Expanding and Modernizing Rail Infrastructure

       The railway is a part of the American ethos. Without rivers to carry us from one end of the country to another, and with horses unable to travel coast to coast, the railway was king. By 1860 there were 30,000 miles of railway crisscrossing the country. By 1915 the number had risen to over a quarter million. With the advent of cars, and then planes, the railway fell by the wayside declining from its peak 100 years ago. Now 140,000 miles of class 1 freight railway cover the country. Of which approximately 15% is available as passenger rail. And on the nations only high-speed rail from New York to Washington D.C. 34 of the 457 miles are actually high-speed

       In the European Union there are nearly 5600 miles of highspeed rail covering the continent. Likewise, China and Japan have extensive high speed rail systems already in place with more in development. So, why is the United state falling so far behind in developing and maintain passenger rail. Part of the problem is that Amtrak (which runs all of the passenger rail in the country) has extremely high costs compared to other forms of transportation. Railways have low levels of utilization, high labor costs, and high infrastructure costs.

   The difference in geography of the United States compared to more rail heavy countries like France is clear. Driving from London to Athens still covers only two thirds the distance of a trip from Boston to Seattle. Connecting the coasts is probably an impractical goal for rail infrastructure, but creating regional train lines that cover the northeast, or Los Angeles to Las Vegas are workable. 

       Part of creating functional rail is to integrate it more practically with other forms of public transportation. A train station that is a thirty-minute drive from an airport is not going to encourage utilization in the same way as a train station that is attached to an airport. Public bus routes that prioritize train and airport access would likewise help bridge a gap currently being managed by taxis and Ubers. 

      I live in the midlands of South Carolina. The trip from my local airport, CAE, to the nearest passenger rail station is 12 minutes by car, and 35 minutes by bus. And while there are four train tracks that run through my small town 30 minutes north of the city no train will drop me off here. I don’t live in a highly populated area, this is not the most practical place to install commuter rail, but it is indicative of a larger problem. 

      Our infrastructure was built in distinct phases, we had a robust rail system, then decades later we built a robust road system, and then decades after that came airports. The integration between that infrastructure has long been an obstacle to more efficient use. Particularly between rail and air which were built temporally far apart and as a result geographically far apart. We can’t move them closer to each other, but we can prioritize transportation from one to the other so that the two-mile journey from Boston’s Logan Airport to South Station does not have 6 stops and take 24 minutes. In Europe, London’s’ Heathrow Airport and Berlin’s Brandenburg Airport have integrated train stations that can get to the city center faster than a car by avoiding traffic. 

     We have invested in recent years in increasing passenger rail access between major cities. Amtrak has proposed a 2035 map that adds major cities like Las Vegas which currently have no train service and increases trips so that passenger rail moves more frequently instead of showing up in Atlanta once a day at 8 AM. These plans require us to continue heavily investing in a form of transportation that right now, people are not using. But Europe and Asia have shown that railways can be a practical and efficient way to get around if you make it easy to use. Making it easier to move between major train stations is the most obvious part of these infrastructure improvements but it is equally if not more important (though less interesting) to make it easier for people to get to those train stations. 

     Expanding and modernizing our rail infrastructure is going to be a multi-decade project. We will need to increase utilization of our existing freight rail that we don’t use, make more frequent practical trips between cities, and fund increased bus service from airports to train stations in order to make it practical for people to not need cars when traveling. 

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