My love of trains is inexplicable. It wasn't until I was 18 that I consistently rode the rails, my enrollment in a college in Brooklyn, N.Y., necessitating my frequent ridership. I never would have expected enjoying train rides as much as I did, however, and for reasons beyond my understanding, I've become something of a "rail fan" -- a person who simply enjoys the act of riding a train.
To this end, it's been a great advantage living in New York City and the Northeast in general as it is far and away the most active section of the country in regard to train activity. Thirteen of Amtrak's 25 busiest train stations are located in the northeastern United States, with the North Eastern Corridor being the most heavily trafficked railway in the country.
Now when I say that the Northeast is far and away the most active section of the country in regard to trains, it should be noted that I speak relatively. The railroad system at large isn't quite what it used to be, and it's fairly weak in most of the country. The sprawling network that regularly took passengers from coast to coast in the 19th and early 20th centuries has been dismantled, replaced as interest dwindled following the advent and proliferation of cars, buses, and planes.
Outside that, the death of widespread rail was hastened by the actions of companies like General Motors (NYSE: GM), who bought up streetcar operations between the 1930s and 1950s for conversion into bus routes. It's also been suggested that GM, in collusion with numerous tire and oil companies, went even further, dismantling national railways in an attempt to boost automobile sales. This allegation has never been definitively proven.
Regardless of the reasons for this precipitous decline, the majority of railroad traffic today consists of freight trains. You can still travel coast to coast, but the routes are limited and the frequency of trains is languid relative to plane travel. Trains have been greatly marginalized, in some sense reduced to a novelty by companies like Seminole Gulf Railway, where a ticket gets you a five-course dinner, a nostalgic train ride, and a comical murder mystery -- something of a testament to the place trains have carved out in American history and popular imagination.
The railway's vicissitudes have been trending positively recently, however. The economic downturn, in conjunction with soaring gas prices, has sent public transportation use to record highs. For instance, 2010 was Amtrak's busiest year ever, serving 28.7 million passengers. In 2011, Americans took 10.4 billion trips on various modes of public transportation, falling just shy of the high set in 2008.
Perhaps most importantly, the 2009 stimulus package allocated $8 billion to the development and implementation of high-speed railways. It seems that a certain set of circumstances has fallen into place that makes the idea of a national high-speed railway attractive, and it's reasonable to expect that such interest will be long-term.
High-speed trains are a mode of transportation that can be considered, to some extent, a solution to a few important issues facing America -- unemployment, clean methods of transportation, and energy conservation. High-speed trains are a clean, efficient, proven system that can run entirely on alternative energy and displace automobiles and planes for interstate and urban transport. And our rail system has fallen into such a state that the process of rebuilding would create jobs while the railway itself could, with careful planning, stimulate the economy on a regional and national level.
Let me tell you more. In following articles, I'll demonstrate the benefits that have been derived from high-speed railways elsewhere, and the reasonable expectation that we could see similar benefits here.