This year I am trying to spend less time on airplanes, as part of a global movement motivated by carbon emissions concerns.

Amtrak, the US national passenger rail company (the only national passenge rail company in the US), is in a really sad state right now. They keep getting their budget cut, and freight companies have found several innovative ways to save money at the expense of safety and passenger rail quality. So rail exists in the US, technically, but it is not generally considered a desirable way to go. Maybe that will change as people seek non-airplane methods of travel.

The place where I work will let me take rail, but they won’t reimburse more than the equivalent flight. This has never been a problem for me: flying has always come in more expensive than train.

On this upcoming trip, I have to stay overnight in Chicago, because there is only one train per day on each line. Even though the train is $315 less than the cheapest flight, I am not allowed to apply any of that toward lodging reimbursement.

If you assume people are going to take the option that lines up closest to their personal economic interest, that’s 2 points against the train, both of which carry an outsized societal burden.

Point 1: Time

My time is worth something to me, and taking 4 additional days for a work trip kinda sucks. A lot of people will stop considering rail travel based just on this point. There’s a way to fix this, by upgrading tracks so that passenger trains can go much faster, and by finally addressing how the mega-long freight trains can’t yeild to the passenger trains, because there aren’t stretches of side track long enough for them to do so. (People who would know assure me that the freight companies are well aware of what they’re doing to passenger rail)

This fix requires two things: a country willing to spend lots of money on passenger rail, and the political will to do something that will make freight companies really upset. I’m not seeing that the country is excited about any kind of infrastructure spending, much less passenger rail. And I’m definitely not seeing a country that wants to hurt any kind of commerce. But maybe if more scientists are inconvenienced by rail, the winds can shift.

Point 2: Money

Even though it costs fewer dollars for me to take the train, my company is not set up to handle this. The result is that I have to pay out of pocket for the hotel stays, and I will not get reimbursed.

If taking over 3 times longer wasn’t enough to dissuade people, telling them it will also cost them $400 that won’t be reimbursed is going to make rail travel look like a bad decision.

The fix for this is easier: my company needs to figure out a way to consider that the train is saving them money, and allow me to spend some of that savings on the required hotel. I’ve started trying to see what I can do to make that happen. It may take a few years, and depends on senior management caring, but I think it has a higher chance of happening.

If enough places figure out how to stope penalizing people for taking the cheaper option, maybe there will be sufficient public interest in point 1 for something to happen there.