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Rail Travel in 2013: A Waiting Year

Overall, 2013 is shaping up as a “more of the same” year, with only modest technical improvements and just the usual sales and promotions. Rail systems in many parts of the world are working on improvements, but you won’t see any big projects completed until 2014 and beyond.

Amtrak: Given the current U.S. budget crunch, Amtrak will be lucky to hold its own this year. Although ridership and revenues hit an all-time high in 2012, the system still depends on federal subsidies, and some key budget cutters are eyeing Amtrak as a target. Funding for the biggest projects—a true high-speed system in California, the new tunnels from New Jersey into Manhattan, and a few others—is iffy, and on-the-ground improvements are years away, if ever. The only significant improvements may come in the Midwest, where incremental track improvements are slowly extending the relatively few miles where Amtrak’s trains can run as fast as 110 miles per hour.

At best, this year you may see some modest schedule improvements on Amtrak’s long-distance trains. The busy freight lines that host—often reluctantly—those Amtrak trains are double-tracking some congested lines and improving tracks, generally. But the main benefit is likely to be fewer delays.

Amtrak will continue to offer its usual discounts and short-term promotions. Again, don’t expect any initiatives.

Non-Amtrak: Other rail improvements in the United States will also be limited. The most intriguing proposal is the X Train between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, a private venture that hopes to launch luxury service by next New Year’s Eve. It will be a conventional train, operating over Union Pacific tracks, at conventional speeds. By comparison, the competitive high-speed Xpress West proposal is still in the pie-in-the-sky phase. Beyond the X Train, about all you’ll see is a few miles of light rail expansions in Atlanta, Denver, New Orleans, Salt Lake City, and Tucson plus the short phase-one link in Washington’s Silver Line metro that will ultimately reach Dulles Airport. Probably the best news for travelers is that light rail will reach Salt Lake City’s airport this year.

Via Rail Canada: The Canadians don’t plan on any big projects this year. At best, you can probably expect still more extensions of VIA Rail’s periodic half-off sales and ongoing short-term “express deals” with price cuts up to 75 percent.

Europe: European railroads opened up a few short stretches of new high-speed track last year and will probably open a few more this year, but the big projects aren’t due for another three to five years. The main current developments are in the organization and operation of existing lines, with several countries opening up their tracks to competitive operators. That development may result in some lower fares, but it could complicate the use of rail passes. Some of the new private operators, including Italy’s Italo train system, have so far opted not to sign up with either the Italian or European rail passes.

Meanwhile, the economic crunch in Europe is curtailing or postponing some previously planned systems. Portugal, for example, has dropped plans for a high-speed connection to Spain.

In 2012, RailEurope ran a few rail-pass promotions, and you can expect some more in 2013. Last year’s “five days for the price of four” sale on Swiss rail passes is still going on, and you may see a few similar deals later in the year.

China: The big news for 2012 in high-speed rail was the completion of all the links between Beijing and Guangzhou (Canton): about 1,400 miles of full high-speed operation, with travel times as low as eight hours. In total, China now operates the world’s largest high-speed rail network, currently at just under 6,000 miles and targeted for 11,000 miles by 2015.

Rest of the World: Very few new openings are scheduled for 2013. Systems under construction in Japan, Korea, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey won’t be finished until 2015.

Ed Perkins on Travel is copyright (c) 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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