Why doesn’t the US have more passenger trains?

Nov 25, 2023, 6:00 PM

An Amtrak conductor flanks a train to Milwaukee at Union Station in Chicago, Illinois....

An Amtrak conductor flanks a train to Milwaukee at Union Station in Chicago, Illinois on September 15, 2022. (Scott Olson, Getty Images)

(Scott Olson, Getty Images)

Los Angeles CNN — If your idea of train travel – fast, easy, ubiquitous, even glamorous – is from movies like “Before Sunrise” or “Bullet Train” set in Europe or Asia, you’ll be surprised to learn that the US was once the world’s superpower in passenger trains. With a busy transcontinental network of 254,000 miles of tracks at its height a little over a century ago, America moved on trains.

Today, the United States’ passenger rail system is an echo of its former self, with swathes of the network unused or surrendered to freight. Over the last century, the United States shifted its focus ­– and investments ­– away from passenger railroads and toward travel by cars and planes.

That may be starting to change. Efforts to revive railroad travel in the US have recently picked up steam amid a push to lower emissions: Earlier this month, the Biden administration announced that the federal government would pump $16 billion into improving the nation’s busiest rail line, Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, which runs from Boston to Washington, D.C.

Brightline, the country’s only privately owned and operated intercity railroad, opened its completed train line between Orlando and Miami in September. Its roughly three-hour run shaves about an hour off of drive time. California has invested heavily in a route from Los Angeles to San Francisco.

The time might be right for a railroad renaissance. The Swedish “flyskam” movement, which translates to “flight shame,” has grown worldwide among people seeking to diminish their carbon footprints. The transportation sector emits the highest amount of greenhouse gas of all US sectors – and the US Department of Transportation has said that rail could play an essential role in reducing emissions.

A passenger walks with luggage past a TGV speed train on the platforms of Paris' Gare du Nord station, on October 7, 2023.

Traveling by train is not entirely out of fashion in the US. Today, Amtrak is the main provider of intercity rail travel; the government-owned system runs on more than 21,400 miles of track and operates in 46 states.

But the US has a long way to go, experts say, to catch up to countries like France, Japan and China when it comes to high-speed rail and wide-reaching train travel.

The rise and fall of US trains

First US Transcontinental Railroad - The Golden Spike celebration Ceremony linking the Central Pacific Railroad with the Union Pacific Railroad, Weber Canyon, at Promontory Point, Utah, May 10th 1869.

In the 19th century, trains revolutionized how people traveled, and the US led the way. Some of the nation’s greatest fortunes – those of JP Morgan, Jay Gould, Cornelius Vanderbilt, among others – were built on the rails. By the 1860s, private US companies, with the help of government cash and land grants, were constructing the country’s first transcontinental railroad. It connected the United States’ existing eastern rail network all the way to San Francisco in 1869. At the time, it was the longest railroad in the world and helped the US population expand westward, railway expert Christian Wolmar wrote in his 2012 book, “The Great Railroad Revolution.”

In exchange for government subsidies, rail carriers were required to provide passenger service. Train travel became ubiquitous, Wolmar notes, and by the 1900s, almost every American lived within easy access to a train station.

Today, much of the train tracks once used by passengers are now used exclusively by freight trains ­– and for many Americans, train travel isn’t even a consideration. So what happened?

While there is no single answer, Yonah Freemark, the Urban Institute’s lead on the fair housing, land use and transportation practice area, told CNN that one primary reason for passenger trains’ decline in popularity was that the nation diverted its attention to a newer, flashier form of transportation: cars.

A long line of freight containers passes under a highway in Compton, California, US, on Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022.

Freemark said the US government began encouraging states to invest in highways in the 1920s. Those efforts accelerated under President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

According to the website of the United States Senate, which provides a history of legislation, Eisenhower’s interest in the US highway system dated back to his participation in the Army’s first cross-country motor convoy in 1919. It gave him first-hand knowledge of the poor quality of America’s roads. In his State of the Union message in 1954, he proposed an American interstate highway system, which he justified as a national defense program. The highways could be used for transporting troops and for evacuating cities in case of nuclear attack.

