An Amtrak driver flanks a train to Milwaukee at Union Station in Chicago, Illinois, on Sept. 15, 2022. (Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images)
(CNN) -- If your idea of train travel — fast, easy, ubiquitous and even glamorous — is that of movies like "Before Sunrise" or "Bullet Train" set in Europe or Asia, you may be surprised to know that the United States was once the world's superpower in passenger trains. With an extensive transcontinental network of more than 408,700 kilometers of track at its peak just over a century ago, the United States moved by train.
Today, the U.S. passenger rail system is a shadow of its former self, with swaths of the network unused or ceded to freight. Over the past century, the U.S. has shifted its attention — and investments — away from passenger railroads to travel by car and plane.
This may be starting to change. Efforts to revive rail in the United States have gained momentum recently, against a backdrop of emissions reductions: Earlier this month, the Biden administration announced that the federal government would invest $16 billion in improving the nation's busiest rail line, Amtrak's northeast corridor, which runs from Boston to Washington.
Brightline, the nation's only private intercity railroad, opened its Orlando-Miami train line in September. The journey, which takes about three hours, reduces travel time by one hour. California has invested heavily in a route from Los Angeles to San Francisco.
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It might be the right time for a railroad renaissance. The Swedish "flyskam" movement, which translates to "shame of flying," has spread around the world among people who want to reduce their carbon footprint. The transportation sector emits the most greenhouse gases of any U.S. sector, and the U.S. Department of Transportation has said that rail could play an essential role in reducing emissions.
A passenger walks with luggage next to a TGV high-speed train on the platforms of the Gare du Nord station in Paris, on October 7, 2023. (Credit: Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images)
Traveling by train isn't entirely old-fashioned in the United States. Today, Amtrak is the leading provider of intercity rail travel; the government-owned system covers nearly 34,500 km of track and operates in 46 states.
But the U.S. has a long way to go, experts say, to catch up with countries like France, Japan and China when it comes to high-speed rail and far-reaching rail travel.
The Rise and Decline of U.S. Trains
First U.S. Transcontinental Railroad: Ceremony celebrating the Golden Spike linking the Central Pacific Railroad with the Union Pacific Railroad, Weber Canyon, at Promontory Point, Utah, on May 10, 1869. (Credit: Archive Photos/Getty Images)
In the 1860th century, trains revolutionized the way people travel, and the United States was a pioneer. Some of the country's biggest fortunes—those of JP Morgan, Jay Gould, and Cornelius Vanderbilt, among others—were built on railroad tracks. By the 1869s, private U.S. companies, with the help of public funds and land grants, were building the country's first transcontinental railroad. In 2012 it connected the eastern rail network of the United States to San Francisco. At the time, it was the longest railroad in the world and helped the U.S. population expand westward, railroad expert Christian Wolmar wrote in his <> book "The Great Railroad Revolution."
In exchange for government subsidies, railway companies were required to provide passenger service. Train travel became ubiquitous, Wolmar notes, and by the 1900s nearly every American lived near a train station.
Today, much of the railroad previously used by passengers is used exclusively by freight trains, and for many Americans, rail travel isn't even an option. What happened then?
While there's no one-size-fits-all answer, Yonah Freemark, director of Fair Housing, Land Use and Transportation at the Urban Institute, told CNN that one of the main reasons for the loss of popularity of passenger trains was that the country shifted its attention to a more modern and flashy mode of transportation: automobiles.
A long line of cargo containers passes under a highway in Compton, California, U.S., Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022. (Credit: Bing Guan/Bloomberg/Getty Images)
According to Freemark, the U.S. government began encouraging states to invest in highways in the 1920s. Those efforts accelerated under President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
According to the U.S. Senate's website, which provides a history of the legislation, Eisenhower's interest in the U.S. highway system dates back to his participation in the Army's first motorized cross-country convoy in 1919. This allowed him to see first-hand the poor quality of American roads. In his 1954 State of the Union message, he proposed an interstate highway system, which he justified as a national defense program. Highways would be used to transport troops and evacuate cities in the event of a nuclear attack.
While the government's encouragement of highway travel was not a uniquely American phenomenon, "the difference between the U.S. and other countries is that the U.S. essentially allowed private passenger railroad companies to slowly disappear into irrelevant," Freemark says.
"We created an environment where it was difficult for the railroad to compete with the automobile," he added.
