Photo Source: Flickr
I really like trains and subways. To me, it’s like the fun of riding a bus only faster and less traffic. The stations are also the coolest thing. I’d love to meet a designer for a main train station, because they’re often the most august and romantic things I’ve ever seen (my personal favorite is Boston’s South Station—there’s something about it that just sweeps me off my feet every time I enter its marble chamber and see the time board announcing the comings and goings of each train to somewhere else. I will admit, however, that I’ve never been on an Amtrak train (Amtrak is the American government-backed personal train company), but I’ve grown up using the MBTA subway and commuter rail (I don’t think I’ll ever grow tired of it). That being said, I’ve always wondered about the use of trains in the United States. We’ve got all this rail, but do we even use it?
Mile by mile, the United States has the most amount of railway in the entire world (The Economist). However, when it comes to passenger travel, other countries, especially Europe, run laps around us (or should I say run tracks around us?). For instance, Amtrak carries around 31 million passengers per year, which is pretty large, but Mozambique, a much smaller country, carries 108 million passengers per year. There are a couple reasons why. The first is that the United States is extremely large, and the country just isn’t dense enough to support meaningful passenger travel. Besides, American railways are used mostly for freight travel, and sometimes juggling the time tables between the two make it so passenger trains can undergo delays, which can scare people off. Besides, plane travel and cars are also popular (and sometimes cheaper and quicker) options than rail travel. Trains are often simply something that doesn’t immediately come to your mind when you’re thinking of going on vacation to visit relatives across the country.
Some states are trying to change this mode of thinking by adding more light rail travel options. One of the biggest proponents of rail travel is California who already has the BART system and the Los Angeles Regional Rail Connector (Stanford Energy Club). Rail travel is seen as more energy efficient than car travel, since rail travel is kind of like a giant carpool. The idea is that if more people get off the road and get on rail transit, the roads would be less congested and less gas would need to be burnt at a time. The plan is to create a large light rail system that connects North California cities with Southern California cities by 2022.
There is a sort of romance to trains. While the United States does not embrace this mode of transit as much as other countries, it is still extremely important for getting materials from one place to another. For some, it serves as a novel trek across the country. USA Today even has a ranked list of the top scenic train journeys (USA Today). California is trying to make train travel relevant as a public transit option. Trains are one of the oldest forms of transportation in the United States, and it’s really cool to see it’s still kicking today.