The fast rail

The railroad system has been a key part of the evolution of the U.S. However, our passenger rail system is lagging behind many other developed nations. Today, an Amtrak train from Denver to Chicago can be more expensive than flying and the trip can take over 18 hours. What happened to rail travel in the U.S.?

Christian Wolmar’s book The Great Railroad Revolution: The History of Trains in America begins:

“America was made by the railroads. They united the country and then stimulated the economic development that enabled the country to become the world’s richest nation. The railroads also transformed American society, changing it from a primarily agrarian economy to an industrial powerhouse in the space of a few decades of the nineteenth century. Quite simply, without the railroads, the United States would not have become the United States.”

Europe and Asia are currently leading the way with modern rail travel. Trains moving at speeds of over 200 mph are the new standard for developed nations. Why are we trailing these fast train nations?

The long answer to why the rail system declined in the U.S. is a complex tale. (I would recommend reading Wolmar’s book for more of a detailed explanation). Rail company infighting, Congressional intervention, WWII, speed limits, price-fixing, consolidation, labor disputes, and other grand stand politics all played parts in the decline.

What is the short answer to why the rail system declined? Cars killed the trains. The specific punch was likely the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. The tax dollar wind shifted away from the rail system as a primary mode of transportation.

Fourteen years after the Highway Act, Congress passed a bill creating what we now know as Amtrak to keep the passenger rail system alive. The Amtrak business model relies on tax dollar funding, yet operates as a for-profit entity. As of 2013, Amtrak still needed $1.4 billion in subsidies to continue operating, despite ridership being up 55 percent since 1997 according to their annual report.

The shorter lines near big cities do well financially. The long lines, especially across the West, don’t make money. The longer lines may never be profitable, but the national network as a whole could be. The dilemma is that the system needs a big boost of modern high-speed technology, which would require an even bigger subsidy per year. However, without upgrading our rails, the Amtrak system may never be an attractive enough business to turn a profit.

In other countries in the world, trains are the most economical way to get around. In the U.S., you don’t need to be rich to have a car. In Tokyo or Paris, you would need a great job to afford a car and its accompanying expenses. For most of our country, train travel can’t be a day-to-day option, even if the desire to take trains increases.

Why should we revive the passenger train system and not just rely on planes and cars? As gas prices go up and cities become more congested, it would be beneficial to have a rail option. If we could speed trains up, they could become viable again. Trains are also a more energy efficient way to transport people than planes and cars. Planes have the advantage of speed. Cars have the flexibility to go door to door. Trains have gas mileage, safety, and traffic avoidance benefits.

How do different modes of transportation stack up from an energy efficiency standpoint? A good measurement to use to compare forms of transportation is Person-Miles Per Gallon (PMPG). This measurement calculates the energy to move one human around divided by that person’s share of the energy required to get from one place to the next. The most energy efficient way to get somewhere is on a bicycle, at an average of 984 PMPG. (See the chart for a full list).

According to True Cost blog, “A typical person expends roughly 75 calories to walk a mile in 20 minutes. An American burns about 30 calories just to exist for 20 minutes, so the net expenditure for walking is 45 calories per mile. One gallon of gasoline contains roughly 31,500 kcal, so 45 calories is 0.0014 gallons of gas. Thus, the average American has a walking efficiency of 700 MPG.”

Why are passenger trains so much lower than freight trains on the chart?

“While all trains have similar underlying efficiencies, passenger trains in the US are much less efficient in practice because of poor utilization. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics calculates Amtrak efficiency at 1,745 BTU per passenger-mile, which equates to 71.6 PMGP. Amtrak traveled 267 million car-miles in 2007, which equals to 16 billion potential passenger miles if the average car holds 60 passengers. In 2007 Amtrak consumed 10.5 trillion BTU of fuel, or 659 BTU per available passenger mile. Amtrak’s max possible PMPG is therefore 189.7,” True Cost reported.

Despite the popularity of cars in the last 50 years, we still have the world’s largest railroad network. We don’t haul as much as China, but we have an enormous amount of rails already on the ground. We would have an easier time of reviving the railroads than if we had to start building anew. As a nation, we just have to decide if that is a priority or not.

The risk of saying no to trains is that if we have another oil crisis like the Arab Oil Embargo, we will all be lined up at gas stations waiting for the problem to blow over. While we are sitting in our cars, other nations with viable train systems will be getting around like business as usual. A best-case scenario would be a fundamental change in passenger rail design.

Elon Musk, of PayPal, Tesla and SpaceX, has proposed a grand plan of connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco with a high-speed rail system. The trip would take just 35 minutes. The Hyperloop concept could reach speeds of 700 MPH and would travel in a tube instead of on an exposed rail. Musk was fed up with the high-speed rail that was recently proposed in California. The proposed system would be one of the more expensive and slower trains in the world of high-speed rail travel. A Hyperloop type form of transport may be the next game changer for passenger rail. The U.S. would take the innovation torch back for rail travel with an invention like the Hyperloop.

What would we need to do to get our rail system up to 2014 travel standards? Money and desire. Americans will need to see something grand on the horizon to get behind revamping our national rail system, not just a new coat of paint on an Amtrak train. The endgame would be a more efficient and inexpensive way to get around the country, with less exposure to the risk of oil price spikes. A viable 700 MPH rail option could be that game changer.

Max Rohr is a graduate of the University of Utah. He is currently an outside salesperson at Shamrock Sales in Denver. He has worked in the hydronics and solar industry for 10 years in the installation, sales and marketing sectors. Rohr is a LEED Green Associate and BPI Building Analyst, and is RPA’s Education Committee Chairman. He can be reached at max.rohr@mac.com.

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