Rail Transportation in The United States


Most rail transportation in the United States today consists of freight train shipments. Passenger service, once a large and vital part of the nation's passenger transportation network, now plays a limited role as compared to transportation patterns in many other countries.

The U.S. rail industry has experienced repeated convulsions due to changing U.S. economic needs and the rise of automobile, bus, and air transport. Many point to what is sometimes referred to as the Great American Streetcar Scandal of the 1940's, in which light rail trolley-based surface transit, once widespread in American cities, was largely dismantled.

The sole intercity passenger railroad in the continental United States today is Amtrak. Commuter rail systems exist in more than a dozen metropolitan areas, but these systems are not extensively interconnected, so commuter rail cannot be used alone to traverse the continent. Commuter systems have been proposed in approximately two dozen other cities, but interplays between various local-government administrative bottlenecks and ripple effects from the 2007–2012 global financial crisis have generally pushed such projects farther and farther in to a nebulous future point in time, or have even sometimes mothballed them entirely.

The most culturally notable and physically evident exception to the general lack of significant passenger rail transport in the U.S. has been, and continues to be, the Northeast Corridor, which connects Washington and New York City with Boston and, jutting from those northern points, also other areas of Connecticut and Massachusetts. The corridor handles frequent train service that is both Amtrak and commuter. Meanwhile, New York City itself is noteworthy for high usage of passenger rail transport, meaning not just the New York City Subway system (which counts more as a short-haul metro system despite its fairly extensive network and relatively long lines) but also the Long Island Rail Road, the Metro-North Railroad extending into Connecticut, and links through the New Jersey Transit system to the Philadelphia-based Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority trains to points as far south as Newark, Delaware. The New York City Subway system is used by one third of all U.S. mass transit users.

Other major cities with substantial rail infrastructure include Boston, with its MBTA (nicknamed the "T") rapid transit, light rail, and commuter rail networks, and Chicago, with its elevated system and regional passenger rail system Metra. The commuter rail systems of San Diego and Los Angeles, Coaster and Metrolink, meet each other in Oceanside, California, which is a terminus for both systems.

Despite the difficulties outside the systems mentioned, U.S. railroads still play a major role in the nation's freight shipping. They carried 750 billion ton-miles by 1975 which doubled to 1.5 trillion ton-miles in 2005. In the 1950s, the U.S. and Europe moved roughly the same percentage of freight by rail; but, by 2000, the share of U.S. rail freight was 38% while in Europe only 8% of freight traveled by rail. In 1997, while U.S. trains moved 2,165 billion ton-kilometers of freight, the 15-nation European Union moved only 238 billion ton-kilometers of freight.

Railroad companies in the United States are generally separated into three categories based on their annual revenues: Class I for freight railroads with annual operating revenues above $346.8 million (2006 dollars), Class II for freight railroads with revenues between $27.8 million and $346.7 million in 2000 dollars, and Class III for all other freight revenues. These classifications are set by the Surface Transportation Board.

In 1900 there were 132 Class I railroads. Today, as the result of mergers, bankruptcies, and major changes in the regulatory definition of "Class I," there are only seven railroads operating in the United States that meet the criteria for Class I. As of 2006, U.S. freight railroads operated 140,490 route-miles (226,097 km) of standard gauge in the United States.

Although Amtrak qualifies for Class I status under the revenue criteria, it is not considered a Class I railroad because it is not a freight railroad.

Read more about Rail Transportation In The United States:  Freight Railroads in Today's Economy, Passenger Rail, Rolling Stock Reporting Marks, List of Major United States Railroads, Rail Link(s) With Adjacent Countries

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