Towards a better American rail network

Just about every American I meet who has just returned from Europe asks the same (rhetorical?) question: Why can’t we have a rail system like that?

It’s a good question. Rail travel is (arguably) more convenient and comfortable than flying, and more energy efficient. And, for short and medium-haul trips, sometimes it’s even faster. Yet we’re stuck with Amtrak. So what gives?

Sprawl and lower population density, says San Francisco Chronicle travel columnist Ed Perkins. Calling for an improved U.S. rail network in a recent column, Perkins outlines the major hurdles for building one:

Unfortunately, high-speed rail works better in Europe than it would in the United States. European populations and employment centers are much more concentrated in and near city centers than is the case here, where suburban housing sprawl and office parks have become the norm. Low-end, high-speed rail is working already in the one part of the United States best adapted to rail travel: the corridor between Boston and Washington. Transportation mavens cite a “California Corridor” linking Sacramento, San Francisco and Los Angeles as a likely prime target for new high-speed rail, along with some routes radiating from Chicago. But even those are a bit of a stretch. Elsewhere, it’s hard to find corridors with enough city-center demand to fill those hourly trains.

Fair points, all. But Perkins sees a brighter future for high-speed rail travel in America, provided we – meaning everyday folks like us – ask for it, and pony up the cash:

High-speed rail can’t be supported out of the fare box; it requires big public investment. But there is a rationale: High-speed rail can ease what will otherwise be inevitable congestion problems and inadequate capacity at many of our major airports, and it can substitute for massive new highway construction. Moreover, rail is more energy-efficient than flying or driving.
Ultimately, you, the taxpayers, will have the final say. If you support the idea of high-speed rail, let your elected officials know.

Will do, Ed. Start here, everybody.

Posted by | Comments (5)  | May 15, 2007
Category: Notes from the collective travel mind

5 Responses to “Towards a better American rail network”

  1. Marcel Marchon Says:

    Hey, that link to the actionnetwork shows outdated info. S.1516 is no more, this was from the previous Congress.

    It is now S.294 (see also Thanks

  2. kevincure Says:

    Not to be too contrarian, but when the US had many private railways, we had the world’s best rail system. In the 1940s, the government restricted train travel to 79mph just before high speed rail took off overseas. In the 1970s, the government gave Amtrak a monopoly on intercity rail transport. If we want better rail, we should tell Congress to end Amtrak’s monopoly and let the big Japanese and French companies work their magic in places like the Northeast Corridor; why would we want *more* federal involvement?

  3. Chris Says:

    Thanks for the heads up, Marcel. And interesting point, Kevin. Would you maybe have links to any literature on that you could share?

  4. Ran Barton Says:

    Another basic reason we don’t have HSR in the US is the simple fact that our cities and rail lines were never bombed flat like most of those in Europe and Japan. Ignoring the obvious horrors of WWII, those countries that were bombed flat were ‘freed’ from their legacy 19th century rights of way, and free to replace them with curve-free routes suited to HSR. Combine that with American assistance, a la the Marshall Plan to build the new systems and several decades of enlightened public policy, and it’s clear that they had a leg up on HSR that America is not likely to ever see.

    Regarding Kevin’s comments, the Federal act that killed railroads in this country was the Interstate Commerce Commission’s decision to deny railroads the right to invest in and operate air services. By creating airlines that operated with their own subsidies, the government opened up the most profitable rail routes to competition by air that was lethal. When the long-distance routes died, they killed off the shorter routes where trains can hold their own. If we had Pennsylavnia Railroad Metroliners (for example) that ran along the Northeast and connected to a corporate PRR partner service at various airports, we’d see the effect of free markets tailoring the mode of travel to the needs of passengers. Instead, we have a passenger rail system that is now so starved of capital it’s extremely unlikely any private group would invest in its operation without government guarantees.

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