European vs. American Rail

It seems that one of those cycles the US always castigates itself about is a perception that the Europeans have a better rail system than we do and that we should somehow emulate their system.  Which is why we still have federal subsidies of a half-assed Amtrak system and high-speed rail proposals are circulated breathlessly from time to time. 

By the way, I have been a consultant to French railroad SNCF and I gaurantee we do not want to emulate the European rail system.  First and foremost, the railroads are huge employment boondoggles.  I remember that the SNCF when I was there had something like 100,000 freight cars but 125,000 freight car maintenance people.  I suggested the railroad could assign one individual full time to his own car and still lay off 20% of the work force. 

The main reason we don't have inter-city passenger rail is a simple one that anyone spending 5 minutes with the numbers can understand -- there are distance break points where air travel is more economic than rail, and most US inter-city transit falls into the larger distance ranges.

Anyway, the anti-planner shares a bit of information that is seldom mentioned in the rail discussion that makes the US rail system look a lot more desireable:

Europe has decided to run its rail system primarily for passengers,
while America's system is run mainly for freight. Europe's rail system
has about 6 percent of the passenger travel market, while autos have
about 78 percent. Meanwhile, 75 percent of European freight goes by
highway. Here in the U.S., highway's share of freight travel is only 29
percent, while the auto's share of passenger travel is about 82
percent. So trains get 4 percent of potential auto users in Europe out
of their cars, but leave almost three times as much freight on the

In fact, the freight rail system is so efficient that to some extent we've obviated the need for the Panama Canal.  Many Asian container ships bound for Europe actually make port in Seattle or Vancouver, offload their containers onto trains which shoot across the country to New York or another eastern port where they are reloaded on ships for the trip to Europe.

By the way, in the same article, don't miss the hilarious proposal in Minnesota to spend taxpayer money for a high speed rail line from the Twin Cities to ... Duluth.  Yeah, that's the ticket.  New York to Boston barely makes it financially, but St. Paul to Duluth is going to be a winner.


  1. OneEyedMan:

    These statistics are just percentages. Are the absolute numbers comparable?
    That is, since there are about a 100 million more people who live in Europe than the US, is it possible that they could ship more freight by rail even though it is a smaller percentage of all their shipping?

    Also, what about geography. Do the mountains of Europe and the vast plains of the US change the costs of shipping goods and people by various methods?

  2. Phil:

    Minnesota is full of Swedes. What do you expect?

    That is, since there are about a 100 million more people who live in Europe

    Actually, I think the number is closer to 400 million.

  3. tim:

    Yeah, a Duluth to St. Paul line is silly but even then, I have to wonder how much it has to cost. For those of you that don't know the Duluth, it is the farthest west sea-port in if you are coming from the East of the US. Because of it's location everything that is coming in from the North West of North America rounds the bottom of Lake Superior in Duluth and Superior Wisconsin. They have more track in the heart of their city than any other city I have ever seen and I live in Chicago where geography bestows the same railroad blessing upon us. They have Taconite coming out of the Mesabe Range, Grain, and tons of container ships that come in from the East. I know all the traks are pre-existing. I have been in Duluth station which is at the moment a railroad museum. I don't know why it would be difficult or expensive to get an engine and a couple cars and run a daily trip. Duluth is a major vacation spot for the Cities.

    Would it be better if MN decided to let a private entrepreneur buy an engine and some cars and run round trips at their own risk? If that were the case, I bet you could do it with the mothballed engines and cars from the Duluth Train museum and get people to pay more for the nostalgia. I know I would.

  4. Thomas:

    Don't forget that great visionary Napolitano wants a line from Phoenix to Tucson. Because both towns are so friendly to people without cars ;)

  5. Spruance:

    And never forget, that Lenin wanted to run Communism like the German railroads. It paid off well for the Russians! And their clumsy-handed management seems to be the way to run German railroads today!

  6. Paul:

    Another often ignored point about this is that you can't really run a rail system for both freight and passengers.

    In Europe, the rail system is run for passengers and the long distance trains go at 150mph and up. The freight trains just cannot be on the same track (except at night when there is no fast passenger traffic). The country I know the best, the UK, has another problem: the distances are mostly too short and by the time you have put a container on a truck at a factory you might as well drive that truck to the destination than offload the truck to a train, wait for it to arrive at the other end, offload to another truck and get it to its destination.

