The U.S. may lag on passenger rail, but it’s a world leader when it comes to moving stuff around.
In the U.S. the railroads began as private enterprises, albeit aided by massive government land grants in the 19th century and subjected to increasingly strict regulation in the 20th. They too struggled as the century proceeded, and the U.S. government embarked on its major rail reforms well before the rest of the world. The Rail Passenger Service Act of 1970 freed private railroads from the requirement of providing passenger service and gave that responsibility to the newly created, government-owned National Railroad Passenger Corporation, or Amtrak. In 1973, after several railroads serving the Northeast and Midwest nonetheless went bankrupt, Congress stepped in again to nationalize and reorganize the industry in the region. Then, with the Staggers Act of 1980, it deregulated freight rail.
These U.S. reforms, you may be surprised to learn, are viewed with much admiration abroad. “The greatest successes of reform have arguably been in the United States and Japan,” wrote Johannes Ludewig, then the executive director of the Community of European Railway and Infrastructure Companies, in the introduction to an exhaustive 2011 review of railway modernization around the world.
Amtrak has been less successful as an actual means of transportation. The railroad recently reported carrying a record 32.5 million passengers in the fiscal year that ended in September, almost double the number in its first full year of operation in 1972. But even with subways and commuter trains thrown in, rail’s share of overall passenger miles traveled in the U.S. remains vanishingly small.
For Japan and European countries, such statistics tend not to include air travel because so little of it is domestic. Rail’s share of ground-transportation passenger-kilometers is 32.8% in Japan, 10.8% in France, 8.9% in the U.K., 8.7% in Germany and 7.9% in the European Union as a whole, compared with 0.7% in the U.S.
Remember, though, that rail’s market share in freight transportation is much higher in the U.S. than in most other countries. The same vast expanses that make the U.S. a great place for freight trains aren’t so great for passenger travel. The most successful passenger rail services around the world generally link large cities within about 500 kilometers, or 311 miles, of each other (the Tokyo-Osaka trip is 553 kilometers, but those trains are really fast). Lots of cities that Americans want to travel between are much farther apart than that.
Then again, lots of major U.S. cities are that close to each other, and not just along Amtrak’s heavily traveled Northeast Corridor. The U.S. passenger rail system is nowhere near to realizing its potential. But it does seem important to acknowledge, from time to time, that the overall U.S. rail system is pretty great.