While the government’s encouragement of highway travel wasn’t solely a US phenomenon, “the difference between the US and other countries is that the US essentially allowed the private passenger rail companies to slowly disappear into irrelevance,” said Freemark.

“We created an environment in which it was difficult for railways to compete with the car,” he added.

Heavy vehicle traffic on the highway near Levittown, New York on Sept. 28, 1951.

Paul Hammond, a historian and the executive director of the Colorado Railroad Museum, said poor timing played a factor as well. Railroad companies invested heavily in newer modern equipment after World War II just as the postwar baby boom and suburban living grew in popularity. Hammond said: “Railroads sunk a lot of money into modernizing the passenger network right at the wrong time.”

The government takes over Amtrak

By the early 1970s, passenger rail service had become a drag on private companies’ bottom lines amid low ridership, deteriorating infrastructure and growing competition from cars and planes.

In 1970, President Richard Nixon signed the Rail Passenger Service Act, which removed the requirement that private rail companies provide passenger service. The US government created Amtrak.

While the organization is much smaller than similar government-owned agencies in many foreign countries, Amtrak serves more than 20 million passengers annually.

Travelers line up to board Amtrak trains inside the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Train Hall at Pennsylvania Station ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday in Manhattan in New York City, New York, U.S., November 21, 2023.

But many American towns and cities have lost access to passenger trains. Since 1971, some routes have been abandoned, primarily in midwestern states like Indiana and Ohio, according to route maps provided by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Amtrak also has little control over scheduling delays and on-track maintenance, since more than 70% of the tracks it runs on are owned – and shared – with private freight companies.

Amtrak’s affordability poses an issue, as well, according to Freemark. “They charge prices that are much higher than you see in other countries with much better service,” he said.

However, some improvements are on the way. In early November, the Biden administration announced plans to improve Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, the system’s most heavily used route.

Federal funds will go toward the safety of the trains, expanding capacity for more riders and replacing aging infrastructure – including a Baltimore rail tunnel that opened while Ulysses S. Grant was president.

An Amtrak train in Baltimore, Maryland, US, on Jan. 30, 2023. President Biden is helping to kick off a project to replace the 150-year-old Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel, which is seen as one of the worst bottlenecks slowing train traffic on the Northeast Corridor.

“I know how much it matters,” said President Joe Biden, who famously took Amtrak trips between Washington DC and his home in Delaware throughout his career in the Senate.

Though Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor introduced trains that could travel up to 150 mph in 2000, the organization is still far off from the high-speed trains seen in China and Japan that travel more than 200 mph. Most of the private companies that share tracks with Amtrak are hesitant to disrupt their operations to allow for updates, Freemark said.

A lack of political will has played a role, too. “The federal government’s commitment to investing in high-speed rail lines has been limited at best,” Freemark said.

Can passenger trains make a comeback?

It’s unlikely that train travel will recover the ground it lost. Since the age of railroad domination in the United States, the country has grown larger and more spread out.

A realistic goal would be to build out rail systems that link major metropolitan areas with economic connections, emulating Amtrak’s Northeaster Corridor, said Robert Puentes, the CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation, a nonprofit think tank.

“It’s not a ‘if you build it, they will come’ type of scenario,” Puentes said. “It would actually be fitting a need.”

Puentes said a good example of a potentially successful high-speed rail connection would be between Los Angeles and San Francisco. “It’s two metropolitan areas with a very strong economic connection between them; people travel there all the time, and it’s about the right distance for rail versus aviation,” he said.

A passenger rides an Amtrak train passing near the Pacific Ocean on November 9, 2021 near Oceanside, California.

However, while California has invested heavily in the route, it is taking longer than initially planned.

Private companies have attempted to step in and fill the void, too.

Brightline said it has welcomed millions of passengers aboard its South Florida trains and announced plans to break ground on another passenger railway between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

Other private companies, like California-based Dreamstar Lines, are trying to restore romance to train travel. The company has announced plans to build a luxury overnight sleeper train that will run between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Passengers load a Brightline train to West Palm Beach at the Fort Lauderdale station on Feb. 27, 2023, in Florida. The privately owned high-speed rail network plans a Los Angeles to Las Vegas route.

