Since many Americans spent part of the last few days traveling home for Thanksgiving on trains, Scientific American chose to mark the occasion with an in-depth report on the future of rail travel. The future looks promising... and fast.
The Obama Administration has pledged to make as much as $13 billion worth of stimulus money available for high speed rail projects, with an aim to bring the US rail system up to par with those in Europe and Asia. Although Amtrak, the US's intercity passenger rail provider, served a record 28.7 million people last year, this number is disproportionately low when compared to other countries, and part of that is how slow most trains are, and how infrequently they run.
This is partially a structural problem - most tracks were never upgraded to meet 1940's-era Federal Railroad Administration standards due to cost concerns, which keeps trains outside the Northeast Corridor operating at under 79 miles per hour. Lowering average speeds still further is the fact that passenger trains are often forced to idle on the tracks for up to an hour while freight traffic is given higher priority and allowed to go ahead.
Since World War II, most of the US's investments in transportation have focused on planes and automobiles, while Europe and Asia have placed their emphasis on trains, which is a big reason for the current disparity. Jalopnik's Sam Smith argued earlier this month for the necessity of high speed trains in the US, and it appears the current administration agrees. President Obama has proposed the creation of "an efficient, high-speed passenger rail network of 100- to 600-mile intercity corridors that connect communities across America." The obvious American model for such a service is the Northeast Corridor's Acela Express, which runs daily between Boston and Washington, DC.