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Fed-up fliers turn to U.S. train travel

After idling for decades, train travel in the U.S., while not quite out of the station, is beginning to work up a healthy head of steam — thanks to the hassles and costs of air travel.
Passengers ride the 5 California Zephyr Amtrak train in Nevada
Passengers ride the 5 California Zephyr Amtrak train in Nevada. Joshua Lott / REUTERS
/ Source: Reuters

After idling for decades, train travel in the United States, while not quite out of the station, is beginning to work up a healthy head of steam.

And experts say that is thanks largely to the mounting hassles and tacked-on costs of traveling by air.

"The airlines are prompting a renewed interest in rail travel," said Margie Jordan, CEO of ASAP Travel, based in Jacksonville, Fla.

"Clients paying extra for checked bags, carry-on bags, blankets, pillows, headsets, food, drinks and, in the case of Ryanair, even to use the toilet, are looking for a less expensive option," she said. "It's nice to see the resurgence of a travel experience that had seemingly lost its luster."

Even though the pre-World War II glory days of Art Deco dining cars and streamline sophistication are long gone, Ypartnership, a travel marketing company, found that nine percent of leisure travelers reported having taken at least one train trip during the past year.

That's a hefty increase from the four-to-six percent of previous years, according to CEO Peter Yesawich. And it includes more young people.

"Traditionally train travel has been favored by the older population," he said. "But it appears to be gaining among millennials and Gen-Xers. That's a surprising observation."

Not surprising is why.

"Last year one out of five commercial flights were delayed or canceled," he said. "And you're far more likely to get stuck in a middle seat because planes are flying so full."

He added that if quality rail travel was more available, more comfortable and more convenient people would opt out of other forms of transport.

President Barack Obama wants more Americans working on the railroad. The Department of Transportation awarded $8 billion of the economic stimulus package to develop high-speed passenger train service nationwide.

And last month Amtrak, the government-sponsored U.S. railroad company, announced a new department aimed at developing intercity high-speed rail service in select corridors.

Eric Torkells, an editor for, says the United States still chugs far behind Europe and Japan.

"It would be great to have corridors the way Europe does, but all our sprawl makes it hard to put down high-speed tracks, which have to be straight to achieve those speeds," Torkells explained.

"No one wants to fly more than they have to," he said. "And flying is the worst thing you can do in terms of environmental impact. When trains are a viable option, the number of flights goes down."

If Americans are leery of riding U.S. rails, they have no such qualms abroad.

"One of the most popular European destinations for Americans is Italy and it is getting its fair share of rail riders," said Mike Weingart of Travel Leaders in Houston, Texas. "The schedules are good and the service is reliable."

Leslie Parenteau, of Donovan Travel in Woonsocket, R.I., said Acela, Amtrak's high-speed rail service along the 457-mile Northeast Corridor, changed the habits of her corporate and leisure clients since it was rolled out in 2000.

"The Acela train kicked bookings away from air travel," she said. "Train travel was not convenient until the Acela came along.

But in Europe the first thought of transportation is trains.

"This country is so far behind," she said, adding that when flooding recently wiped out part of the train she thought of other options.

"We actually started looking at the bus schedules."