Home > Uncategorized > Trains and population density: U.S. and Europe

Trains and population density: U.S. and Europe

from Dean Baker

There are lots of silly comments that pass for great wisdom in elite circles. Steve Rattner gave us one of my favorites in his NYT column warning President Biden against putting too much money into reviving our system of train travel.

Rattner tells us:

“America is not Europe, with its dense population centers clustered reasonably close together.”

This is of course true, but in a totally trivial sense. The density of our population per mile of land is much lower than in Europe, especially if we include Alaska. But this is completely beside the point when it comes to trains. The issue is not building passenger lines from New York to Fairbanks, it’s about connecting cities that actually are reasonably close to together.

For example, Chicago is 790 miles from New York. By contrast, Berlin is 670 miles from Paris. If we stretch the trip to Warsaw the distance is over 1000 miles. And, we have many major cities in the Midwest that are closer to New York than Chicago, such as Cleveland, Detroit, and Cincinnati.

In short, if we think about the issue seriously, the difference in population density between the U.S. and Europe should not affect the feasibility of train service in the United States. As a practical matter, we have found it very difficult to build high speed rail for a variety of reasons that Rattner notes. We must address these problems if we are going to have viable passenger train service, but density is simply not the issue.

  1. Patrick Newman
    July 3, 2021 at 3:43 pm

    How about Russia – bigger landmass and smaller population but not averse to train travel. London to Aberdeen (542 miles) by train. What’s the alternative to flying and massive CO2 emissions? Is the USA prepared to invest in electrification and ‘bullet’ trains?

    • July 3, 2021 at 6:17 pm

      The ability of the US to catch up with China will be fought tooth and nail by inside traders.

  2. Ikonoclast
    July 4, 2021 at 4:11 am

    “The Northeast megalopolis (also Northeast Corridor or Acela Corridor; Boston–Washington corridor, Bos-Wash corridor, or Boswash) is the most populous megalopolis located entirely in the United States, with over 50 million residents, as well as the most urbanized megalopolis in the United States and the megalopolis with the world’s largest economic output.” – Wikipedia.

    Upgraded rail including fast passenger trains and extra freight capacity would be enormously beneficial to this corridor.

    And LA and environs or even the LA to San Fran corridor would benefit almost equally.

    Chicago, already mentioned, is part of the Great Lakes megalopolis. “The Great Lakes Megalopolis consists of the group of metropolitan areas in North America largely in the Great Lakes region and along the Saint Lawrence River. It extends from the Midwestern United States in the south and west to western Pennsylvania and Western New York in the east and northward through Southern Ontario into southwestern Quebec in Canada. It is the most populated and largest megalopolis in North America.” – Wikipedia. Upgraded rail including fast passenger trains and extra freight capacity would be enormously beneficial to this corridor also.

    Ideologues like Rattner avoid facts when they can and misinterpret them when they can’t.

    Even Australia, which has no megalopoli (unless we call Sydney one) would benefit greatly from more interstate and hinterland to coast rail. Rail is more efficient, more environmentally friendly and less costly.

  3. Ken Zimmerman
    July 5, 2021 at 11:48 am

    Rail travel is also better for passengers not only in terms of comfort but also for cost and rested arrival. Also, I’ve been in most of the major train terminals in both the US and Europe. In my opinion, none is as crowded or confusing as just about any major airport.

  4. Econoclast
    July 10, 2021 at 1:09 am

    As a lifelong train buff, I agree with all stated here.
    I add this: trains are socially fun, in my extensive experience (and I’m not highly social, nor am I a fun-seeker, but you can meet and spend time with some most interesting strangers on a train). I’ll also add that, as long as we must move people with fossil fuels, trains are greatly superior to cars in energy efficiency per passenger mile.

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