A quick Google search of “the future of transportation” results in a plethora of dreamy technologies. Self-driving cars, drones, hyperloops and flying vehicles promise to be the answer for all our transportation needs.

The truth is these are all facades to the simple fact that the technologies we need for sustainable, efficient and reliable transportation are already here. 

Trains are often touted by environmentalists as being the most environmentally friendly option for transportation, and they are absolutely right. Public ground transportation beats personal vehicles, and when it comes to buses and trains, rail reigns supreme.

On top of that, rail transportation is the second safest form of transportation and has the potential to be reliable, affordable and fast. However, trains in the United States are known to be quite the opposite. The sad state of passenger rail services occurred from nearly a century of mistreatment from national, state and local governments.

From the 1880s to the 1920s, trains ruled the transportation world. The cost to travel across the U.S. drastically decreased, and streetcars could be found in every large American city. In 2022, streetcars, now known as light rail, are essentially nonexistent, and train travel is known to be riddled with delays.

The current state of rail transportation is why it only made up 0.7% of over 5.6 trillion U.S. passenger miles traveled in 2019. In reality, it is not a realistic option unless you live within the train-heavy Northeast Corridor. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

In the early 1900s, governments made way for investments in motor vehicle infrastructure, and streetcar companies were forced to play on an uneven playing field. Their contracts with municipalities often required an extremely low fare as well as maintaining the asphalt along the tracks.

As cars took up more of the road, streetcars were blocked from making schedules on time and were essentially in charge of subsidizing the cars slowing them down. In the places where they were able to survive, trains were eventually phased out in every way to accommodate cars on the road.

Since the hostile takeover of cars on our roads, there is essentially no other option for travel in many towns and cities. Light rail offers a legitimate alternative to car travel, as they do not get stuck in traffic like most bus systems and can be easily electrified.

Long-distance passenger rail has a similar story of being pushed aside for vehicles.

The signing of the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956 by President Dwight Eisenhower completely changed the way Americans moved throughout the nation. This bill cemented the U.S.' dependence on cars for long-distance transportation.

Quickly after the creation of the interstate system, most private rail companies ditched their attempts at passenger service. In 1970, Amtrak was created to be a public service replacing the majority of private passenger rail services in America. Shortly after, in 1973, Congress mandated the transfer of rail infrastructure in the Northeast Corridor to Amtrak.

In the rest of the country, privately owned motor vehicles benefit from publicly maintained roads, while Amtrak, a publicly owned corporation, relies on private rail infrastructure. This is completely backwards and leaves little question as to why passenger rail is failing in the U.S.

While the government has neglected trains, it is possible to turn the trend around with some drastic steps.

The most drastic of all would be nationalizing the entirety of the U.S. rail network. For successful and reliable national rail service, this is a necessity. The major railroad corporations have completely mismanaged their infrastructure and trains solely for excessive profit.

Railroading is America’s most profitable industry. The current 50% profit margin goes to executives and stockholders, which means less investment into infrastructure, reduced safety and worse treatment of workers.

The pursuit of profit largely manifests itself through Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR). PSR is openly adopted by six of the seven Class I railroads, with the exception being BNSF Railway, which is found going through Flagstaff. This practice includes less staff, less infrastructure and fewer but longer trains. While a railroad executive will never say it, PSR is a stunt purely for chasing short-term gains at the expense of everyone else.

The “monster trains” have recently reached as long as 3.5 miles. Rail companies largely refuse to update their infrastructure to accommodate the length of these trains, making them unable to pass each other. This is the primary reason for Amtrak services being so unreliable outside the Northeast Corridor. Additionally, these long trains are often manned by just two people. If there is an issue, the workers are walking miles to find it.

Long-term nationalization should seek to reject the pursuit of massive profits and reprioritize strengthening essential rail infrastructure. This rail network will work toward the good of the public, just as is expected of our roads and highways.

Along with rail infrastructure, bike and pedestrian infrastructure with an emphasis on connectivity and walkability must coincide with this massive paradigm shift in how we move. People should have the option to never have to step foot in a car as we rebuild cities to benefit the individuals living in them.

It is a matter of making serious investments and steps toward better infrastructure and living conditions. Entrepreneurs need to step aside from their unhelpful transportation facades. We must prioritize rail to unlock all that is possible and more

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