Reading this article about the fastest trains in the world, I found no US train. This makes sense since high speed rails is quite limited:

(..) Amtrak's Acela Express (reaching 150 mph (240 km/h)) (..)

Also, rail transportation as whole became secondary during the last decades:

Rail transportation in the United States consists primarily of freight shipments, while passenger service, once a large and vital part of the nation's passenger transportation network, plays a limited role as compared to transportation patterns in many other countries.

This article section from Wikipedia argues about the train efficiency when compared to other means of transportation:

Trains are in general one of the most efficient means of transport for freight and passengers. Efficiency varies significantly with passenger loads, and losses incurred in electricity generation and supply (for electrified systems),[33][34] and, importantly, end-to-end delivery, where stations are not the originating final destinations of a journey.

Some romanticized arguments in favor of train transportation can be found here.

Question: Why is US rail passenger transportation less important than in other countries?

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    At least for cargo, one of the disavantages of trains is that it is not "door to door": You go from home (first door) to the train station, travel in the train, and have to go from the train station to your destination (second door). Get a car or a truck and you can do all your traject with the same vehicle. If public transport is bad at origin or destination that could be an issue. And of course that affects air travel too, but I would exptec airports to be usually better served by public transport. – SJuan76 Apr 18 '18 at 9:09
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    @SJuan76 That problem is not unique to the United States. – Philipp Apr 18 '18 at 9:21
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    @John For many purposes the population density issue the US faces is low density over most of its land area (only the coastal corridors are at all comparable to Japan, and even then they are lower desnisty). The comparison to look at for that might be Australia (but I have no idea how what the passenger rail situation looks like there.). – dmckee --- ex-moderator kitten Apr 18 '18 at 16:02
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    You can also ask the opposite question - why does Europe rely so much on trucks instead of using rail to transport goods. – JonathanReez Apr 18 '18 at 21:06
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    I don't know enough to answer myself, but I'm amazed that none of the answers mention how US airlines are effectively subsidized by having taxpayer-funded airports and traffic control - tho part of what I don't know is how that compares to other countries. – ShadSterling Apr 20 '18 at 3:23

12 Answers 12


I'm not so sure it's fair to generalize this across the US like you're doing in your question. If you visit Grand Central in NYC you'll see plenty of passengers getting transported by rail.

It's tempting to put forward that the US has no federal entity sponsoring the tracks, or that it's inhabited by individualists who have love affairs with their cars. But I think the key issue is more practical and tied to the geography: the US is larger than Europe with a lower population that is concentrated in a few key areas.

When the population is as densely packed as it is in Europe, with cities near each other, people use rail for transportation. Not as much as in Europe - Europe has better infrastructure and faster trains after all, and American suburbs with inadequate public transportation invite you to take the car from the get go. But rail certainly is an option in places where it can be relevant. Grand Central in NYC, for instance, sees ~750k passengers per day on weekdays, and ~1M on holidays. It's one of the busiest train stations in the world.

In the rest of the country, the major population centers are far apart enough from each other, and public transportation is inadequate enough, that you'll simply go a lot faster by airplane if it's far or if your trip is anything time sensitive. Car also works for short to medium distances. (Automotive fuel is dirt cheap in the US compared to what it costs in Europe.) And just like on that side of the pond, there are buses if you're on a tight budget.

I think it's also worth noting that high speed rail wouldn't make that big a difference when traveling between distant pockets of population. Consider the high speed track between SF and LA that has been in discussions for years. The distance between the two is ~650km. Somewhat longer if you lay the tracks in the desert. Even with high speed rail, you'd be looking at three hours or so of travel time - and that's assuming you don't stop at Bakersfield or Fresno. If you have a stop at San Jose, which would be logical, you'll likely add an extra half hour or so. The flight from LAX to SFO, for comparison, is an hour and a half for under $100. Even if you count the time needed to go through airport security and board the plane, the cost and time benefits of using a high speed train will be marginal at best. (The ecological one is a different matter of course, so it may very well see the light one day if only because of that.) The benefit might tilt in the train's favor if you account for the travel time to get to and from the stations vs the same for the airports.

