The Morning Measure: Railing on…

Dec 13, 2010
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Passenger rail accounts for a very small percentage of travel in the United States though this was not always the case. Passenger rail was the primary mode of intercity travel in the U.S. until the 1950s. Thereafter the car became king for shorter trips and airplanes for longer voyages. Passenger rail’s travel share may start to rise with the administration’s push to begin to bring American trains closer to the high-speed systems found in Europe and Asia. However this push will take time and persistence if it is to have a real impact on travel share and by extension help meet RF targets on reducing auto dependency and greenhouse gas emissions.

The late Tony Judt author and historian has an intriguing piece in the most recent New York Review of Books on the romantic appeal of train travel and the evolution of passenger rail around the world. Writing about the demise of train travel in the U.S. Judt notes:

“From the 1930s the motorcar was starting to challenge the train as the conveyance of choice for short and even medium-length journeys. Because the car—like its defunct horse-drawn predecessors the post chaise and carriage—was par excellence a private vehicle it threatened not just rail travel but the very idea of public transportation as a respectable and desirable way to move. As before 1830 so after 1950: those who could afford to do so opted increasingly for privacy.”

Do you think passenger rail has a chance at regaining a significant share of travel in the U.S.? How can it be achieved?

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