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Someone Needs To Tell The Kids About Railroads



Apparently Generation Z is really excited about railroads. High speed railroads even, ones that cover America.

There’s a reason Generation Z is still at school – they know nothing. It being the job of actual adults to educate them of course.

To those not quite used to the size of American those travel times might look reasonable enough. They are, however, great big dangly hairy bits. Because what they’ve done is plot out how long it takes to cover the distance at that 220 miles per hour. Which isn’t, in fact, how trains work.

Such is the popularity among Gen Z-ers of high-speed rail.

“We look at other countries that have good examples of it, and we wonder why our country can’t do that,” Cara said. “It seems like a simple solution that we can’t find the reason as to why we’re not doing it.”

Well, more than anything else it’s the size of the damn place.

High-speed rail infrastructure exists across Europe and Asia, where publicly owned and maintained tracks can connect passengers from Beijing to Hong Kong in nine hours, or Madrid to Barcelona in under three hours.

Well, OK, Madrid to Barcelona then. That’s 300 miles – ish. It takes 3 hours – ish. It’s true that the top speed of the train is that 220 mph. But trains don’t in fact run at such speeds all along the track. There’re these little things called stations along the way.

And the high-speed TGV in France, for example, goes 200 miles per hour.

“At that speed, you could get from New York City to Chicago in about four hours,” Juliet Eldred, a Numtot co-founder and transit planner, said. “The current train is about 20 hours. That makes me viscerally enraged.”

Well, that NYC to Chicago distance is about 800 miles. Not dissimilar to hte Paris to Madrid run on the TGV. Which takes about 10 hours.



Trains accelerate away from stations. Then they run at full pelt. Then they slow down and brake in order to stop at the next station. And so on. How long a train journey takes isn’t really determined by the top speed of the train. Rather, by how many stations stops there are along the way.

You probably could run from NYC to Chicago in for or five hours. But of course you’d only be able to cater to the travel needs of those who want to go from NYC to Chicago. You couldn’t actually stop the train anywhere else and still make the times.

There’s a reason we send the young folks to school. It’s so that they learn stuff. The corollary to this being that we don’t listen to their damn fool ideas until they have.



  1. They seem to think railways operate like motorways. Lots of parallel traffic going from their own As to their own Bs with no intermediate stops. “Look, on the M1 you can get from London to Doncaster and also Leicester to Leeds!” Yebbut, that’s *two* *different* journeys. They may happen at the same time, but they are essentially two different M1s that happen to occupy the same physical space. Trains. Don’t. Work. That. Way.

    It’s the same reason motorways don’t go *to* towns, they go past towns and a branch forks off to serve the town, whereas railways *do* go through towns and *don’t* have a line that branches off a main trunk. And why – even though I advocate cancelling HS2 – I bash my head against the wall at the plans that have the rail line running past the outskirts of town, and the planners saying “oh, people will get a local service to the HS2 interchange”. Will they ekkers. If I have to get a bus to the train station to get a train to the train station to get a train to…. I’m just going to think bugger it and just get a normal London train straight from the station in town. Or get in a car.

    Unless they are advocating millions of 4-seat railway vehicles.

    • “If I have to get a bus to the train station to get a train to the train station to get a train to…. I’m just going to think bugger it and just get a normal London train straight from the station in town. Or get in a car.”

      This is what the politicians and planners never, ever get about trains. Once you start adding in connections, it kills the advantages. Most of our train use in the UK is commuting, and nearly all of that is travel to station, direct train, maybe a bus/tube to office, then walk. And that bus/tube has to go frequently. You put in a 10-15 minute delay in there, it really adds to the journey. It’s why sales guys are in cars.

  2. @jgh – You mean like the hyperloop? (snigger)
    @TW – You’ve missed another point – the modern high speed rail lines run on tracks that are markedly straighter and flatter than the lines built in the 19th century or even the first half of the 20th. It’s very hard to do this in developed countries today.

  3. The longest high-speed rail link in the world is in China (natch) from Beijing to Guangzhou (Canton, as was) at a tad under 2,300km, which is long enough to get ¾ of the way from LA to Chicago. But the Chinese line has a dozen stops and so takes 8-10 hours, and (of course) there are a dozen cities en route each with a population in the millions (including Wuhan), whereas between LA and Chicago it’s mainly tumbleweed (I know, I’ve taken the journey). It’s unlikely that anyone actually uses the train to go all the way from Beijing to Guangzhou, except for train nuts, like me.

    High-speed rail only works in large, densely populated areas – the UK is too small and the US is too thinly populated (except for the Bos-Wash corridor).

    • The distances are why, in particular, the UK HS plans are a waste of money. “Why don’t we have high speed like the French?” Well, mostly because a lot of French cities are 300 miles from the capital.

      If I have to sometimes go and see a client once a month in London, and it’s 49 minutes instead of 1’24, it’s mostly irrelevant. I’m still going to do the trip, The only real benefit of high speed rail is that you get the time down a lot, that say, you don’t have to stay in a hotel overnight. If they got my Manchester journey down to 2’30 from 4 hours, I’d pay for that. I’d save money on a hotel, for starters.

      • HSR works even better in Germany, where the four major business/population centres (Ruhr, Hamburg, Berlin and Munich) are one in each corner of a square country, with not a lot in between (OK, Frankfurt-am-Main is a convenient centre).

  4. Viscerally enraged as someone without even a child’s understanding of how rail systems work? Good grief, how do these lunatics stay out of the asylum?

  5. As to get many places I have to go through London, I can basically get door to door from about 25 miles south of London to Nottingham faster than the train, or to Manchester in about the same time, and it’s door to door, and as I’m quite elderly, with almost unlimited luggage – by car. As I’d need the car to even get to my nearest railway station, it actually makes more sense to go by car all the way, especially as most of the time the car park is full of commuters’ cars and I can’t park anyway. Yes, allegedly one can work on the train, but not if you are standing all the way.

  6. If New York to Chicago takes 20 hours, but Paris to Madrid takes 10 for a similar distance, it seems there is considerable scope for improvement in America.

    • Well yes, because it isn’t high-speed rail at the moment (and as Ken points out, changing it to high-speed would be neither cheap nor trivial) but even if you did cut the time down to 10 hours, how competitive is that going to be with air travel? The people advocating this seem to think that the 20 hour journey by rail is what’s causing folk to fly from NYC to Chicago instead. If you cut the rail time to 10 hours… they’ll still be flying.

      It’s people making shorter journeys between points on the route that make this kind of project commercially viable, and you’d need a lot to recoup the enormous cost – I haven’t done the number crunching but I don’t think the population density in between NYC and Chicago compares favourably to that between Paris and Madrid. My non-expert impression is that high-speed rail running North-South along the denser/more economically important parts of California would make much more sense than NYC-Chicago, and indeed work in Cali is trudging forwards, but that project has (as an understatement) not been entirely without its hitches. I don’t know how much will end up being built in the end, once losses are cut and compromises with reality are made. If NYC-Chicago ever gets sufficient momentum to get off the starting blocks, I don’t think it’s safe to assume the end point would be successful completion of a high-speed route all the way from NYC to Chicago.

      • OH YES! We will have high speed rail between the dense population centers of Bakersfield and Fresno. We just need the federal government to spunk us another few billion dollars.

  7. From Vox: the high-speed rail map image because I think a lot of urban planning and urbanism today, especially in the United States, is so devoid of inspiration because it’s so beaten down by so-called pragmatism, labor costs, legal issues, things like that,
    Damn you reality, damn you rule of law, we want high speed rail so there.


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