have yet to pick it.

    Like from KC to the east coast takes multiple days via train AND costs more.

    To get two states over in Texas to the south one goes north to Chicago and then New Orleans. To get to two states over to Denver means a bus to Des Moines first. To go to Florida means going through DC.

    It’s just too fragmented as a system goes.

    This despite KC having direct freight routes in EVERY direction to all parts of the country. It’s just only used for commercial freight.

  • Alex Brideau III

    I am one of those people who has dramatically cut their air travel and now I generally prefer to allow a couple extra days and take the train for most of my domestic travel. But worth noting is that, like many of my fellow rail travelers, I tend to prioritize travel comfort over travel time; while I believe the “average” American traveler prefers the opposite.

    Of course, Amtraking it coast to coast basically takes the same amount of time as the bus or driving, and while the train is much nicer than the bus, and much more restful than driving, the biggest drawback by far is the time spent in travel. Slow travel times often force me to book my outbound trips by plane and my return trips by rail to save those precious vacation days.

    I’ve found ticket prices to be generally comparable to the airlines or a few bucks higher, but Amtrak fares typically have no “gotcha” surcharges or taxes added on. That said, just as with airline travel, expect to pay for food when travelling in coach.

    But travel time (and service frequency, or lack thereof) is really the big enemy here. Amtrak has begun to more aggressively implement high-performance rail (top speeds of 90mph, 110mph, or 125mph) infrastructure in the Midwest. If it can continue to roll out and improve on these speed improvements and also make headway on some high-speed rail lines, I expect Amtrak will continue on its path of increasing ridership, hopefully so much so that the Feds won’t continually nickel-and-dime to death its budget.

    FWIW, there are those of us out there who do educate and advocate for passenger rail issues. May I suggest those who are interested consider joining the Natl Assn of Railroad Passengers ( and/or one of America’s many state-based passenger rail associations. These organizations typically share the same concerns I’ve seen elsewhere in this comment board, and they often have the ear of many lawmakers and media outlets.

  • We’d like to travel between L.A. and San Jose by train, but it takes at least as long as driving with our four year old and costs quite a bit more.

  • C Monroe

    Chicago-Detroit is also at 100+, well after the finish the rail work this summer, but most of the line is currently at that speed or above.

  • C Monroe

    Just looked. It is still bad but you would not go to Chicago or New Orleans to go to Texas. I have personally looked at Amtrak travel from Chicago to San Antonio and I was surprise when you mentioned that you would didn’t know about the Texas Chief that went through your state. You would have to take a train to St. Louis and then have a 6 hour layover then jump on the Texas chief and you would arrive in san antonio 25 hours later. So to travel from KC to San Antonio it takes a day and a half. lol But do to the politics of your area, your state most likely doesn’t support it. Hence the bad service.

  • C Monroe

    Philly and Chicago corridor would be able to handle an acella line at least, especially if you make NYC the final stop. Just think the cities on the route, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and less than an hour to other major cities with connecting trains like to Buffalo, Detroit, Columbus. There is enough population density to make this happen, but there is no will politically.

    I also think that Canada and the US should do a joint high speed line from Quebec city to Chicago via Montreal, Toronto, Detroit. They could also have another from Montreal to NYC or Toronto to NYC via Buffalo and upstate NY.

  • andrelot

    For the overwhelming majority of travelers, there is a cost associated with time (directly or indirectly), and the idea of spending 3 nights on a train (or any other vehicle) is a major deterrent from choosing it. Most people don’t have the time and/or don’t want to spend 6 nights aboard a moving vehicle, and will put up with the less than 10 hours (round-trip) it takes to fly.

  • Michael Klatsky

    Are you aware that the Northeast Corridor is home to a huge percentage of America and is the “real” America, back since the colonies?

  • Jack Jackson

    Philly Chicago is 759 miles. at 125 mph, it’s a 6 hour trip assuming no stops.

    flying is 1:50, 2:50 if you count airport security, and 3:30 getting downtown

    still half the time…I don’t have 6-8 hours to waste on a 1 way trip my friend

  • Jack Jackson

    where you going to get that kind of juice? didn’t we just order major reduction in coal emissions

  • Alex Brideau III

    Exactly my point, but worth noting is that in taking the train for longer journeys I’ve begun noticing an increasing number of (non-retiree) travelers opting for this trade-off. Not sure exactly why, though, but it’s a positive trend, IMO.

  • G1991

    Gas turbines are pretty inefficient. It’s the reason the Bombardier JetTrain died in the early 2000’s. The biggest issue with turbines is that they run at 60% power even when idling; as a result, a lot of fuel is wasted. However, I can see liquefied natural gas being used as a short-term solution for reducing the cost of passenger train service while funding is acquired for electrification and an upgrade to a true, high-speed network.

  • Bolwerk

    Maybe you don’t, but 6 hours is probably about the reasonable outer limit for a rail trip to be competitive with an air trip. And if there is no competing air route, it might be higher still.