I'd add in passing, since your original question lumped all trains together if the comments are anything to go by, that rail actually is relatively healthy as an economic sector in the US. It's not tech, of course, but you can earn money. Berkshire Hathaway famously bet big on rail a few years back. It paid off handsomely. Rail actually gets used a lot to transport goods in bulk. Anecdotally, I keenly recollect from my childhood in the US how trains would take forever to cart a seemingly endless number of wagons across the road.

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    In term of time benefits, don't forget that railway stations tend to be rather central, while getting to LAX from much of the LA area is over an hour given the traffic. In some cities those central railway stations are already served by commuter trains making them quick to get to. – Chris H Apr 18 '18 at 13:12
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    I am not so sure about the SF-LA example. Paris and Marseille are similarly 750km apart, and since they are connected by a 3-hours TGV, train has bypassed plane for that travel : en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LGV_M%C3%A9diterran%C3%A9e – Evargalo Apr 18 '18 at 14:35
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    This is a good answer. The US is so large and spread out that it makes it difficult to establish a country-wide infrastructure project like high-speed rail. You MAY be able to do it on a state-by-state basis (Florida has been experimenting with it), then later connect the states. Edit: my comment is specifically about the infrastructure concerns, and not about getting people to actually use it over their car. – Strikegently Apr 18 '18 at 15:17
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    @Luaan "but once airplanes are at their flight height, they're actually surprisingly fuel efficient compared to trains" Right. An if you ignore the fuel required to get a train up to the top of a mountain, it's waaaaay more efficient on the way down the mountain than a train running on flat ground. I'm not sure ignoring the most fuel intensive portion of a flight is a valid way to judge it's efficiency. – JimmyJames Apr 19 '18 at 21:02
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    This answer is wrong. Spain has a population density of 92/km², California has 93/km². Climates and geography comparable. Spain has some of the highest amount of high speed rail in the world, California has none. Russia, 8.4/km², even European Russia 27.5/km², Sweden 22.5/km², contiguous USA has 40/km². Sweden and European Russia have much higher intercity rail use than USA. In the USA, even dense urban corridors like the Front Range or the Inland Empire have essentially zero intercity rail. It's culture and politics alone. Geography has nothing to do with it. – gerrit Apr 23 '18 at 16:22

One of the reasons for the decline of the railroads was corporate sabotage by car manufacturing companies. They bought up rail companies and then shut them down. Here is an article from March 11, 1922 of The New York Times documenting Henry Ford's strategy of making rail dysfunctional and obsolete. enter image description here

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    While the picture can be a good reference this answer can be a lot improved by a good resume with a few excerpts from the article – jean Apr 18 '18 at 19:37
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    It really does feel like for every problem the US has, lobbying or corporate meddling had something to do with it. – Pyritie Apr 19 '18 at 16:59
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    I'd rather see some high quality tertiary sources, rather than a single secondary source. – Andrew Grimm Apr 22 '18 at 8:20
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    This is historically interesting, but it's unclear how relevant it is to the question. Rail was a major means of travel for 30-40 years after this article was published, and it's also not clear why this wouldn't be the case in other countries. This also doesn't address why airplanes (which are functionally similar to trains in that they're both fixed-point-to-fixed-point scheduled transport) didn't suffer a similar fate. – Bobson Apr 23 '18 at 17:05
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    So that article fits inline with what General Motors did with streetcars. They replaced street cars with buses because they made buses. (Note that conspiracy here isn't "wako conspiracy theory" but rather many legal convictions of conspiracy.) Planes on the other hand are much faster than trains, buses, and cars and so it would have been harder to push them aside. However, neither reference provides comprehensive explanation of what happened for long distance travel. GM efforts appear to only have been in urban areas. – Rozgonyi Apr 25 '18 at 20:48

Why is US rail passenger transportation less important than in other countries?

  1. Cheap aero industry. USA was historically home to aero giants like McDonnell Douglas, Boeing, Lockheed, etc. which Europe never saw. This monstrous industry gave rise to cheap airliner industry.

