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Earth Talk: Why are US rail options limited compared with Europe?

The US has the lowest rate of intercity rail usage, but Congress is taking steps to change this.

By The Editors of E Magazine / August 6, 2009

New Yorkers greeted the Acela train at Penn Station on its first commercial run from Washington to Boston in 2000.

ZUMA PRESS/NEWSCOM/FILE

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Q: If train travel is so much less polluting than driving or flying, why are passenger rail options in the US so limited compared with Europe? And is anything being done to shift more travelers over to American rail lines from cars and planes?
Jeffrey Orenstein, Bradenton, Fla.

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A: It’s true that train travel is one of the lowest impact ways to get from point to point short of walking, jogging, or bicycling. In the early part of the 20th century, taking the train was really the only practical way for Americans to get from city to city. By 1929 the US boasted one of the largest and most used rail networks in the world.

The closing of rail lines and the improvement of highways, including development of the Interstate highway system, combined to shift Americans’ tastes away from rail travel and toward cars. As a result, while Europe focused on building rail networks, the US became the ultimate auto nation: By 1965 only 10,000 rail passenger cars were in operation across just 75,000 miles of track.

In response to the declining use of America’s rail network, the government created Amtrak in 1971 to provide intercity passenger train service, running mostly on preexisting track. Today Amtrak runs some 1,500 rail passenger cars on 21,000 miles of track connecting 500 destinations in 46 states. In 2008, more than 28 million passengers rode Amtrak trains, representing the sixth straight year of record ridership. Despite this, the US still has one of the lowest rates of intercity rail usage in the developed world.

But that may all change soon. This spring, President Obama allocated $8 billion of his stimulus package toward development of more high-speed rail lines across the country, citing the need to reduce both greenhouse-gas emissions and reliance on foreign oil. Currently only one high-speed rail line exists in the US, Amtrak’s Acela Express, which can reach speeds of 150 miles per hour on its Washington to Boston route. The success of high-speed, high-efficiency “bullet” trains in Asia and Europe has helped convince American transportation analysts that the US should also take the high-speed rail plunge.

The first round of federal funding will go toward upgrading and increasing speeds on existing lines, but the majority of it will be used to jump-start construction of new high speed lines in 10 corridors across the country, including in northern New England, across New York State and Pennsylvania, in and around Chicago, throughout the Southeast, and up and down the West Coast.

A 2006 study by the Center for Clean Air Policy and the Center for Neighborhood Technology concluded that building a high-speed rail system across the US could result in 29 million fewer car trips and 500,000 fewer plane flights each year, saving 6 billion pounds of carbon dioxide emissions – the equivalent of removing a million cars from the road annually.

Questions about living green? Send to: EarthTalk, c/o E - The Environmental Magazine, Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com.