    At average speeds we can reasonably expect in the near-term (probably ~100mph), Philly-Chicago probably isn’t quite a competitive. However, both cities could be fed from points between Central Indiana and Central Pennsylvania, so that doesn’t make the route a waste.

  • Andrew F

    There are plenty of other ways to generate electricity besides burning coal.

  • Gord

    Agreed, that Amtrak can’t really compete with the airlines for transcontinental travel (save for retirees with all the time in the world), but there’s certainly a “sweet spot” of distances where it could. Getting Amtrak precedence over freight trains and getting tighter scheduling in place would help out dramatically.

  • GrandD

    I am aware of that. But getting our national rail service “back on track” would require nationwide support, and outside of the Northeast and maybe the Chicagoland area you’d run into the problem of diminishing returns on investment. So Amtrak encounters the problems of having to run inefficient routes to maintain political support for a agency that gets its biggest ROI in a much more limited part of the country (a consequence of the Senate, mainly).

    As I pointed out, a big issue is the lack of trains in popular consciousness. Many Americans outside of the NE think of trains as either something that exist in only in foreign countries or in America’s past.

  • Alan

    To an extent. But if we just improve the Northeast, Chicagoland, Texas triangle, Florida, and CHSR that would be significant

  • Alan

    It’s about 100-600 miles. I don’t understand why people always bring up the cross continental trips when shorter trips are much more frequent.

  • Kenny Easwaran

    It actually takes much longer – right now the only options are to either take an Amtrak bus to Bakersfield and then the San Joaquin to San Jose, or else to take the Coast Starlight route that takes the long way around. One of the biggest advantages I see for CA HSR is that it will finally connect Bakersfield to Palmdale, and close the gap in rail coverage between LA and the Central Valley.

  • Kenny Easwaran

    The biggest issue there is that you have to cross the Appalachians, and there’s only a couple places where there’s a convenient pass, which involve a detour at least down to DC.

  • Joe R.

    You’re only adding 40 minutes (20 minutes at each end) for getting to/from downtown? It’s more like an hour plus for much of the day. That brings your total travel time close to the five hour mark.

    And we can do Philadelphia to Chicago in about 4 hours give or take, including stops, it we had true HSR. That practically ties your optimistic flying time estimate. It most likely beats flying for much of the day.

  • Joe R.

    This is all good and well but will Congress respond to the increased demand for world-class train service? We’ll need to upgrade corridors to allow sustained 90 to 125 mph travel in the short term. In the long term we’ll need to electrify most main corridors and upgrade them to HSR speeds. That’s what will truly make rail the best choice for trips under 500 miles, and a viable choice for trips up to and over 1000 miles for many people not under severe time constraints. In general the key is that people don’t like being on a vehicle long enough that they’ll need sleeping arrangements. We therefore need to increase the average distance trains can cover in 10-12 hours from the current 400 to 700 miles up to at least 1000, preferably to 1500 miles or more. It may never be faster to take the train coast to coast, but we can reach the point where trips halfway across the country only take a few hours more overall than flying.

  • Joe R.

    There are probably a number of reasons for it. Some percentage of the population flat out refuses to fly regardless of trip distance. However, like anybody else these same people don’t necessarily have all the time in the world to travel. That means if trains are too slow they may well just opt out of taking trips altogether. The converse is also true. Increase train speeds and there will eventually be a tipping point where these people will consider it worthwhile to travel. Now that train service is getting faster on many corridors perhaps a significant number of “no flys” are taking trips who weren’t before.

    There is also the fact that even best case flying is an uncomfortable way to travel. You’re strapped into your seat, unable to use the bathroom at the beginning/end of a flight, and also subject to turbulence, uncomfortable accelerations, etc. Trains don’t have these issues. You can freely walk around, use the bathroom. The worst train ride is probably smoother than your typical flight. Trains just can’t change speeds quickly so you’re not subject to rapid accelerations/decelerations. You typically have more space at your seat. You often even have wifi and power. Given these pluses, many people will opt to take a few hours longer to get where they’re going.

    Finally, airports are usually located on the outskirts of cities. In some cases if you don’t drive, accessing an airport can be problematic. Trains generally leave you near local forms of public transit. Sometimes you can even walk to your final destination.

  • Outcast Searcher

    So anyone who doesn’t live in the northeast corrider, the land of high taxes, bad winter weather, and high crime, doesn’t live in the “real” America?

    Glad to know that. As one who lives in a cheap, low tax, low crime, “nice” central small city with plenty of ameities and MUCH better weather — I’ll somehow manage to deal with being in the “false” America.

  • Outcast Searcher

    Purple unicorns and very expensive, spotty “green” energy to name two.

    (I’m all for green when it doesn’t require huge subsidies AND have major reliability problems).

