Monday, May 20, 2013


There's a lengthy and interesting article in the Sunday edition of the New York Times about the decaying railroad lines in Pakistan.  The problem seems to be one of funding disappearing as more and more shipping went to different modes of transportation.  That coupled with a country rent by militias and warlords and the Taliban and the tracks are rusting and trains are running later and later and passengers are leaving in droves to ride buses.  The last time the railroad, which was created by the British in the days of the Raj, made a profit was 1974.  That's nearly 40 years ago!  The destruction of the rail industry seems to echo much that has gone wrong in Pakistan.  

The wealthy and the military center around Lahore, on the Indian border, but their lavish social events have to be held in secure compounds even there.

But the railroads.  I remember reading Paul Theroux' wondrous tales of traveling to mysterious corners of the world on some of those trains that used to run from the Khyber Pass all the way to the former capital and largest city of Karachi, on the Arabian Sea.  But now the railcars are hot and dirty and less used and always late.

I couldn't help wondering if this is the future of Amtrak in the United States.  Much of the freight shipping business has left the trains here for trucks.  We hear of a crumbling infrastructure here, too.  Can Amtrak be far behind the wasting railroads of Pakistan?

I have ridden Amtrak trains . . . up the California coastline, from New York to Washington, D.C. on the Metroliner, and even before it was Amtrak, taking to the rails between Minneapolis and Bismarck, North Dakota.  When I was a very young lad, the train still stopped at the depot in Stanley, my very small home town, and occasionally I would ride it to Minot, a mere 60 mile trek.

I have ridden trains in Mexico (decidedly NOT a good experience) and through Europe (a grand experience).  I remember a wonderful meal served on a white table cloth covered table between Innsbruck, Austria, and Florence, Italy.  My memory seems to tell me there was even a flower in a vase on the table and I'm sure wine was served.  Somewhere I have a photo of SWMBO and I standing outside a railcar with a sign proclaiming it "The Orient Express".  It wasn't the train of fame but one of many that have borrowed that title.

All of which is to say that I would hate to see Amtrak go the fate of the Pakistani trains.


Phil Perisich said...

The nearest Amtrak station to Prescott is Flagstaff. There is only one train, east and west, both arriving at bad times at night.
Amtrak no longer services Phoenix after a terrorist derailed a train in 1994.
Don't plan on a spontaneous trip; most trains are full and require seat reservations far ahead.
Amtrak uses freight train tracks in much of the country because it does not have it's own. You can seasick going through MIssouri.
Amtrak is not convient for northern Arizona.

Stephen Hayes said...

I've enjoyed many trains in Europe and agree it would be a shame if American rails went the way of Pakistan's. One of my favorite songs is Arlo Guthrie's The Spirit of New Orleans.

Tom Cochrun said...

Good motivating post. I've ridden trains in many areas and in fact prefer trains to flying. Train travel in the US should be a political agenda item.

Tom said...

Bruce: I suspect that most railway systems in Europe are state owned or state assisted. Here in France the SNCF is 100% owned by the state, and that includes the stations. The track and other facilities are not so, or so it appears. And TGV's are great, clean, fast and punctual. You do need to book tickets in advance. (We once booked tickets for Rudesheim in Germany, but as the station didn't appear on the French computer, as far as they were concerned Rudesheim didn't exist. So we booked at the next station along the line.)

The UK rail system is entirely privately owned, with multiple private franchises involved, and with the track and stations etc owned by yet another private company. (The government is involved in various ways, financially.) I don't get the feeling people are that happy with the system.

I would guess that the Pakistan railway system is entirely state funded. So state-owned seems to work well in some parts of the world but not in others. How that would affect the US system I don't know. Do you have government funded industries (other than NASA)?

Lucy said...

Switzerland's supposed to be the most wonderful place to travel by train, for all kinds of reasons. I've got their rail-map on a PDF and Pinterest links to various websites, and plan fantasy Swiss railway holidays. Trouble is everything's so expensive there.

Sharon said...

I'd love to see our government spend a little money on infrastructure and rail lines. It really does seem a shame that our only choices for travel here are driving and flying. Train travel offers so much more. I've taken trains extensively in Europe and enjoyed every trip. You see so much more that way and you meet nice people too. I remember my first trip on the Eurostar between London and Paris very well. On the way there I was glued to the window seat watching the scenery and didn't get up even when it went dark as we entered the chunnel. On the way back to London I spent the entire time in the club car drinking champagne with my friends. I loved that trip. There are so many wonderful places to see in the U.S.; a working train system would be a plus for all of us.

Bruce Taylor, a.k.a. Catalyst said...

The Amtrak station in Maricopa is only 35 minutes from me in Phoenix. I used the train once many years ago when it still went through Phoenix. We've thought of taking it east to New Orleans some day.

Bruce Taylor, a.k.a. Catalyst said...

Many U.S. industries are subsidized by the government, like agriculture, but I can't name any specifics. I took the TGV from somewhere near Nice, I think, to Paris back in the 80's and loved it. Like being in an airplane but on the ground.

Bruce Taylor, a.k.a. Catalyst said...

Sharon, I couldn't agree more.

Bruce Taylor, a.k.a. Catalyst said...

Lucy, the trip from Munich (I think) up to Innsbruck, Austria was through the Alps and the scenery had us darting from one side of the train to the other to snap pictures. Beautiful!