  2. Cheap automobile. USA had one of the biggest (if not the biggest) auto industry in the world. Also, numerous Japanese and German cars are imported. Anyone can afford cars.

which brings us to another point:

  1. Lack of state sponsor.

If a country has a huge and developed automobile and aero sector, developing railway would not be a viable option for the following reasons:

  • The airliner industry is already providing long haul service. Passengers have already become used to with air travel as a result. Long distance rail travels will hardly attract them. Seriously, who would opt for an expensive and lengthy train journey rather than a quick and cheap air travel.

  • Developing rail may fuel the decline of auto and aero industries which USA can't afford. Those industries are already too important for the economy. Due to the intricate relationship of auto and aero giants with the government, no one will ever invest so much in rail sector.


  1. Geography. Most of the mountains in the USA are on the West. Other than that, most of the terrain of the USA is plain. By and large West coast doesn't dominate the economy due to Atlantic trade on the East coast.
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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Sam I am says Reinstate Monica Apr 20 '18 at 0:31
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    I think air tickets are cheaper in Europe ... – Claudiu Creanga Apr 20 '18 at 10:36
  • Energy is too cheap. If it was more expensive, priorities might change. – Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen Apr 22 '18 at 19:29
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    "Most of the mountains in the USA are on the West." What about the Appalachian Mountains? "By and large West coast doesn't dominate the economy" California has a GDP of 2.448 trillion, more than France. And that's just California: there's also Oregon and Washington to consider. – Phil Frost Apr 23 '18 at 12:53
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    "aero giants (...) which Europe never saw" from Aéropostale to Airbus, I think this is wrong. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A%C3%A9ropostale_%28aviation%29 airbus.com – Evargalo Apr 24 '18 at 7:19

Until the end of WW2, rail transport of both passengers and materials was extensive in the US. By the 1930's, a battle of luxury trains had emerged in the heavily traveled NYC to Chicago route, between the New York Central and Penn Central railroad companies. In those days, air travel was both uncomfortable and dangerous, while automobile travel was slow and dangerous, over 2 lane roads of unknown quality, using vehicles of dubious reliability. Breakdowns and flat tires were common with prewar vehicles. Rail was the long distance travel method of choice in the US, until WW2 ended.

After WW2, rail was slowly abandoned in favor of cars (people) and trucks (goods), to the point where passenger rail traffic was nationalized in 1970, following a decline in passenger rail traffic that led to the bankruptcy of Penn Central.

The reason for this decline can be summarized:

Cheap automobiles. Consumer goods taxes in the US are fairly low compared to Europe (no VAT), so vehicles are cheaper. At the end of WW2, the US had factories for war production all over the nation, some of which were converted to automobile production, lowering the price even more. You can build a car fairly cheaply when someone gives you the factory.

This was an extension of a trend that began in the early 1900's, when Henry Ford not only built a car that was cheap, he also paid his workers a high enough wage to where they could afford one... thus creating his own customer base.

Cheap gasoline. This is a big one. Low taxes mean that gasoline is cheaper in the US than most of the other nations. In the postwar period, it was dirt cheap, resulting from the large number of refineries set up for war production.

A large investment in highways after WW2, the interstate highway system. This was an Eisenhower initiative, having seen the benefits of 4 lane highways in Germany for moving troops around. Traveling across the country by auto was now practical, as the big highways meant higher speed and greater reliability as compared to poorly maintained and meandering 2 lane roads of prewar times. The highway system was also used by trucks for transport. In the days of cheap fuel, the increased flexibility and greater load carrying ability of highways saw a number of distributors shift from rail to trucks for transport.

To a degree, the longer distances traveled tend to make the faster air travel more appealing. This shift was boosted by the postwar cheap gasoline, plus cheap and reliable airliners from the numerous aircraft factories that had been set up during the war. The US dominated airliner and light aircraft production in the postwar period, partially because they had so many factories that could be converted to civilian aircraft production, and those factories had not suffered any war damage.