    In the US the average speed on the rails is much lower. Fast passenger traffic cannot share those same rails and so Amtrak runs at freight speed and with the types of delays that freight can cope with but passenger traffic cannot. But freight speed trains are even less competitive with air and even with subsidies nobody wants to use them.

    Then short distance trains are just funding boondoggles and too slow to be competitive since they stop in too many places. I live in the San Francisco bay area but to take the train and light rail to work takes about an hour and three quarters but I can drive it in 45 minutes. And I live literally 100 yards from the terminus in San Francisco.


  7. Bearster:

    Many years ago, I did some consulting work for a company that did economic analysis for transportation systems. The CEO told me that for rail to make sense (in the US) the distance had to be > 500 miles. Otherwise trucking was better.

    For the reasons cited by Warren, the opposite is probably true for passengers. Passengers need a high-density of people and short distances, like the subway in NY City.

    Of course, government can "get around" any economic problem by simply taxing enough bystanders.

  8. Mark:

    But even passenger rail lines running accross existing lines are extremely expensive. In Minnesota the "newest" commuter system will be the North Star line that essentially will run from St Cloud, 80 miles NW of Minneapolis, into Minneapolis. This route will utilize existing lines. And, the cost is over $300 million.

  9. improbable:

    I agree that intercity rail will probably never work in the US.

    But your figures (well the anti-planner's) seem funny, Europe's trains have "6 percent of the passenger travel market"? Perhaps 6% of journeys, including walking to the corner for a coffee? A journey that, in the US, would probably require a car...

    It's also worth noting that the TGV-class trains almost always run on new completely separate rails. If freight trains are competing with passenger, it's the slower ordinary kind.

    Much freight also moves through Europe on rives and canals, I don't know the numbers, but this is a big "geographic" difference between the US and Europe.

  10. Jody:

    Improbable, here's some numbers for you.

    In 98, the US had 1 billion tons of domestic freight moved by water (5.7 btons truck, 2 btons rail, total = 9.8 billion). (source)

    "Inland waterways carried 12.5% of Europe's freight tonnage in 1970, but only 8% by 1990 though the actual tonnage decline was slight" (source)

    While those aren't exactly the same years, that's 10% (US) versus 8% (EU) for freight carried via water.

    The Mississippi allows you to cover almost 2/3 of the US via major tributaries. The transition between ocean-going vessels and river boats is New Orleans's reason for existing. Plus you have lots of other major inland waterways (see the Great Lakes ports mentioned in this thread and the East coast and Northwest have lots of rivers that will get you at least 100 miles inland)

  11. david foster:

    The U.S. freight rail system is a significant economic advantage for this country. One potential issue: some large shippers, especially those who are dependent on a single railroad, are calling for re-regulation of rates. (I picture the CEOs of Dow Chemical and Archer Daniels Midland linking arms and singing old Grange songs about the evil and oppressive railroads.) If this happens, it could knock the dynamism out of the industry.

  12. improbable:

    Thanks for the numbers, Jody. I guess I'm guilty of comparing in my head the bits I've seen, which includes the Rhone but not the Mississippi! Interesting that water carries half as much as rail in the US.

  13. markm:

    improbable: Another thing, in spite of nearly 200 years of work by the Army Corps of Engineers, the Mississippi is not a tame river at all. River tugs still have to watch out for shifting snags and sandbars, etc. I may be wrong, but I think most European rivers are easier to navigate - and humans have been re-working the banks and trying to direct the flow for so long that "natural state" is a meaningless concept for many of them.

    There may also be simply a difference in the size of barge that's considered reasonable. European improved waterways date back to when barges were most readily towed by a line to a horse walking a (constructed) path on the bank. By modern American standards, such a barge couldn't carry enough freight to be worth manning, but Europe built many canals and locks sized to such craft and still keeps most of the waterways in reasonable repair.

  14. MJ:

    The Twin Cities-Duluth passenger rail proposals is hilarious to everyone except people like myself who would end up footing the bill. Since last fall, the cost of this project has gone from $120 million to $400 million. Something tells me we are not done yet.

