Dear EarthTalk: If train travel is so much less polluting than driving or flying, why are passenger rail options in the U.S. so limited compared to Europe? And is anything being done to shift more travelers over to American rail lines from cars and planes?
I take Amtrak cross-country as it’s my favorite way to travel. If you are interested in reading about it, here is my article about my first trip aboard.
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, with car and air travel both in their infancies, taking the train was really the only practical way for Americans to get from city to city. And take the train they did: By 1929 the U.S. boasted one of the largest and most used rail networks in the world, with some 65,000 railroad passenger cars in operation across some 265,000 miles of track.
But a concerted campaign by U.S. carmakers to acquire rail lines and close them, along with a major push in Congress to build the world’s most extensive interstate highway system, combined to shift Americans’ tastes away from rail travel and toward cars. As a result, while Europe focused on building its own rail networks, the U.S. became the ultimate auto nation, with more cars per capita than anywhere else in the world. 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 U.S. government created Amtrak in 1971 to provide intercity passenger train service across the country, running mostly on pre-existing track already in use for freight transport. Today Amtrak runs some 1,500 rail passenger cars on 21,000 miles of track connecting 500 destinations in 46 states. In 2008, upwards of 28 million passengers rode Amtrak trains, representing the sixth straight year of record ridership for the publicly-owned rail line. Despite this growth, the U.S. still has one of the lowest inter-city rail usage rates in the developed world.
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