Whether that shift in long distance travel is an improvement in today's situation, is debatable. I have fond memories of traveling from Chicago to Los Angeles in 1968 as a boy, on one of the last luxury trains, the Super Chief. The trip took about a day and a half, which isn't much longer than a transcontinental flight today, once one factors in delays, security checks, canceled flights, and other disruptions. Unlike air travel, you were treated like royalty on the trip with five star service, your own bedroom, lots of room to roam around, and you really got to see the country. You haven't slept until you've been gently rocked to sleep on a train. Far more comfortable than crashing on a couch while waiting for a flight.

The decline in rail traffic in the postwar period was mirrored by the decline in transatlantic ship travel. The first high speed jet service across the Atlantic began in the late 1950's. Within a decade, passenger ship travel was effectively dead.

Passenger rail traffic is still prevalent in some large urban areas, particularly NYC, Boston, DC, and Chicago, operating largely as commuter services. Also, in the postwar decline of rail, a lot of rail lines have been discontinued as too expensive to maintain for the limited use. Passenger traffic evaporated and trucks serviced the smaller communities for materials transport.

Some of this is cultural - the average person in the US just doesn't think about using the passenger rail service that is available for anything other than commuting to work. The quality of passenger rail service today isn't nearly what it once was with the high speed luxury trains, though the trans Canada line operated by Canadian Pacific shows that high quality long distance rail travel can be operated at a profit.

So, to a degree, the US rail service was a victim of the country's economic success of the 1950's.

One bright note: the Elon Musk sponsored hyperloop, an underground rail service capable of very high speed (300+ mph) may revitalize the concept of rail travel in the US. Being underground, it isn't subject to weather or other damage, so far higher speeds can be achieved at a lower energy cost. Plus, unlike airliners, the hyperloop can be powered by electricity alone, opening up the possibility of greater green energy source usage.

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    Finally an objective correct answer...except for the Musk comment. As an engineer with a good sense in pragmatism and science background I advise to get anything from musk with a grain of salt – jean Apr 18 '18 at 19:35
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    One factor that is missing is population density. Lots of the U.S., both in the South and the West (apart from the Pacific Coast) and to a lesser extent the Midwest, has very low population density which means that it takes a huge amount of infrastructure to serve not that many people. Rail has political support mostly in places like the Northeast and Pacific Coast where population densities are high. – ohwilleke Apr 18 '18 at 22:38
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    For example, England as a whole has a higher population density than the city of Atlanta. There is no place in Europe where you can drive 150 miles without encountering another car as you can in parts of the U.S. – ohwilleke Apr 19 '18 at 4:08
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    @ohwilleke Europe also has large sparsely populate areas in the north and the east. Incidentally, low population density is one of the main reasons why Russia relies so much on rail transport. Building a highway network wasn't economically feasible until recently. – Jouni Sirén Apr 19 '18 at 10:30
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    @Peter Masiar: Not unfair. Highways are (mostly) paid for by fuel taxes, which is about the fairest way possible, short of the technical & logistic nightmare of placing a tamper-proof mileage recorder in every vehicle. – jamesqf Apr 19 '18 at 18:42

America is rich and big, and post-war it got richer and stayed richer than other countries.

It is also culturally very individualistic.

When other countries were developing high-speed rail transport, Americans preferred to use cars for short-to-mid-length journeys and aeroplanes for longer journeys. There was a lack of investment in rail, which made rail in the USA slow, and drove more people to use cars or aeroplanes.

The cost of these forms of transport is doubtless more than rail, but cars are convenient and aeroplanes are fast. Americans are rich enough to afford to pay for convenience and speed.

Finally, America is federal and has an extremely small public sector. Rail requires an up-front investment, and the returns come back over a very long period governments are better at doing this kind of infrastructure, as they don't need to think about next quarter's figures, and can take a longer view.

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    which means, japan, germany, france and uk are poor countries. – user17569 Apr 18 '18 at 9:39
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    In the 1940s and 50s Germany, France and Japan were considerably poorer than the USA. But also not "big" and "individualist", and "weak public sector" – James K Apr 18 '18 at 9:55
  • what about Canada? – user17569 Apr 18 '18 at 10:14
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    tl;dr Americans love cars. – Ian Kemp Apr 18 '18 at 12:16
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    This is woefully incorrect (and little more than propaganda when your justification is a call to individualistic wealthy americans). American companies have invested heavily in rail to the point where it has an exceedingly well-developed freight system. Passenger rail is less useful because it is horribly inconvenient for the vast majority of the population. Passengers are better served by roads and planes, while freight benefits greatly from rail, so it should be no surprise that America has used its rail system for freight. – pluckedkiwi Apr 18 '18 at 13:06

It has nothing to do with geography!

