My dear, departed friend Tony Graves, piano genius and one of the nicest men ever to grace this mean little world, used to say that America was the greatest country because it gave him a High School diploma even though he never could read. I don’t agree – it seems to me a rather difficult feat for those who don’t meet a narrow, mainstream definition of what an American should know and think (or not think). Unlike Tony, I believe that anyone who manages to graduate from those teenage penal facilities has just managed a spectacular achievement.
My sister just graduated from one of Davidson County, North Carolina’s holding tanks for adolescents, and I recently went to view the ceremony (and thereby missed Open Streets). This was such an important occasion that I chose to fly despite my antipathy toward commercial air travel. I’ve taken the train and the bus out there before, the former enjoyably and the latter miserably, but my job is a major restriction on my freedom at the moment. So through the air in an aluminum tube I went!
When I’m planning a trip I often find myself comparing my options to similar distances on other continents. This is usually the result of a thought process that goes
- I wonder if I can take a train to _____?
- The train to _____ takes three days! I wonder if I have that much time off?
- I used up all my vacation days writing in my blog! %#$@$(@$*!!!!
- I bet if I lived it Europe the train wouldn’t take so long.
Charlotte is about 950 miles from Minneapolis as the crow flies, a distance comparable to that between Berlin and Barcelona, or Beijing and Chengdu. So I searched for travel times and fares for flying, training and busing on the same dates between the three sets of cities. (Already the futility of this exercise is obvious – the differences in size, function and wealth of these cities is naturally going to lead to differences in transportation between them – but hey it makes me feel better to think about it).
Here is a crudely reproduced table showing the shortest one-way travel time and lowest two-way fare between each of the cities (usually the shortest travel time was not the lowest fare anyway, so I decoupled them):
A few notes:
- For some reason I couldn’t get the train fare for Berlin to Barcelona – I tried a few different sites but none of them could estimate it.
- My guess is you could find a quicker and cheaper bus trip from Berlin to Barcelona, but I don’t know of any site that creates itineraries. Eurolines seems to specialize in shorter-distance red-eyes, and although the website led me to believe this trip is direct from Berlin to Barcelona (34 hours on a bus sounds miserable), I’d guess it is a composite of some shorter routes since google says the car trip between the two cities is only 18 hours (a couple hours shorter than Minneapolis to Charlotte by car). The site said the trip from Berlin to Barcelona was only possible three times a week, but there are daily trips between Berlin and Paris, and Paris and Barcelona. Qui sait?
- I’m not sure the Beijing – Chengdu train trip is anywhere near accurate – there are some websites that will give you estimates for train travel in China, but if you decide to buy the site actually books the tickets in China. I’m not sure if they adjust the fare up if it ends up higher or if they just pad it extensively. Apparently bus travel similarly has to be booked in China, although I couldn’t even find a website with sample itineraries.
Looking over the times, my frustration really is justified. It seems that Amtrak is uniquely slow and expensive. The sad thing is that it can’t even be explained by long transfer times – if you don’t count the 8 hours between trains, the travel time is still 33 hours, much longer than train travel in Europe or China. The bus times are more favorable, but multi-day trips on buses can really be physically draining.
Even in Europe air travel is still much shorter than taking the train at this distance, and probably cheaper as well (from memory I’d guess that this Berlin-Barcelona trip is $250-300). The aggressive plan for completing more high-speed rail lines will certainly make travel times more competitive, though it may make fares less competitive.
Who knows if plans for medium-speed rail in the USA will ever get off the ground, much less evolve into a national network? Buses are getting better at shorter-distance trips, but until you can get up and walk around on a bus, it just won’t work very well outside of regional travel (although bus lanes without speed limits on the interstates might cut travel times enough to make it tolerable). We’ll see if the USA will ever graduate to a multi-modal transportation system.