On Sep. 14, Amtrak canceled all of its long-distance routes in the U.S. There was a looming national railway strike, and although no Amtrak employees were part of the involved unions, the dominant ownership of U.S. rail lines by seven companies left Amtrak and its passengers in the middle of the negotiations.
Amtrak restored service on Sept. 16 after it struck a tentative deal with freight rail workers to avert a strike, but the threat remains. On Oct. 11, members of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division rejected a proposed five-year contract, opening up a new chance of a national strike occurring around Nov. 19.
Such modern strife fails to convey the vision of rail travel as a comfortable, scenic, and dependable mode of crossnational transportation. Rail in the U.S. first grew alongside the westward expansion. The government granted companies rights-of-way and adjacent land for building railways, which contributed to population shifts, expanded domestic trade, and increased wealth for railroad owners.
The subsequent expansion of the aviation and automotive industries put increased strain on railroad companies during the 20th century. While the U.S. was investing in highways, rail continued to be a largely private venture. Companies consolidated, creating monopolies and duopolies managing different regions.
At this same time, European countries, along with Japan and China, were constructing publicly funded national and crossnational rail systems, some with high-speed technology, such as the Tokaido Shinkansen—the world’s first “bullet train.”
The U.S. government wouldn’t have active ownership in the rail industry until the 1970s when the Rail Passenger Service Act created Amtrak from existing intercity services, and the bankruptcy of freight company Penn Central’s led to the creation of Conrail. Both enterprises, confronted with decades of underinvestment in rail transportation and aging infrastructure, were charged with acting as businesses instead of services.
Fast-forward to 50 years later, the government no longer manages Conrail, and Amtrak’s network has shrunk. Its long-distance routes are now dependent on privately owned lines, leaving the U.S. far behind countries that actively expanded public rail systems in the last century.
In recent years, environmental motivations, wavering gas prices, and a desire for a dependable alternative to air travel—which has lost a significant amount of public trust due to widespread delays and cancellations along with issues such as lost or damaged baggage and consumer complaints—have bolstered a new-found enthusiasm for an expanded national rail system. This vision got a major boost from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which earmarked $102 billion for rail investment in both Amtrak and intercity passenger rail.
Sean Jeans-Gail, vice president of the Rail Passenger Association, told Stacker that the vision of a dense passenger network like those in Europe and Asia is far away for most U.S. regions. Still, the concept of a balanced transportation network is gaining momentum, where efficient rail options are competitive with flying and driving.
Stacker cited data from the Federal Railroad Administration, Bureau of Transportation of Statistics, and the Organization for Economic Development to explore passenger rail service in the U.S. and the factors that have made it fall behind other developed countries.
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