California. Population density: 93/km² (40 million people on 424,000 km²). Varied climate ranging from snow-capped mountains in the Sierra Nevada to a lush and humid coastline in the northwest. Currently has zero high speed rail, but plans by 2029.

Spain. Population density: 92/km² (46 million people on 506,000 km²). Varied climate ranging from snow-capped mountains in the Sierra Nevada (and elsewhere) to a lush and humid coastline in the northwest. Has the second longest high speed railway network in the world.

Other comparisons: Russia has a population density of 8.4/km². Siberia skews that, so let's consider just European Russia at 27.5/km². Sweden has a density of 22.5/km². The contiguous USA (“lower 48”) has 40/km². The Midwestern United States has 35/km². Sweden and European Russia have much higher intercity rail use than the USA, and certainly higher than the mid-western USA. In the USA, even dense urban regions like the Front Range (nearly 5 million people), the Arizona Sun Corridor (5.5 million and counting), the Inland Empire (4.2 million people), or the Texas Triangle (14 million people) have little to no intercity rail (and other forms of public transportation are very poor too, as I can attest to when trying to travel between Denver and Fort Collins, a region where geography would make rail entirely reasonable).

Megaregions in the USA
Source: User IrvingPlNYC, Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA 3.0

Or, some specific route examples (distance and time by Google Maps):

  • Los Angeles – San Francisco: 630 km, 12 hours by train + bus
  • Moscow – St. Petersburg: 709 km, 3 hour 43 minutes by train
  • Stockholm – Malmö: 610 km, 4 hours 23 minutes by train

For all these routes, there are no huge cities in the middle. They are quite comparable geographically (the Swedish cities are much smaller than the Russian or American cities, though).

So it's not the geography — then what is it?


In the USA, railway tracks are privately owned, and (apart from a short period during WW I) always have been. Intercity passenger rail is not necessarily profitable. Certainly, roads are not either: the U.S. federal government invested $500 billion in the Interstate Highway System, but politics has been unwilling to invest significantly in upgrading intercity railways to make them suitable for passenger traffic. Private companies will not invest that kind of money, because they don't reap the long-term indirect external benefits to society. In fact, freight is quite profitable even when trains travel less than 50 km/h. Investments to upgrade to 200 km/h (which would be needed to make passenger trains useful) are costly and not beneficial to freight companies (who would rather see no passenger traffic at all). In Europe, governments did decide to nationalise railways and make those investments, because politics decided intercity passenger rail was and is a public need. The consequence is that passenger trains are much bigger in Europe and (most of) Asia, and that freight is much bigger in North America.


Many people in the USA are not used to taking the train. At an Amtrak station in Nevada, I overheard someone asking: Have you ever been on a train before? You wouldn't hear that question asked in Europe. When you don't grow up thinking taking the train is quite a normal alternative, the alternative may not even cross your mind when considering how to travel between Denver and Salt Lake City or between San Antonio and Houston. Michael Kays answer describes this aspect perfectly well.

On urban sprawl

Urban sprawl disfavours public transportation, both local and intercity. The USA has a lot of urban sprawl. Cities in countries like Sweden, Spain, or Russia have the space to sprawl as much as cities in the USA do. That US cities sprawl more than cities in Sweden, Spain, or Russia is a consequence of (car) culture and politics, again not of geography.

