Anybody who’s ever traveled across Europe has likely experienced the marvels of a well connected high-speed rail network. Within a few hours, passengers can traverse entire countries, all the while being able to relax along the way. All major cities have proper and up-to-date infrastructure and stations, and the lines have been constructed in such a way that nearly any town or village either has its own stop or is a relatively short drive away from one.
The problem isn’t that the U.S. lacks the funds to go through with such an audacious infrastructure plan; it’s instead a matter of serious practicality and feasibility. The country of France is smaller than the state of Texas, and the entire western portion of Europe could fit comfortably within the continental U.S.
Europe still has some of the same geographical barriers as the U.S. (mountains, rivers, lakes) and has certainly overcome what they can, so I doubt the Rockies or Mojave Desert would cause a system-halting obstruction over here.
One could assume initially the discrepancies are a result of one resource Europe has in abundance over the U.S. — history. Despite Europe having been populated and developed far longer than the U.S., the locomotive was still invented at a time in history in which both locations could accommodate it, and both Europe and America’s first rails were not incredibly far apart. The steam locomotive ride in Europe occurred in 1804, while the first in America was only 23 years later, in 1827.
I understand 23 years is a relatively long time in modern history, but I also know laying down rail lines was not a very expedient process in the early 19th century, for either side of the Atlantic.
It’s not like the U.S. was lazy in the 19th and 20th centuries or lackluster in its railway development. The U.S. still operates over 140,000 miles of rail in the 21st century. Yet despite having the largest network of rails of any country on Earth, the U.S. still has hundreds of millions less travelers via rail than the European Union.
The EU might have 300 million more citizens than the U.S., but the data is quite convincing on the per capita level. A piece by the Economist states “per capita, the Japanese, the Swiss, the French, the Danes, the Russians, the Austrians, the Ukrainians, the Belarusians, and the Belgians all accounted for more than 1,000 passenger-kilometers by rail in 2011; Americans accounted for 80.”
The Economist article does a great job briefly explaining all of the main reasons for this discrepancy; however, I think some factors might be more important than others.
For one, the immense geographical size of America makes travel by rail unreasonable in both the dimensions of time and money. A three-hour train ride in Europe can take you across entire countries, while the same amount of time in America couldn't get you out of Texas. A train ride across the width of France (Brest to Strasbourg) takes less than seven hours, which is about the amount of time an Amtrak ride from Boston to Washington, D.C. would be. Cross-country journeys take days, and unless you are on vacation and have the time and interest to enjoy several days on a train, they are simply not reasonable.
Because train travel covers so much distance and is so lengthy in the U.S., it is, as an expected result, quite expensive. And when it may cost less time and money to fly between cities, why would anyone opt for rail?
Andrew Hall is a UF management senior. His column appears on Fridays.