Why can't the US build basic rail?

Dec 2013
As far as I know, the Interstate Highway System was begun under President Eisenhower who had had some knowledge of the German Autobahn. FDR had built a highway that also mimicked the autobahn but at a much less ambitious scale.

Our cities are much less dense than many cities in Europe and our distances between cities are greater as well. When the Interstate Highway System (IHS) was started there were few roads that connected the country in an East-West direction and those roads were not limited access highways as the IHS is. Today, of course, the entire country is connected North-South and East West.

The US already had the biggest rail freight network in the world when passengers began abandoning this network in favor of private automobiles. This was likely also a function of tremendous pentup demand that took off in the postwar period - “See the USA in your Chevrolet” (Dinah Shore). The rail network didn’t evaporate in the meantime; it just became a mostly freight system which I’m sure the train companies much prefer.

The US (and Canada) had no war damage and so were well positioned post war to supply much of the world with its manufactured goods. What this means is that there was no post-war depression following WW2. Industry was working full tilt to supply the veterans returning from the war and its Allies who were digging their way out of the rubble. Americans went out and bought cars to give themselves the mobility that no fixed rail can ever impart. The Marshall Plan was a major driver in Europe’s recovery from the war and it kept US industry supplying goods to Europe while also supplying the local economy.
Also IIRC from 1941 to 1945 Detroit produced virtually no automobiles. So after 1945 there was a staggering pent up demand for cars which naturally meant an emphasis on highways to drive them on.

Also, nuclear war fears drove the interstate highway system in part. It promised the ability to evacuate major cities quickly (relatively). And the original proposals was that each interstate on and off ramp would have a nuclear shelter built under it.
Jun 2019

Map for planned National Highway system, approved by FDR in 1944, the Blue Lines. Red was existing State Highways
  • Like
Reactions: Zip


Ad Honoris
Jul 2013
San Antonio, Tx
That's a valid point, don't build things that people have no means to access. So why not build more inner city transits in the first place? Why should it stop being a goal, it should just make the goal a more long term goal relatively speaking.
I don’t understand the point at all. There is already a nationwide rail system - AMTRACK but few outside of the east coast use it. People “voted with their feet”long ago. This discussion is floundering. We don’t need half-baked notions from Europeans to tell us how the cow ate the cabbage.We ate it long ago.


Forum Staff
Oct 2011
Italy, Lago Maggiore
well ... probably the point is about not polluting electrified railways ...

US are not that far from EU: EU 219,000 - US 150,000 km.

The real problem is that only 1,600km of railway are electrified [at least according to available data on the net] in the United States [more than 116,000 in EU].

This is the real question: why in US they are not electrifying their railways?

List of countries by rail transport network size - Wikipedia

Because they don't want Greta to take a train in US ... [this was environmentalist satire!].
Jun 2019
From the wiki on that length
This list of countries by rail transport network size based on International Union of Railways data ranks countries by length of rail lines worked at end of year updated with other reliable sources. These figures also include urban/suburban mass-transport systems, as well as lines which are not used for passenger services.[1]
It's the passenger system that would be electrified, would be my guess, and ouside of subways and the NE Corridor, very little of that in the USA, less than a dozen electrified systems, I bet.

No one would pay for an electric RR from Chicago to New York, its huge cost and no one would ride that. That's why airlines cover that.