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    California has a lot of space between the San Francisco and Los Angeles metropolises, especially the areas north of SF, the mountains of the Central Coast, the High Desert, and East of the Sierras. Taking the population density of the entire state is not representative. Look at the map you posted: all of those mountainous regions of CA are of low density. Geography is far different than Spain. – user71659 Apr 24 '18 at 23:49
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    You cannot today take Amtrak from SF to LA without a bus. Why? Geography. Look up Tehachapi Loop. There is only one place to cross the mountains, and that rail section is the world's most heavily traveled track (by tons). Amtrak can't get the rights due to the demand from LA freight. – user71659 Apr 24 '18 at 23:59
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    @user71659 Geographically, intercity passenger rail is perfectly feasible within the two California megaregions I posted. Spain is very mountainous too and includes empty regions with no passenger rail. We can also compare to Sweden: same area as California, 10 million people, plenty of passenger rail. There is no fundamental geographical reason why that loop could not be quadrupled to allow for both heavy passenger and freight use. It's a political choice that the necessary investment has never been made, (private) freight interests are prioritised over public passenger transport interests. – gerrit Apr 25 '18 at 0:49
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    You just pointed out another major problem in the US. Nobody wants to go city center to city center, especially LA. There really isn't even a city center in LA. You need a car to get around, which is why people drive. That's why all this HSR talk is misguided in the US. I believe a conventional car train would be far superior for the leisure travel market. Business travel is going to fly due to the time difference anyway. – user71659 Apr 25 '18 at 1:14
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    @user71659 Yes, the urban sprawl in LA and other cities is another major problem, but it is again a problem that is a consequence of human decisions, thus politics and culture, and not a direct consequence of geography — considering population densities of Sweden, Spain, Russia are the same as or smaller than California, it is not automatic that "we have lots of space" leads to "we do urban sprawl to a degree to make public transport impractical". Your point on environmental impact of freight is true but I don't believe the low passenger rail usage in the US is due to environmental concerns. – gerrit Apr 25 '18 at 13:51

Lots of good answers here. Some key points already brought up:

  • geography: it's a huge country with, historically, lots of gaps in between
  • history: our rail system was huge early on. The investment in that early infrastructure made it harder to justify a re-investment in later years.

Both those factors have played into other infrastructure challenges in the US. A good parallel is telecommunications. Because our nation invested so heavily and so much in land-line technologies back in the day, it was harder to compete with the emerging nations that were able to massively invest in wireless and fiber--both due to smaller geographical areas and a lack of embedded legacy infrastructure already in wide use.

Another major issue, though, is simply that Amtrak has a long history of being purposefully crippled politically. Again, like USPS, there are demands for them to provide services in sparsely populated areas at a loss. This, of course, is arguably a good thing. But it isn't something that is profitable. This Economist article discusses this particular issue. Just as keeping the lights on in a Post Office servicing a village of 200 people is fiscally impractical, so is running rail service through low population corridors. But it's demanded of them, so they must do it--even at a loss.

Also, mass transit, in general, hasn't always been a universally agreed upon 'good' thing from the viewpoints of political leaders. Amtrak also has a long history of being very poorly funded and many have argued that Amtrak was actually set up to fail. It was set up to be a for-profit entity during a time when it was pretty clear that for-profit passenger rail service was dying.

The bottom line is that our nation invested heavily in the early days in rail and since then, competition from other travel modes combined with a lack of enough desire to upgrade the legacy system has left us where we are today.

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    I think your second reason also explains why the US was slower to take up cell phone service than was Europe. We had a lot of infrastructure since we started earlier in the game than Europe. Also, much of Europe's infrastructure was destroyed in the world wars, while the US still had old, but serviceable, systems. If you are starting with nothing, you tend to adopt new technologies rather than older ones. – Buffy Apr 20 '18 at 12:23
  • Good answer, but geography has nothing to do with it. Compare California to Spain (same population density, similar climate and geography, completely different passenger rail network), or the Mid-West to Sweden or European Russia. Urban sprawl does make intercity rail less advantageous, but that again is not an automatic consequence of geography. – gerrit Apr 23 '18 at 16:28
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    @gerrit: The SF Bay Area has significant passenger rail - BART, plus lines to east of Sacramento amtrak.com/capitol-corridor-train and to Stockton and other points in the Central Valley acerail.com/For-You/Leisure/San-Francisco Go beyond that, though, and you run into the population density thing. Plus for trips to areas outside cities, you'd likely want your own vehicle at the destination. – jamesqf Apr 23 '18 at 18:40
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    @gerrit: Spain seems to have a higher population density, and one more widely distributed, than does the western US. Compare sedac.ciesin.columbia.edu/downloads/maps/grump-v1/… to sedac.ciesin.columbia.edu/downloads/maps/grump-v1/… (Note the US map's distance scale is 5X the Spanish map.) So you have rail in the SF Bay Area & populous parts of the Central Valley, but not much beyond. (Though it is possible to travel to Reno, SLC, and points east by rail.) – jamesqf Apr 24 '18 at 4:23
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    @gerrit: The average population density of California and Spain may be nearly the same, but the distribution is not. California has basically 3 large clumps - the greater LA Basin, SF Bay Area, and parts of the Central Valley - surrounded by large areas like the Mojave Desert and the "Empty Quarter" in the northeast. So the only really justifiable high-speed rail route within the state would be LA-SF. (Though LA-Las Vegas is often talked about.) Other distances are just too short for high speeds to have much effect. – jamesqf Apr 24 '18 at 18:12

