It infuriates me when the Cato institute uses Amtrak's subsidies as a protest against high speed rail (HSR). I've been to France. I've written the TGV. And now I've ridden Amtrak. And I can tell you, the two are as different as cheese and chalk*.
High speed rail in France operates like a steel-rail airplane. There are a couple of hubs where different lines meet, and the train goes full speed between those points, with few if any intermediate stops. It goes so fast that the landscape blurs. Paris to Nice was 578 miles, which took about 6 hours, giving it an average speed of about 96 miles per hour.
Riding Amtrak is like going on a cruise. It doesn't go very fast, because there is no reason to. It stops every hour, in tiny cities and towns all accross the U.S., letting a few people on, a few people off, letting people on the train get off and have a smoke. There is a dining car, and a viewing car, for watching the scenery slide by. It's pleasant, relaxed even, full of retired couples and college students. It took me 18 hours to travel 1000 miles, so it has an average speed of about 55 mph.
I've done a lot of road tripping, all over all parts of the west. Eleven hours to Phoenix or Seattle, twelve to Vancouver, BC, five hours to Las Vegas. On average, including bathroom breaks and maintaining a highway speed of about 85 mph, I figure I average about sixty miles an hour.
So, for me, it's never been worth it to take Amtrak. It just takes too long. Take, for example, San Francisco. A trip from SLC to SanFran on Amtrak would cost $180, and take 17 hours.
I could drive that in ten hours. It's about 600 miles, so at 30 mpg, that's 40 gallons of gas for the round-trip. Gas is running about $2.75 a gallon right now, so $110 for gas. 2/3 the time and 2/3 the price. No wonder Amtrak tries to compete on the basis of comfort and service--they clearly can't on speed or price!
But if you were to offer me a TGV equivalent... with an average speed of 96 mph, I'll call it a 6.5 hour trip. Faster than I can drive, with an on board bathroom, and an opportunity to sleep or read...I could get into that.
Flying clearly wins from a time perspective, but is a clear loser from a price persepective. If I fly Southwest, it would take about 5.5 hours. Half hour drive to the airport, half hour to check bags and clear security, four hour flight, half hour to get free from the airport. It would cost about $350 for the roundtrip.
Amtrak: $180, 34 hours
Drive: $120, 20 hours
TGV Equiv: ???, 13 hours.
Southwest: $350, 11 hours.
This suggests is would be reasonable to pay a great deal of money to ride a high speed train. Certainly, $200 round trip would be more then reasonable.
Don't buy into the Cato Institute's bad noise.
*In fairness, Amtrak is far from a coherent whole--it's a whole mess of routes scattered all across the U.S., some of which (the Acela) are actually reasonable.
9-line access access management access point accessibility ADA air quality alignment amenity antiplanner atlanta BART BID bike Blogs boston branded bus branded buses brookings brt bus Bus Rapid Transit BYU capacity car pool cars central link Centrality certification commuter rail condo congestion congestion pricing connections consistency coverage crossings CRT cycling DART dedicated dedicated right of way density denver depreciation developers development economics efficiency Envision Utah equity eugene exclusive extension FAQ favela Federal Funding Flex Bus florida free fare zone freeways Frequent Transit Network frontrunner frontunner Gallivan garden cities gas prices geotagging goat Google grade-separation Granary District growth headway heavy rail hedonic High Speed Rail history housing housing affordability housing bubble housing prices HOV income infill innovative intersections intensity ITS junk science LA land use LEED legacy city light rail linear park location LRT lyft M/ART malls mapping maps metrics metro MetroRail missoula mixed mixed traffic mixed-traffic mobile mode choice Mode Share multi-family MXD neighborhood networks news NIMBY office online op-ed open letter Operations parking parking meters peak travel pedestrian environment phasing Photomorphing planning Portland property property values Provo proximity quality_transit rail railvolution rant rapid rapid transit RDA real estate redevelopment reliability research retail Ridership ridesharing right of way roadway network ROW salt lake city san diego schedule schedule span seattle separated shuttle silver line single family SLC SLC transit master plan slums smartphone snow sprawl standing stop spacing streetcar streetscape streetscaping subdivision subsidy Sugarhouse Sugarhouse Streetcar Tacoma taxi technology tenure termini time-separation TOD townhouse traffic signal tram transit transit networks transit oriented development Transit Planning transponder transportation travel time TRAX trip planning trolley tunnel uber university of utah urban design urban economics urban land UTA UTA 2 Go Trip Planner utah Utah County Utah Transit Authority vmt walking distance web welfare transit Westside Connector WFRC wheelchairs zoning