BOSTON (Reuters) - Looking up at a list of delayed trains at Boston’s crowded South Station on a summer afternoon, Peter Pesis asks why passenger trains in the United States are so slow, so crowded and so prone to delays.
“This is not like Europe,” sighed the 38-year-old Greek native who has lived in New York 15 years and often rides the nation’s only high-speed train, Amtrak’s Acela Express, between midtown Manhattan and Boston.
Rising costs of traveling by air and car, brought on by record oil prices, drew a record 2.8 million people onto America’s cash-strapped passenger railway network in July, the largest of any single month in Amtrak’s 37-year history and up nearly 14 percent from a year earlier.
But as passenger numbers grow, so too are complaints of overcrowding and delays.
Like many Acela travelers, Pesis grumbles at why the train is limited to reaching its top speed of 150 miles per hour (240 kmh) for just 20 miles on two sections of track in Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
Compare that to France, which has the world’s fastest high-speed train, the TGV, that runs for long stretches at speeds as high as 200 miles an hour (322 kmh). And Japan, which boasts its 186 mph (299 kmh) “Shinkansen” trains.
The Acela barely beats a car, averaging just 82 mph (129 kmh) on its 456 mile Northeast Corridor, which connects Washington, Philadelphia, New York and Boston, slowed by 19th-century tunnels and other aging infrastructure. High-speed rail is usually defined as faster than 120 mph (200 kmh).
“They need to improve the speed,” said Pesis, echoing a popular gripe. “It’s very slow.”
The bigger crowds are also a challenge for Amtrak. Maurice Levene, a 67-year-old health-care consultant who lives in New York and runs a business in Boston, says securing a seat is harder.
“I‘m looking for the track so I can get a seat because I like to sit on the outside,” he said as he made his way through Boston’s South Station. “When I travel with my wife, it’s really a pain getting two seats together.”
Further south in Hartford, Connecticut, Linda Sarangoulis waited for her 3:20 p.m. train to Philadelphia.
“The ticket counter said it was going to be 20 minutes late,” said Sarangoulis of Reading, Pennsylvania. “In Europe, you can hop the train so much easier and it’s cheaper. I don’t know why we can’t do that here. If they had more trains, maybe I would ride more,” she said.
Passenger rail systems in Britain, France and Germany account for about 6 to 8 percent of total annual passenger travel miles. Amtrak carries less than 1 percent. Japan, with the world’s busiest high-speed rail network, carries 18 percent.
But that’s changing. Rising gas prices are straining America’s love of the open road. An estimated 1.1 percent fewer people will travel by car over the Labor Day holiday, which begins on August 29, the American Automobile Association estimates.
And many are thinking twice about flying. Labor Day ticket demand is projected to fall for the first time in six years, dropping 5.7 percent, the Air Transport Association of America says, as higher fees and declining service take a toll.
Vanesa Lopez, a 31-year-old New Yorker, prefers the bus because she worries trains will be delayed. “I‘m skeptical -- is it going to be on time?” she said. “When I was in Europe, I took the train a lot.”
Recent data back that up. The Acela’s on-time performance is down 4.4 percent in the year to July, and the slower Northeast Regional trains are off 2.7 percent -- alarming trends for Amtrak’s busiest routes, experts say.
Nationally, Amtrak does better. The number of on-time trains across its entire 21,000-mile (33,796-km) network rose 2.7 percent this year, thanks to long-distance services like the “Crescent” between New York and New Orleans, and the “Coast Starlight” between Seattle and Los Angeles.
“They have a fair number of passenger cars that are out of service that could be put back into service with modest amounts of expenditure. But their budget doesn’t permit that,” said John Spychalski, a professor at Pennsylvania State University who studies the U.S. rail network.
Amtrak chief executive officer Alex Kummant has said that about 60 out-of-service cars could be refurbished for $700,000 each but they can only afford to overhaul 12 of them.
Senate Democrats introduced legislation this year that would authorize Amtrak to borrow nearly $3 billion to spend on replacing railcars. The bill would also direct $400 million in gas taxes each year to expand capacity. The Bush administration has sought to scrap direct federal funding for Amtrak.
November’s presidential election could be pivotal. Democratic Sen. Barack Obama says he would fight for Amtrak funding while seeking reforms. His Republican rival, Sen. John McCain, has in the past sought to block subsidies for Amtrak.
Travelers just hope costs for traveling don’t go higher.
“For me it costs the same to fly, to drive or to take the train, so you just have to pick your poison,” said Linda Falconiero, a 61-year-old retiree from Baltimore, as she waited for a train in Boston. “I want to stay out of the airports, so it’s easier to do this.”
Reporting by Jason Szep; Additional reporting by Lucy Nalpathanchil in Hartford; Editing by Eddie Evans