In the USA, freight has right of way on rails. Passenger rail rides on borrowed rail time and has to bend its schedule around freight. This is cheap (as they only pay marginal costs plus profit on the rails), but it gives relatively poor service.

In Europe, passenger rail has right of way over freight.


America moves almost six times as many ton-miles (or tonne-kilometers) of freight by rail as Europe, while both move about the same number of tonne-kilometers by road.

Antiplanner goes on to mention that Europe's rails were nationalized, and offering passenger rail service is popular, while USA's rails were private, and shipping mass materials is profitable. So the owners of the rails had a different priority.

To top this off, Europe is poor compared to the USA in almost any measure1. Compared to a car, passenger rail travel often sucks; time is wasted getting from end point to end point, you have to bend to a schedule. Automotive travel has higher upfront costs, but once you have paid those the marginal costs are quite reasonable.

In a wealthier nation, you'd expect more automobiles and less train travel; and in fact, that is what is happening in Europe. Automobile is edging up slightly, air is edging up sharply (still less than USA), and train is being eroded as a fraction of all travel.

1 You can find regions of Europe richer than the USA, and regions poorer, but USA's economic victories in WW1 and WW2 was massive and is still paying dividends. It was twice the only basically untouched by war industrial power in the world; the fact that anywhere in the world is anywhere close to as rich is amazing.

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  • Europe's rails are nationalized. USA's rails are private. +1. Until 1998 the OP's rail system was operated by the state. IMO the OP loaded their question by asking it here, instead of at e.g., Finance.SE – Mazura Apr 19 '18 at 5:15
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    As the UK has got wealthier in the last 30 years, rail travel as a fraction of all journeys has doubled. (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rail_transport_in_Great_Britain#/media/…, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transport_in_the_United_Kingdom#/media/…) Most long distance journeys (say 150-200 miles or more) are faster "door-to-door" by rail. – Mark Perryman Apr 19 '18 at 13:20
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    This is incorrect. People do not travel less by train if they get wealthier, unless perhaps they get so wealthy they can afford a private chauffeur. It's entirely cultural. – gerrit Apr 23 '18 at 16:30
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    @Yakk The current difference in train travel between western Europe and North America is not because Europeans cannot afford cars. Plenty of people travel by train because it's more practical to do so, not because they can't afford a car. The congested parking lots at train stations (from people driving to the train station) attest to that. So at best this is an indirect effect, that wealth differences in the 1950s contributed to cultural differences today. – gerrit Apr 23 '18 at 17:17
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    @Yakk More cars means more driving, yes. Part of that is more travel, part of that is a higher modal share of cars. High speed rail in Europe is quite expensive (slow rail in eastern Europe less so). The poor either don't travel at all, or when they must, tend to take a long distance bus (this is true anywhere in the world). – gerrit Apr 23 '18 at 17:32

Quite a few good answers already have mentioned some of the major factors (lack of investment, geography…) but I would question the notion that rail transport as a whole became secondary in the US. Rail shares of freight transport is actually higher than in other rich countries and increasing, in stark contrast with the situation in some or most of Europe or Japan.