    Oddly enough, the biggest selling point for the line has not been Duluth as a tourist destination, but the small (pop. 1,600) town of Hinckley, roughly midway between the two cities, which has an Indian-owned casino. Ironically, this casino already offers private coach bus service to patrons needing transportation from the Twin Cities. This would be subverted be the passenger rail line. No wonder the casino is one of the biggest campaign contributors.

    Recent demand forecasts have suggested that the line would attract 800,000 to 900,000 annual boardings (2,000 to 2,500 per day). Most of this would come from the section actually in the Twin Cities, which is being bundled as a commuter rail spur. The actual long-haul service would be lucky to see even a few hundred trips per day.

    The proposal is economically absurd, yet still enjoys some residual support. Of course, the man behind the curtain is none other than pork-barreling legend Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-MoneyTrain), who represents Minnesota's northeast congressional district. Duluth makes up between 1/2 and 1/3 of the district's population. Oberstar and other supporters are trying to tout the project's "economic development benefits" which are being said to be in the range of $2 billion. That's mind-bending logic. Of course, throw in some scary talk about peak oil and global warming and people start to get uneasy.

  15. Paula Angelique Hafner:

    It is still cheaper to take a train across America than it is in some EU countries. That trains may be nice in Europe, but the prices are outragious. Give me a train through the badlands anytime.

  16. Roxanne Robertson:

    “50 Years to Far Rockaway,” “Coney Island Bound!” and “Multi-Anniversary Tour of the IRT” highlight the Brooklyn-based New York Transit Museum’s June 15, July 13 and August 2, 2008, Summer Nostalgia Train excursions.

    The Transit Museum Nostalgia Train excursions offer an unforgettable nostalgic trip into New York’s not to distant subway past. As passengers board the historic rail fleet for a non-stop trip between destination the magic of the Nostalgia Train unfolds. According to Roxanne Robertson, the museum’s director of Special Projects, “The onboard atmosphere is relaxed as the passengers transcend their roles of hurried commuters and enter the world of the nostalgia, waving to bemused people on the platforms as the train rolls by.”

    Passengers also enjoy the bouncy wicker seating, ceiling fans and the non-stop ride between destinations. Another perk of the Nostalgia Train experience are the very friendly and knowledgeable subway enthusiasts that can answer almost any question about the subway system. The first Nostalgia Train departs Sunday, June 15, 2008, and celebrates 50 years of subway service to Far Rockaway. Boarding at 10 a.m. the day-long excursion ending at 5 p.m., features the Museum’s vintage R1/9 railcars. Nostalgia Train passengers will travel from Midtown Manhattan to Queens Plaza and then proceed to the New York Transit Museum for a look at the museum’s latest exhibits and Museum Store. After an hour’s layover, the Nostalgia Train proceeds to Rockaway Park where passengers can break for lunch or stay on the train for an additional trip to Rockaway Avenue. At 4 p.m. the train leaves Rockaway Park via the A line to Jay Street, and the F line to 42nd Street for the conclusion of our trip.

    On Sunday, July 13, 2008, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., the New York Transit Museum’s second Nostalgia Train excursion is Coney Island Bound. Once again, the museum’s popular R1/9 fleet of vintage rail cars departs mid-town Manhattan for a day at the legendary amusement park. Passengers can ride the cyclone roller coaster, stroll the boardwalk, begin working on your summer tan or stay on the train for an additional ride to Whitehall Street in Manhattan. The train will then return to Coney Island to pick up passengers and at 4 p.m., the train leaves Coney Island via the F line to 42nd Street.

    The museum’s last scheduled Nostalgia Train “Multi-Anniversary Tour of the IRT” excursion commemorates the 100th Anniversary of service to 242nd Street-Van Cortlandt Park. On Saturday, August 2, the post WW-II IRT SMEE cars will depart from Grand Central and proceed to Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, then head north to Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. Enjoy a day at the park or stay on the train for an express run to 103rd Street. At 3 p.m. the train heads down to 96th Street and goes via the 2 line to Jackson Avenue, before returning to Grand Central.

    Reservations and advance payment required: $30, Museum members $25, children 3-17 $10 (Become a Museum member when you reserve and save $5 on your adult ticket!) For reservations the public may call (718) 694-1600.

  17. khms:

    At least in Germany, if you watch a typical long-distance track, which incidentally is pretty much always at least a double track, you will see a lot of freight going by during the day. Of course this freight is running fast - about as fast as the passenger trains.