Amtrak’s own sleeper cars have existed since 1979, but earlier this year, it kicked off a process to replace and update its overnight train fleet for the first time in four decades.

“We believe in the future of our long-distance service and we look forward to enhancing the customer experience across the Amtrak network,” Amtrak board chair Tony Coscia said in a January statement.

One challenge to the rail revolution will be convincing Americans to hop on trains rather than taking the cars they’ve grown accustomed to over generations.

“People just aren’t used to taking trains in the US,” Freemark said.

We want to hear from you.

Have a story idea or tip? Send it to the KSL NewsRadio team here.

United States

texas wildfires...

Associated Press

Wildfire grows into one of largest in Texas history as flames menace multiple small towns

Known as the Smokehouse Creek Fire, the largest blaze expanded to more than 1,300 square miles and jumped into parts of neighboring Oklahoma.

11 hours ago

DEARBORN, MICHIGAN - FEBRUARY 27: A sign for Republican presidential candidate former President Don...

Marshall Cohen, CNN

Illinois judge removes Trump from ballot, cites ‘insurrectionist ban’

Wednesday’s unexpected decision comes as a similar challenge from Colorado is pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.

13 hours ago

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) talks to reporters following the weekly Senate Republ...

MICHAEL TACKETT Associated Press

McConnell to step down as Senate Republican leader in November

In a copy of his prepared remarks, McConnell stressed the importance of knowing when to move on. "to life's next chapter."

19 hours ago

The Wendy's logo appears over a red background...

Associated Press

Wendy’s won’t raise prices during restaurant’s busy times

Wendy's says that it has no plans to increase prices during the busiest times at its restaurants.

20 hours ago

Washington Capitals defenseman Steve Oleksy, right, lands a punch on Carolina Hurricanes left wing ...


NHL fighting is down across the league but not going anywhere

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has said fighting has a place in keeping down the temperature of games,

1 day ago

FILE: Aerial photo of the Pentagon in Arlington, Virgina. The U.S. Army is slashing the size of its...

LOLITA C. BALDOR Associated Press

US Army is slashing thousands of posts in major revamp to prepare for future wars

The cuts include jobs related to counter-insurgency that swelled during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars but are not needed as much today.

1 day ago

Sponsored Articles

overhead view of a few aisles in a department store...

Big Deal Outlet

There is a Big Deal coming to Midvale: Local discount chain opens 8th store

If you love the thrill of finding good deals, check out the grand opening of Big Deal Outlet in Midvale from February 29 - March 2.

Mother and cute toddler child in a little fancy wooden cottage, reading a book, drinking tea and en...

Visit Bear Lake

How to find the best winter lodging in Bear Lake, Utah

Winter lodging in Bear Lake can be more limited than in the summer, but with some careful planning you can easily book your next winter trip.

Happy family in winter clothing at the ski resort, winter time, watching at mountains in front of t...

Visit Bear Lake

Ski more for less: Affordable ski resorts near Bear Lake, Utah

Plan your perfect ski getaway in Bear Lake this winter, with pristine slopes, affordable tickets, and breathtaking scenery.

front of the Butch Cassidy museum with a man in a cowboy hat standing in the doorway...

Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

Looking Back: The History of Bear Lake

The history of Bear Lake is full of fascinating stories. At over 250,000 years old, the lake has seen generations of people visit its shores.

silhouette of a family looking over a lake with a bird in the top corner flying...

Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

8 Fun Activities To Do in Bear Lake Without Getting in the Water

Bear Lake offers plenty of activities for the whole family to enjoy without having to get in the water. Catch 8 of our favorite activities.

Wellsville Mountains in the spring with a pond in the foreground...

Wasatch Property Management

Advantages of Renting Over Owning a Home

Renting allows you to enjoy luxury amenities and low maintenance without the long-term commitment and responsibilities of owning a home.

Why doesn’t the US have more passenger trains?