Now your question is about passenger transport but there is a link: It's very difficult to do both passenger and freight rail transport efficiently. The countries with a large high-speed passenger rail network generally have much lower shares of freight being transported by rail or even saw an existing network of freight lines decay while they were improving passenger lines (that's what happened in France for example). Japan's famously reliable high-speed train network is not used by freight trains at all.

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  • Yes, this is another problem Amtrak has...much of its network isn't its own network. It has to share lines with freight, and though Amtrak supposedly has 'right of way', there is a long history of that not being true. washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/wp/2016/04/29/… – user1530 Apr 18 '18 at 20:56

There have been many good contributions, but two things that seem to be missing are (a) the importance of the network effect (or feedback), and (b) psychology/image effects.

(a) If many people use public transport then it gets better, and if it gets better then more people use it; conversely declining usage leads to declining investment and a declining service. It's hard to say why the trend should be positive in one time and place and negative in another (e.g. the UK has seen 30 years of rapid growth in rail travel after 40 years of steep decline); it may simply be a butterfly effect; but once a trend is established it tends to be self-perpetuating.

(b) Psychology/image effects. From my own experience of trying to use public transport in the US (and often failing), I got the impression that it's often used only by the poor, and that the more affluent members of society don't use it because they don't want to be perceived as being poor. This is essentially a "brand image" kind of problem. Public transport in Europe or Japan has a different brand image. People who catch the train from London to Paris are probably paying more than air travellers, and they choose to pay more because it offers greater speed and comfort. I've used the train from Toronto to Montreal, which is a similar distance, and certainly no-one was using it for speed or comfort.

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American roads are straighter because they were built later on with more modern technology and designed with cars in mind. Many American cities have roads in a grid system. This makes driving more efficient. The price of gas is also a lot lower and cars are much cheaper.

In Europe, and especially the UK the roads were built long before cars were even thought of. People in the UK generally live near cities and the public transport systems usually connect up with railway stations. You only have to walk a few hundred metres at most to get to the public transport. In small town America it's a bit more of a mission to get to public transport.

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  • While true today, 80 years ago, we actually had a rather robust passenger rail system--at least east of the mississippi, a lot of small towns had rail connections for passenger service. – user1530 Apr 19 '18 at 0:31
  • This may be true for major cities like london but public transport in the rural areas of the uk is often poor. – Neil Meyer Apr 19 '18 at 7:34
  • @NeilMeyer The answer says "in cities". – David Richerby Apr 19 '18 at 15:46
  • Not only small town America. I had to get from Boston MA to Bedford MA on one occasion, and found there were no public transport links. – Michael Kay Apr 19 '18 at 22:15
  • @NeilMeyer The public transport in rural areas in the UK is not at all poor compared to rural areas in North America, where being >100 km from the nearest bus stop is not at all uncommon. – gerrit Apr 23 '18 at 17:36

My experience is with the Amtrak St. Louis - Chicago high speed corridor. After 8 years and $1.95 billion spent, the trains are still travelling at 80 mph. There are new engines, the track has been upgraded, the stations have been upgraded, the corridor has been fenced, and the crossings have been made safer. The service is definitely more reliable. There were supposed to be new railcars, but a prototype failed a key test, so the program was ended.

Eventually, the trains will travel at 110 mph when outside of both cities.

  1. This has taken almost 10 years and cost $2 billion.
  2. Communities do not want high speed trains running through their towns.
  3. An airline flight is reasonably priced and takes only an hour.


  1. The train is priced about the same as the bus, and is much more pleasant.
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  • Do you consider riding a bus much more pleasant than riding a train?? – Peter Mortensen Apr 19 '18 at 6:10
  • In the 1980s on the US Eastern Corridor it was cheaper to fly than to take the train. – arp Apr 19 '18 at 10:36
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    And airline flight may take only an hour, but you need to arrive at the airport an hour before your flight and it probably takes at least half an hour to get to and from the airport at each end, so it's not really comparable. – David Richerby Apr 19 '18 at 15:48
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    @PeterMortensen I think you've misunderstood. The final sentence means "The train is priced about the same as the bus, and the train is much more pleasant." – David Richerby Apr 19 '18 at 15:49

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