America’s growth and westward expansion was based on the dominance of the train. By 1929 the U.S. had one of the largest and most used rail networks in the world (65,000 railroad cars in operation and 265,000 miles of tracks). Where did this train system go? Where America once dominated, now we lag behind Europe and Asia who both have extensive and convenient rail systems.
The decline in the dominance of train travel is due in large part to the rise of America as an auto nation. America’s automobile companies worked to beat the trains by buying rail lines to close them and pressuring Congress to build an extensive highway system throughout the country. Although these efforts were a huge success for the auto companies, they took their toll on the environment as well as the U.S.’ dependence on foreign oil sources. This dependence on automobiles has lead to troubles for America, and as these problems have arisen people have looked toward trains once again.
Train travel has the least harmful impact on the environment by leaps and bounds compared to plane and auto travel. The only method of transportation that is better in walking or biking, clearly not a practical alternative to traveling throughout the country. The U.S. government recognizes this as a benefit to train travel, and for this and other motives, it created Amtrak in 1971 to provide rail service in the U.S.. Amtrak uses around 21,000 miles of track, mostly pre-existing freight rails, and served around 28 million customers in 2008. While this is a large amount of people, if anyone has ever ridden Amtrak, they know that the service is incomplete and would not be able to compete against the rails in Europe. Why does America continue to lag in a much more sustainable alternative to travel?
President Obama recognizes the tremendous potential for growth in the U.S. rail system and has allocated $8 billion to enhance the rail system. Hopefully this will produce great strides in the rail system and U.S. can lessen its harmful impact on the environment while providing a more pleasant travel experience.