Ad Honorem
Feb 2011
I don’t understand the point at all. There is already a nationwide rail system - AMTRACK but few outside of the east coast use it. People “voted with their feet”long ago. This discussion is floundering. We don’t need half-baked notions from Europeans to tell us how the cow ate the cabbage.We ate it long ago.
Problem is AMTRACK is very inefficient because most of the rails used by AMTRACK aren't owned by AMTRACK, it shares roads with freight trains instead of having segregated passenger lines so not only does it have to pay for the road it's using, it has to stop at every little town that slapped a railway station together. It's about how to improve things to the point where it's competitive, but in this scenario what's popular may not be what's competitive. Skipping over the small towns would cause people in these small towns to be upset. You appear to think that preference is innate depending on nationality, whereas I believe preference is slowly built up by the changing options available. If the efficiency (cost/comfort/time or even media/propaganda/advertising) of the different options change, then preference will change along with it over time.
Last edited:
Nov 2019
United States
Why is this shibboleth of electrical systems being more "Green" still extant? Only 9% of electricity produced in the United States comes from "Green" (solar and wind) sources, a number that has a peak element of about 17% (and even that is debatable for numerous reasons involving the Grid itself). As has pointed out previously, a back up source for every MW of "Green" energy has to be created to insure that constant source energy is available, making "Green" highly expensive in the long run. The largest percentile of non-fossil fuel electrical energy is hydroelectric dams which produce 21 Billion kilowatt hours of energy more than wind, the next largest source of non-fossil fuel energy.

Nuclear power is responsible for 20% of all electrical generation in the United States.

Natural gas was the largest source—about 35%—of U.S. electricity generation in 2018. Natural gas is used in steam turbines and gas turbines to generate electricity.

Coal was the second-largest energy source for U.S. electricity generation in 2018—about 27%. Nearly all coal-fired power plants use steam turbines. A few coal-fired power plants convert coal to a gas for use in a gas turbine to generate electricity.

Thus there is only a 7% chance that an electrically charged source of power is green, but that is only half the story, because you have to get the electricity to the item you want to power, in this case to the train. The problem with that is a little thing called Transmission Loss. About 5% of energy is lost due to this factor, meaning that you are losing some of the energy before it even gets to the location you want to use it at.

However that ignores another attribute that goes unmentioned and that is the physics of energy itself which is another discussion altogether.


Jan 2018
San Antonio
I think a lot of the green business is just the capitalists selling us new stuff we don't need while getting us to feel virtuous about it. The purchase of virtue.

And Green serves the capitalists another benefit by distracting progressive people from issues that will cost the capitalists money rather than making it for them. Things such as better wages and working conditions. Yeah, sidetracking people away from the money while keeping their eyes on the money. A brilliant strategy.
Nov 2019
United States
If you want to see why high speed rail doesn't work in the US, look no further than California, whose very liberal Governor admitted last year would not proceed with their high speed rail project that was supposed to link Sacramento with San Diego. With costs exceeding $80,000,000 per mile, and eventual costs totaling in excess of $70,000,000,000 ($70billion). The plan which was suppose to cost $30 billion originally is ending.

Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom couldn’t stomach it — “Let’s be real,” he told Californians on Tuesday.

“Let’s level about the high-speed rail,” Newsom said. “Let’s be real, the current project as planned would cost too much and, respectfully, take too long. Right now, there simply isn’t a path to get from Sacramento to San Diego, let alone from San Francisco to L.A. I wish there were.”

A 1997 study showed high-speed rail would still be more expensive than flying or driving and cost $10 billion.

However, when California issued its first formal cost estimate for high-speed rail in 2000, the figure was pegged at $20 billion. By 2008, high-speed rail from Los Angeles to San Francisco was estimated to cost $33 billion.

“Based on those numbers, they argued that not only would the line make an operating profit, private investors would be willing to invest up to $7.5 billion in the project,” O’Toole said. “Everything spiraled out of control from there.”

Now, the state estimates finishing the entire high-speed rail line would cost $77 billion, though others have said the project would cost around $100 billion to complete.

Here Are 5 Big Reasons California’s High-Speed Rail Project Became The ‘Train To Nowhere’
  • Like
Reactions: marathag


Jan 2018
San Antonio
People can take the bus.

One reason trendy American tank towns like Denver and Portland Oregon (not Maine) are so keen on light rail (what we call the EL in Chicago) is that fashionable white collar and "creative" people don't like to ride the bus, something they think is for blue collar Poles, Blacks and Mexicans. They want to ride a train because they fantasize living in New York and pretending they're characters on "Friends".