  • James

    I think Michael was just pointing out that the NE is _as much_ the ‘real America’ as anywhere else is.

    “…low crime…”

    Except that the midwest and south top the northeast in crimes committed per 100,000 residents. And I’d take the weather here over the scorching summers in the south or midwestern tornadoes any day.

  • bolwerk

    A big issue is the fact that people believe utterly nonsensical memes about rail service. Decent service between two population centers within a few hours from each other will draw passengers better than buses or planes. It takes a little public investment in infrastructure maybe, but it doesn’t require blowing a massive fraction of our GDP on trains.

    There tend to be medium-large population centers within a hundred miles or so from each other in most of the country east of the Mississippi. These need to be connected to each other. Perhaps there are seven or eight continental states where HSR makes absolutely no sense, and all are between the Mississippi and western coastal states. Even Denver and Salt Lake City make sense.

  • Alex Brideau III

    I agree that decreasing travel times have a direct effect on ridership. I wonder if there’s some graphic out there that shows the correlation between the two. (e.g. A 10% drop in long-distance rail travel time yields a 7% increase in ridership, etc.)

    And I’m with you that a bad train ride is usually better than a good flight. That being said, American trains have a decent amount of side-to-side jostling that occurs from time to time especially on overused freight track, but no vertical turbulence drops that mar many flights. Of course there’s more freedom to move about a train and long-haul trains usually have lounge that all passengers can use.

  • Alex Brideau III

    Well, some of us do use the long-haul trains for travelling. Maybe you don’t, but a (slowly) growing number of people do.

  • lop

    A group was studying high speed rail in Colorado, but that was to parallel I70 and I25 corridors, not a straight shot to SLC. Driving to SLC is about 500 miles, not sure how much you could cut that down at a reasonable cost, flying is less than 400. And moving through the mountains won’t be all that quick. Might be a place where flying is still a lot faster and more convenient, and rail can never take too much of the market.

  • davistrain

    Ah–“saving precious vacation days”; a while back there were several articles in travel and news magazines about how Americans get such meager vacation allowances compared to workers in (for example), Germany. I’m retired, so that’s no longer a consideration, but for folks with “day jobs” today’s companies dole out vacation days with a reluctant hand. Then you have “contract” workers, and part timers, who, if they do have time off, don’t have any money for travel.

  • Clearly, you’re not driving with my four year old.

    Also, the departure and arrival times are awful.

  • Sporty_Teacher

    I am one who has forsaken air travel all because of the TSA. I refuse to be treated like a criminal in order to travel about my own country. Security procedures have become overly and unnecessarily invasive with the body scanners and “enhanced” pat downs. I refuse to submit myself to such. If I can’t go by rail or car, I don’t go. Maybe one day the security procedures will change and I can fly again with my dignity intact while still being safe. Until then, the airlines won’t receive a cent from me.

  • andrelot

    You cannot possible connect Denver and Salt Lake City with a fast rail link without investments on the $ 15-20 billion dollar range.

  • Sharon Patrick Rodriguez

    What ever happened to the rule that passenger trains had priority over freight? Our family only travels by train, and we wouldn’t have it any other way!

  • Michael Klatsky

    You cannot connect those cities without a highway costing just as much either…

  • Michael Klatsky

    Stay in the faux America with your fake neighborhoods, houses with fake ornamental architecture, fake food (mickeyd’s), municipalities running on borrowed money and false sense of fiscal responsibility.

    About the things you mention: Do you really think the bills for replacing the “stuff” that runs your city won’t come due? The NE once had low taxes but failed to save any money for replacing anything. Fast forward your town fifty years when everything needs fixing and replacement and a developer isn’t around to foot the bill – you will most likely see burnt out subdivisions and cul due sacs run like somalia.

    The real America doesn’t shift its costs onto their grandchildren, like the auto cities are doing now. Second, can taxation from a low density place foot the bill for replacing the stuff that will need replacement? Of course not! That is why taxes are high in the low density NYC suburbs

  • andrelot

    There are already two highway links that serve both cities.

  • Michael Klatsky

    And they likely cost more than $20 billion each.

  • bolwerk

    Behl, sure we can. It’s ~500 miles using existing ROWs and first world greenfield HSR usually bats in around the $10-$20 million/mile range. Even mountainous Switzerland and Scandinavia manage about that.

    You can argue we won’t, but you can’t argue we can’t.

  • bolwerk

    The northeast probably has the lowest crime rates of any large region of the country. And the high taxes are at least partly attributable to tax donor status.

    I half agree about the weather, but it seems to be horrible across the entire continent and winters are only going to be harsher the further from the coasts you get. And summers only get worse the further south you go.

  • lop

    They say $13 billion for ~155 miles from DIA to Eagle airport, along existing ROW where practical, to get travel time from downtown Denver to Vail (97 miles) of two hours. I70 is in the mountains for a long time, and it winds around a lot. You can’t get trains running all that fast.