Rail Series: An American Rail and Transit Revival?

Our previous blog post announced the release of two companion reports assessing the state of the rail industry worldwide and in the United States. Here, in a first installment, are some of our findings.

Rising rail and bus ridership in the United States, as well as plans for high-speed intercity rail corridors, suggest a rekindling of U.S. interest in alternatives to automobile and air travel. But while capital funds for these kinds of projects have been on the rise for several years, they remain far from adequate.

Why is the U.S. a rail and transit laggard? The country once had a thriving intercity network. In the 1930s and 40s, U.S. intercity passenger trains were the envy of much of the world. And U.S. manufacturers of rail vehicles introduced technological innovations such as the diesel-electric locomotive, lightweight cars with improved wheel sets, and reliable braking systems.

In 1934, the U.S.-built Zephyr diesel train broke the world speed record, traveling from Denver to Chicago at an average speed of 77 miles per hour. Scott Brownell, Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago

It’s tempting to think that first the private automobile, and later the airplane, just proved too convenient for rail and transit to hold their own. It is certainly true that Americans developed a car culture, and even an intense love affair with the automobile. But the high level of car dependence that ensued was far from a natural, inevitable development.

The reality is that since the middle of the last century, the federal government has prioritized highways and airports, providing ample subsidies for these transport options. Gasoline was kept artificially cheap. Meanwhile, public transportation systems atrophied. Close to 60,000 miles of railroad track were taken out of passenger service just between 1956 and 1969.

By 1971, less than a fifth of the 2,500 daily intercity trains (not counting commuter lines) that ran in 1954 remained in service. Tracks, signaling equipment, and rail vehicle fleets all suffered from lack of investment and neglect. Today, Amtrak trains travel at slower speeds than their predecessors did in the mid-20th century.

In urban areas, once-extensive tram and trolley networks were replaced first by bus lines and later by a car-centered infrastructure. Again, this was in large measure the result of pro-automobile federal priorities. But it was also driven by corporate actions. With financing from oil and tire companies, National City Lines, a bus company controlled by General Motors, bought up more than 100 electric streetcar lines in 45 cities between 1938 and 1949 and proceeded to dismantle them.

U.S. technological leadership in everything from subway cars to trams to intercity trains passed to companies in Japan as well as in France, Germany, and a few other European countries. By the 1970s and 1980s, the domestically owned passenger rail manufacturing industry had vanished. Today, foreign-owned suppliers like Alstom (France), Bombardier (Canada), Siemens (Gemany), Kawasaki (Japan), and Hyundai-Rotem (South Korea) are the principal suppliers of U.S. subways, trams, and light and heavy rail vehicles.

As a result, the U.S. passenger rail industry remains vastly underdeveloped. On the bright side, the 2009 economic stimulus bill (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, or ARRA) provided significant funds for high-speed intercity rail and urban transit systems. But the country now finds itself at a crossroads: Will it follow up on this one-time injection of resources and maintain sustained investments, or will political opposition and a lack of vision derail this promising start? The Congressional midterm elections may well prove decisive.

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