Why Are Trains in the US So Slow?

The US is a leading force when it comes to many fields, such as technology and the economy. However, the rail system is the one thing the US remains far behind many developed countries, even in the 21st century. So, why are trains in the US so slow? 

Trains in the US are so slow because passenger rail transport isn’t that necessary and suitable for the US. Building a modern rail system requires money and time the US isn’t interested in spending. Instead, the US has a highly developed air travel and car culture.

If you’ve ever wondered why the US–one of the most developed countries in the world–doesn’t have those high-speed trains that many Asian and European countries are eager to get, then continue reading. This article will cover all the reasons why the US is lagging when it comes to train transportation.

Why Does the US Not Have High-Speed Trains?

The US held first place in the rail system at one point. The 19th century was a golden period for US rail–freight and passenger. However, that old glory seems so distant in this day and age, just like the US remains distant from other developed Asian and European countries when it comes to high-speed trains.

Therefore, the question of why exactly the US doesn’t develop its rail system for modern high-speed trains is suitable. There are a few reasons for this, and many of them are connected with the US’s unique characteristics, like geography or culture. 

So, let’s see what those reasons are.

The US Doesn’t Have the Required Rail System for High-Speed Trains

When talking about the US and high-speed trains, people often say something along the lines of, “Just buy brand new high-speed trains and put them on the tracks.” Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. 

The US still has older tracks spread all across its territory, which means not all trains, especially modern ones, are suitable for those tracks. The simple fact is that modern high-speed trains can’t run on current tracks present in the US. 

Naturally, any major upgrade of the rail system of this size anywhere in the world means massive amounts of money being spent. This isn’t an overstatement. The cost of upgrading the track system for high-speed trains in the US quickly reaches a “trillion dollars” category. So, the lack of any hurry becomes understandable.

Passenger Trains Aren’t Used Often in the US

Another reason why the US doesn’t have high-speed trains is that there isn’t any overwhelming interest in them. People in the US have other means of transport they prefer over trains (but more about that later). 

It seems that train travel in the US is seen as an outdated and slow mode of travel, especially when you need to travel over a long distance.

The Terrain in the US Might Not Be Suitable for High-Speed Trains

Traveling by train in large US cities is still quite popular, and the high-speed train would be a true gem in those metropolitan areas. However, there’s not much point in these super fast trains traveling only inside large cities. They’re best for long-distance travel, and that might be a problem for the US.

Because of the US’s terrain, which has everything from dense forests and mountains to deserts, it’s almost impossible to build a good rail system for high-speed trains.

Freight Trains Take the Lead in the US

Opposite to passenger trains, freight trains are far higher in number, which clearly shows that the rail system in the US is more convenient for transporting cargo rather than passengers. 

Moreover, the rail system itself is owned by freight companies that have a lot of power in deciding how passenger trains operate and how frequently they appear on tracks. This includes even the Amtrak train, one of the most celebrated trains in the US.

Speaking of Amtrak, check my other article about why Amtrak trains are so slow, which will give you further information about this topic.

Why Are Trains Not Popular in the US?

Let’s be honest, train travel isn’t the most popular way of going from one place to another in the US right now. Historically, the US invested so much money and energy in its rail system but today, that’s no longer the case. Why is that?

Trains aren’t popular in the US because most people prefer to drive. Driving your car from one city to another is more convenient than having to make your way to and from train stations, so driving helps most people save time.

Contrary to places in Europe and Asia, public transit isn’t very robust in most US cities. This means that traveling from home to the train station at your origin and then from the station to your destination can be troublesome. 

Let’s explore a few more reasons why people don’t choose to travel by train in the US. 

Air Travel Is More Popular in the US

Just like train travel became popular in the US in the 19th century, plane travel is “all the rage” today. Because the US is such a large country with difficult terrain that tracks have a hard time covering, planes have the upper hand here.

Planes take less time to traverse great distances and don’t need as much maintenance when it comes to tracks and all the machinery. Because of that, some Amtrak routes can be even more expensive than some flights. 

The US Is Obsessed With Cars

When you have a highly developed road and highway system that millions of vehicles use every single day, rail travel becomes almost redundant. People in the US will travel by car rather than train, even if it means driving for hours to reach a destination. 

If that destination’s really far away, then planes are the second best thing. Trains, it appears, don’t come to mind that often. Add to that the fact that tracks are limited to only certain places–only the Northeast has a significant amount of rail routes. 

Moreover, another difference between cars and trains in the US is the fact that the car industry pays close attention to what people need, and they adjust everything to those needs. Therefore new technologies get developed each day with cars. That’s not always the case with trains, however.

The rail system sometimes seems stuck in time. Unlike the car industry, trains in the US don’t adjust their service to what people really need, which is fast and modern travel that’s always reliable and regular in its schedules. 

The US Doesn’t Currently Gain Much With Trains

As I mentioned, freight trains are regularly used today in the US for cargo transport, which is certainly one of the reasons why they’re still needed for the US economy. On the other hand, passenger trains don’t enjoy the same treatment. 

In countries where trains are modern and even luxurious, the financial benefits of those trains come from many tourists or ordinary people who use trains to travel to work, meaning they regularly travel almost every day. 

China is one of those countries that saw the benefits and rapid development of its high-speed rail system, so the country built an entire system in less than a decade.

However, as some studies suggest, just because a country has a modern rail system with high-speed trains doesn’t mean that those trains will strengthen the economic position of that country.

The US, for instance, has other industries that are far more developed, such as transport by planes or ships. Although I personally wish for investment into rail transport, it’s possible that the money just isn’t there.

If you’re a tourist coming to the US and want to experience true train travel, check out my article where I compare Amtrak and Greyhound as some of the leading passenger travel services. I talk about everything from price to comfort.

Final Thoughts

Trains are an important element of travel in many European and Asian countries, especially high-speed trains. However, that’s not the case in the US, where passenger trains remain slow, especially when compared to plane travel.

Leave a Comment