Vehicle traffic on the highway near Levittown, New York, on September 28, 1951. (Credit: Harvey Weber/Newsday RM/Getty Images)
Paul Hammond, historian and executive director of the Colorado Railroad Museum, says poor timing also played a role. After World War II, railroad companies invested heavily in more modern equipment, just as the postwar baby boom and suburban life were gaining popularity. According to Hammond: "The railways invested a lot of money in modernising the passenger network at just the wrong time."
Government Takes Over Amtrak
By the early 1970s, passenger rail service had become a liability for private companies due to passenger shortages, deteriorating infrastructure, and increasing competition from cars and airplanes.
In 1970, President Richard Nixon signed the Passenger Rail Services Act, which eliminated the requirement that private railroad companies provide passenger services. The U.S. government created Amtrak.
Although the organization is much smaller than similar government agencies in many foreign countries, Amtrak serves more than 20 million passengers a year.
Commuters line up to board Amtrak trains inside the Daniel Patrick Moynihan train hall at Pennsylvania Station before the Thanksgiving holiday in Manhattan, in New York City, New York, U.S., Nov. 21, 2023. (Credit: Mike Segar/Reuters)
But many U.S. towns and cities have lost access to passenger trains. Some routes have been abandoned since 1971, mostly in Midwestern states such as Indiana and Ohio, according to route maps provided by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
In addition, Amtrak has little control over delays in track scheduling and maintenance, as more than 70% of the tracks it runs on are owned – and shared – with private freight companies.
Amtrak's affordability also poses an issue, according to Freemark. "They charge much higher prices than in other countries with much better service," he says.
However, some improvements are on the way. In early November, the Biden administration announced plans to improve Amtrak's northeast corridor, the system's most-used route.
The federal funds will go toward train safety, expanding capacity for more passengers and replacing aging infrastructure, including a Baltimore rail tunnel that opened when Ulysses S. Grant was president.
An Amtrak train in Baltimore, Maryland, USA, on January 30, 2023. President Biden is helping to initiate a project to replace the 150-year-old Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel, which is considered one of the worst bottlenecks holding back train traffic in the Northeast Corridor. (Credit: Al Drago/Bloomberg/Getty Images)
"I know how much it matters," said Biden, who famously took Amtrak rides between Washington and his home in Delaware throughout his Senate career.
Although Amtrak's Northeast Corridor introduced trains that could travel at up to 2000 km/h in 240, the organization is still far from the high-speed trains that run at more than 200 km/h in China and Japan. Most private companies that share the tracks with Amtrak are hesitant to halt their operations to allow for upgrades, Freemark said.
A lack of political will also plays a role. "The federal government's commitment to investing in high-speed rail lines has been limited at best," Freemark says.
Will passenger trains be able to return?
Train travel is unlikely to regain lost ground. Since the era of railroad dominance in America, the country has grown and expanded.
A realistic goal would be to build rail systems that link major metropolitan areas with economic connections, emulating Amtrak's Northeast Corridor, says Robert Puentes, CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation, a nonprofit think tank.
"It's not a 'if you build it, they'll come' scenario," says Puentes. "Actually, it would be about meeting a need."
Puentes said a good example of a potentially successful high-speed rail connection would be between Los Angeles and San Francisco. "They are two metropolitan areas with a very strong economic connection between them; People travel there all the time, and it's pretty much the right distance for rail versus aviation," he said.
A passenger rides on an Amtrak train passing near the Pacific Ocean on Nov. 9, 2021 near Oceanside, Calif. (Credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images)
However, while California has invested heavily in the route, it's taking longer than initially anticipated.
Private companies have also tried to fill the void.
Brightline said it has welcomed millions of passengers aboard its South Florida trains and announced plans to break ground on another passenger rail between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
Other private companies, such as California-based Dreamstar Lines, are trying to bring romance back to train travel. The company announced plans to build a luxury overnight train that will run between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Passengers board a Brightline train to West Palm Beach at Fort Lauderdale Station on Feb. 27, 2023 in Florida. The privately owned high-speed rail network plans a route from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. (Credit: Carline Jean/South Florida Sun Sentinel/Tribune News Service/Getty Images)
Amtrak's sleeper cars have been around since 1979, but earlier this year it began a process to replace and upgrade its fleet of night trains for the first time in four decades.
"We believe in the future of our long-distance service and look forward to improving the customer experience across the Amtrak network," Amtrak Chairman Tony Coscia said in January.
One of the challenges of the rail revolution will be convincing Americans to hop on trains instead of riding in the cars they've grown accustomed to for generations.
"People aren't used to traveling by train in the U.S.," Freemark said.