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Why the United States Has the Most-Advanced Rail System in the World

By Randal O'Toole -- November 5, 2018

“The notion that Europe is somehow more environmentally sound than the United States because more people ride trains is a myth. As New York University historian Peter Baldwin notes, ‘Ecologically speaking, there is no advantage in sending passengers by rail if freight is sent by road.'”

“America’s rail system is the envy of the world, carrying more than six times as many ton-miles of freight each year as all of the EU-27 nations combined.”

On my first visits to most other countries, including Australia, Britain, France, Italy, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, and Switzerland, I’ve spent much of my time riding trains. Many of my friends who visit these countries return to the United States wondering, “Why can’t we have trains like that?”

There are many ways to answer this question, but the best way is to see how well the trains in those countries actually work.

The key difference between the United States and these other countries is not that America has some sort of irrational love affair with the automobile but that American railroads are mostly private, while railroads in the high-speed rail countries are mostly or entirely public or state-owned corporations. Where private companies seek profits, politicians seek visibility, so state-owned railroads focus on highly visible passenger service rather while for-profit railroads focus on freight.

As a result, far from being behind the rest of the world, the United States actually has the world’s most efficient railway system. Though they are one of the least-subsidized forms of transportation in the country, America’s railroads move well over 5,000 ton-miles of freight per person per year. This compares with 500 ton-miles per person in the European Union and less than 170 ton-miles per person in Japan.

In order to emphasize passenger service, other countries have given up on profitable rail freight service, allowing most freight to be shipped by truck, while railroads in the United States have given up on unprofitable passenger trains and emphasized freight.

Table 1
Percent of Passenger Travel, by Mode
EU-27 USA Japan
Auto 74% 85% 56%
Bus 8% 3% 7%
Rail 6% 0% 30%
Tram/Metro 1% 0% *
Water 1% 0% 0%
Air 9% 11% 7%
*Included in Rail
Source: Panorama of Transport: 2009 Edition, Eurostat, Brussels, 2009, p. 100.

A review of 2006 transportation statistics published by the European Commission found that, despite the emphasis on passenger trains, the automobile was the dominant form of passenger travel in the Europe and Japan as well as the United States (Table 1). Intercity rail was important in Japan but only marginally important in Europe. About one quarter of European intercity rail travel, or 1.5 percent of the total, was by high-speed rail.

Table 2
Percent of Freight Shipments, by Mode
EU-27 USA Japan
Road 46% 30% 60%
Rail 11% 43% 4%
Pipeline 3% 14% 0%
Water 41% 13% 36%
Source: Panorama of Transport: 2009 Edition, Eurostat, Brussels, 2009, p. 57.

The trade-off for attracting a greater share of passenger travel to trains was a huge loss in rail’s share of freight movements (Table 2). Rail ships more freight than any other mode in the United States, but is rather minor in Europe and Japan, where highways are the dominant form of freight shipments.

The notion that Europe is somehow more environmentally sound than the United States because more people ride trains is a myth. As New York University historian Peter Baldwin notes, “Ecologically speaking, there is no advantage in sending passengers by rail if freight is sent by road.” Because the difference in energy consumption between rail and truck freight is far greater than the difference between passenger rail and cars, the United States saves more energy shipping freight by rail rather than truck than Europe saves by moving passengers by rail rather than by car or air.

One argument made for building new high-speed rail lines is that it would “free up” the conventional rail lines for more freight trains. But it hasn’t worked out that way in practice: As high-speed rail lines have been built in both Europe and Japan, rail’s share of freight has declined at least as fast as rail’s share of passengers. Between 1991 and 2014, rail’s share of freight in the EU-15 declined from 8.4 percent to 8.1 percent.

Table 3
Passenger Miles Per Capita
EU-27 USA Japan
Auto 5,775 15,090 3,540
Bus 683 559 435
Rail 497 62* 1,925
Tram/Metro 124 62 0
Water 62 0 0
Air 683 1,987 435
TOTAL 7,825 17,761 6,334
*Note: The 62 miles the average American travels by rail includes both Amtrak and commuter trains. Amtrak’s share is about 22 miles, and commuter rail is the other 40.
Source: Panorama of Transport: 2009 Edition, Eurostat, Brussels, 2009, p. 100.

The other cost of emphasizing rail is a decline in total mobility. In part to promote rail over autos, Europe and Japan heavily tax motor fuel. The result is less driving, but that reduction in mobility is not made up for by an increase in rail and bus travel. As Table 3 shows, the average American travels 9,000 more miles per year by car than the average European, while the average European travels only about 400 more miles per year by rail than the average American.

Visitors often leave Europe thinking trams (streetcars and light rail) and metros (rapid transit) are highly popular, yet the average European rides them only 124 miles per year, or 62 more miles than the average American.

This means that, overall, the average American travels more than twice as many miles per year as the average European, and close to three times as many miles as the average Japanese. Residents of even the wealthiest countries in Europe do not average more than 10,000 miles per year. This isn’t because the United States is such a big country: although data are not available for every country in the world, the second-most mobile people may be Icelanders, who also happen to have the one of the highest rates of car ownership in the world.

The notion that Europe is somehow more environmentally sound than the United States because more people ride trains is a myth. As New York University historian Peter Baldwin notes, “Ecologically speaking, there is no advantage in sending passengers by rail if freight is sent by road.” Because the difference in energy consumption between rail and truck freight is far greater than the difference between passenger rail and cars, the United States saves more energy shipping freight by rail rather than truck than Europe saves by moving passengers by rail rather than by car or air.

