Blogs > Jim Loewen > Can American Trains Achieve Steam Speeds in the Modern Era?

Dec 15, 2011

Can American Trains Achieve Steam Speeds in the Modern Era?

I began writing this piece aboard Amtrak's Acela, the fastest train in North America.  It travels from Washington to Boston in 6 hours and 32 minutes.  Eventually, we read, despite Republicans, we may have truly high-speed rail, linking those cities and also perhaps speeding through corridors in California, Florida, and the Midwest. 

Pardon me, but haven't we been around this track before?

I remember reading the same story back in 1965.  Then they called it the Metroliner.  It would speed between Boston and Washington at an amazing 115 mph.  I remember that story because I remember where I was when I read it.  I was on a train.  Indeed, I was riding the famous City of New Orleans between Jackson, Mississippi, and Mattoon, Illinois.  I got to the Metroliner article as we were passing through the flat corn fields of central Illinois. 

The City of New Orleans was then the second fastest train in America, after the Santa Fe Super Chief.  It streaked along the Illinois prairie at 81 mpg, including stops.  Owing to holiday traffic, we were running late, so between Carbondale and Mattoon the train made up fifteen minutes.  A little long division revealed that this accomplishment required that we be traveling at about 115 mph between stops.

So already in 1965 I had a feeling of deja vu, reading about the marvelous new Metroliner.  The Metroliner went into service in 1969, the last accomplishment of private passenger rail service in the United States before Amtrak took over in 1971.  Owing to design problems with the self-propelled cars, the Metroliner never ventured north of New York City and rarely exceeded 90 mph. It averaged just 75 mph. 

Amtrak Metroliner train, 1974

In 2000, Amtrak put its Acela in service between Boston and Washington.  The new train was supposed to travel at speeds up to 150 mph and does reach that speed for two short distances.  Despite those bursts, on its journey from Boston to D.C.—456 miles—it averages just under 70 mph (78 mph for the old Metroliner part of the run, from New York City to D.C.).  If Acela merely went as fast as the Illinois Central's City of New Orleans did in Illinois half a century ago—81 mph with stops — it would reach Washington 5 hours and 40 minutes after leaving Boston, shaving almost an hour off its current schedule.  If it went as fast as the City of New Orleans did when I took it, making up time, it would arrive in Washington in just 5 hours.

Nevertheless, Acela is an accomplishment of sorts, because it is so much faster than today's regular passenger service.  Amtrak schedules its City of New Orleans at just 64 mph between Carbondale and Mattoon owing to freight traffic and track deterioration on the Illinois Central.  From New Orleans to Chicago the fabled train averages less than 48 mph.  It went faster in the age of steam, even though it had to stop about every 50 miles for water.  The successor to the Super Chief now takes 41.25 hours to trundle from Chicago to Los Angeles, averaging 54 mph.  In 1956 it required just 37.5 hours, about 60 mph. 

Other trains are even worse.  The Vermonter averages just 44 mph and actually runs backward from Palmer, Massachusetts, to its terminus in St. Albans, Vermont, to avoid a bad patch of track.  The famed Lake Shore Limited—successor to Cary Grant and Eva Saint Marie’s favorite train, the 20th Century Limited—is limited, all right:  Passengers now climb aboard in New York City at 3:45 pm instead of 5:00 pm, and reach Chicago at 9:45 the next morning instead of 7:45.  To a business traveler, those differences are huge. 

The Lake Shore Limited entering Croton-on-Hudson, NY, 2008

The first point of this commentary, then, is not to argue for high-speed rail (that would be a different article), but simply for a return to the speeds that America's regular passenger railroads achieved at the close of the age of steam.  Then we might strive further to ramp up to the speeds of the diesel heyday.  I remain suspicious that high speed rail—trains capable of traveling at, say, 200 mph in Japan—would somehow wind up averaging maybe 80 in the U.S. ... just like the City of New Orleans in 1965. 

My second (and final) point is not to kvetch, but to coax my readers to try a train.  Last week, for example, I spoke at Notre Dame.  I took the Capitol Limited, leaving D.C. Union Station at 4:05 pm.  After passing the familiar Maryland suburbs from an unusual vantage-point, the train runs along the Potomac River, with the ruins of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal in between.  I went to the Sightseer Lounge to catch the best view of rapids that I had canoed years ago, the Shenandoah joining the Potomac at Harpers Ferry, and the Armory, also known as John Brown's Fort.  The town of Harpers Ferry looked like a fairyland as dusk came down, and I toasted it with a Sierra Pale Ale.  Later I enjoyed a steak, cooked rare, with Amtrak's new horseradish butter sauce, baked potato, salad, and cheesecake.  The dining cars on the overnight trains bear no resemblance to the sad "AmCafes" on day-time trains such as the Northeast Regional service between Boston and Washington.  After dinner, I retired to my little compartment, did some work, read a book, then asked the porter to make up my bed for the night.  The next morning I took a shower, had cheese blintzes for breakfast, and stepped off the train in South Bend at 7:56 AM, five minutes late. 

Amtrak dining car, 2009

To accomplish such an arrival by plane, I would have had to have left earlier in the afternoon and arrived at the South Bend airport around 11:00 pm after a change of flights at O'Hare.  Then I would have had to get to Notre Dame and rent a room at their inn. 

Returning made even more sense:  my train left South Bend at 8:34 pm, perfectly timed for the end of my 6:30 pm, talk.  It arrived in D.C. at 1:00 pm the next day, twenty minutes late.  Flying, assuming I had awakened at 7:00 am after another hotel night in South Bend, 1:00 pm is about when I might have arrived in D.C. by air.  But the train was much more fun.  Always, I wind up in interesting conversations about sundown towns, chain saw sculpture ("It's not just bears anymore."), and other important historical topics.  Except during the summer, trains are also cheaper, even with a sleeper, because tickets include meals and overnight accommodations. 

No one I met at Notre Dame had ever taken Amtrak to or from South Bend.  When the NCSS, OAH, or AHA meet in DC, I rarely meet anyone from Chicago or Indiana who has come by train.  The same holds for Atlanta, South Carolina, Savannah, and northern Florida, all within convenient distance of D.C. by overnight train.  Other Amtrak overnight routes that have met my business and speaking needs include Kansas City to southern Colorado, Montana to Portland and Seattle, and central Illinois to Memphis. 

Try one!  You're helping maintain an important resource.  You're saving energy, compared to other forms of travel.  You're participating in history—often at speeds so slow they come from the 1930s, not the 1950s.  Best of all, you're having a blast. 


Copyright James Loewen

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