In short, far from being technologically backward, America’s rail system is the envy of the world, carrying more than six times as many ton-miles of freight each year as all of the EU-27 nations combined. Railroads offer advantages for freight that they can’t match for passengers. Freight doesn’t care about being crammed into tight spaces, delayed a few hours, or being jerkily transferred from ship to rail to truck. Rails will continue to play a dominant role in freight movement, but for passengers, rail travel can’t compete with planes that need almost no infrastructure to go faster than any train or soon-to-be driverless cars that will be able to go anywhere on America’s 2.7 million miles of paved roads.

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Randal O’Toole (rot@cato.org) is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and author of the just released Romance of the Rails: Why the Passenger Trains We Love Are Not the Transportation We Need. This article is an excerpt from that book.

4 Comments


  1. JavelinaTex  

    An interesting argument, but I am not buying it. While no doubt EU has heavily subsidized passenger travel, I don’t believe it explains the low market share of commercial freight. That said, I think the subsidization of long haul passenger travel is pretty ridiculous. It is an easy sentiment and it is as common with conservatives as it is with liberals.

    Europe and Japan are much more densely populated than the US. Rail in the US is very uncompetitive against trucking for distances of about 300 miles and less. Much of the EU is within 300 miles of major ports and industrial regions are especially so. Further, as with the US there are extensive navigable rivers with barge traffic. You simply do not have near the phenomenon of 1,000 to 1,500 freight hauls in the EU like in the US and Canada. We also have more extensive long haul pipelines, which of course are an alternative to rail and barge.

    We have to also remember that we are truly a common market, the EU still likely has less than the degree of integration.

    Japan is not much wider than 250 at its greatest width and the vast majority of its population live in coastal areas. The mountains are also a great physical barrier.

    I also don’ buy the Europeans and Japanese travel less because they have less options. They travel less because they have less need to. They simply do not live as far apart and cities and towns are denser and more walkable. Last I saw, the ratio of automobile ownership to drivers & population is not a whole lot lower than in the US. We can also get into discussions on Aviation competitiveness. I don’t consider flying unless the distances are greater than 300 miles, and my actual number is closer to 500 miles before I seriously consider flying. So they drive less, fly less but that doesn’t mean they are not well traveled.

    What I would be interested in would be a discussion of the Jones Act and whether the European countries, the EU, and Japan have similar policies with regard to in country, in Union, coastal shipping.

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  2. Wednesday What We’re Reading (Feb. 13, 2019) | The Soapbox  

    […] US railways are the most advanced in the world – American travelers use roads more than their European counterparts, but American railways are overwhelmingly more effective at transporting cargo. […]

    Reply

  3. nighthawk  

    The spin doctors are at work. We may have more passengers and more rail lines but the technology and condition of rail lines in the U.S. is behind in most larger countries like Britain, China, Japan and do I need to go on? It’s also not the envy of the countries listed. How many high speed line length of tracks are in the U.S. compared to China and Japan? I’m not talking about 110-150 mph I’m talking 190 mph or better. Zero, zilch, none. There is no reason other than influence from the car manufacturers,oil companies, and less than reputable politicians why we don’t have better and faster rail service in the U.S.

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  4. Chris  

    Europeans do use the trains far more than their American Counterparts.

    If you take a look at the passenger miles figure – using 2013 figures the USA has 22.6 billion passenger miles, the EU 27 had 426 billion.

    France and Germany had 88.1 and 82.4 billion passenger miles respectively.

    The economies of the EU and USA are different in their infrastructure setups – partially down to population density – there are more medium sized cities in Europen than the USA which means transport networks are far more profitable and efficient when comes the passenger transport networks. Also there is ever increasing network integration across public transport networks.

    Safety wise Between the EU and the US is that the EU is marginally safer – and the roll out across the ETCS should help here as well, where as the US has pass her trains equipped with this active train control often the rail it runs on doesn’t. This leads us into the next section

    Where the EU lags behind is in Freight traffic – this is because for the most part EU countries run their rail network infrastructure either state controlled, or through Quangos. Whereas the USA around 95% of the network is controlled by 6 companies. Amtrak has to negotiate fees and rights of way across these networks and has second fiddle to freight on the lines, meaning density and frequency of services cannot be run.

    Also the EU while it’s at twice as profitable as the US network Is prepared to run loss making routes when it ties into other networks which may be profitable and runs a medium to long term network approach whereas in the USA it’s more short term based on the political funding avaliable.

    Part of the reason the EU is behind on freight is accounted for by passenger priority, part of it is down to legacy infrastructure (ie loading gauges reducing the ability to double stack (especially so in the UK)) it means freight in the EU runs mainly at night and when it runs in the day it has to use passing loops to allow the fast scheduled passenger past. This limits the freight train size to the length of the loops. The USA doesn’t have this issue and as such the trains can be a lot longer and therefor a lot more efficient.

    If we go back to the density of the two the EU is more densely populated, has more ports, has the Rhine and the Danube that allows for river cargo right into the heart.

    This means that for the majority of the EU the distance travelled for freight is under 300km. And at these distances road freight is as competitive if not more so than rail, in speed and cost. The USA being less dense and having less larger cities spread out a lot further than the main EU metropolitans means that freight transport travels further for longer and as such is a far more efficient Mode of transport.

    So in answer to you article – I would argue that geography and politics are the main drivers.

    That the USA lags far behind on passenger services and that the distance travelled by EU and US citizens is not directly comparable due to population density and public transport planning.

    In terms of advanced – if you are using technology then the USA is massively behind the EU and Asians countries in the rail networks in terms of deployment, safety, construction, maintenance and profitability models.

    Reply

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