The storybook plight of the Little Engine That Could, struggling to make it up a mountain, is a pretty apt metaphor for America's rail system. Limited access, outdated equipment and high ticket prices have been the sorry story of Amtrak, the nation's principal rail carrier, from its beginning—pushing most would-be riders to other ways of getting around. But $4-a-gallon gas and chaotic airways are working in Amtrak's favor. In an era when green is hip and mileage matters, trains can't be beat. A diesel locomotive at its most efficient can move a ton of weight 436 miles on a single gallon of fuel, according to the Association of American Railroads, making a full train about 10 times thriftier than your new hybrid. "Hands down, traveling by rail is the most fuel-efficient and least-carbon-intensive way you can go," says Nancy Kete, director of the World Resource Institute Center for Sustainable Transport.
It's a common theme in ecoconsciousness: what used to be the antiquated way of doing things—like growing your own food or harnessing power from wind—is suddenly new again. Amtrak and a handful of commuter rail lines are trying to grab the moment by using environmental friendliness to appeal to new riders and the taxpayers who fund the systems. There are signs the strategy is working. Over the past two years, Amtrak's ridership has increased almost 17 percent systemwide. And the recent spike in gas prices has pushed train ridership to capacity on some routes. A hefty funding package for improvements is currently up for debate in Washington, and Amtrak is already exploring ways to enhance service along popular routes. But getting the system up to speed is a tall order.
Since the 1950s, America's vast inter-state highway system and love of the automobile has contributed to a gradual deterioration of its railroads—just as most of Europe and parts of Asia have been investing in swift and comfortable long-range trains. But duplicating those foreign systems here is not simple. Private freight railroads own most of the tracks Amtrak uses, so a broad expansion of the railways would require hundreds of billions of dollars in new infrastructure and decades of eminent domain lawsuits to acquire private lands. "We never invested in quality passenger rail travel like other countries," says Joseph Sussman, a professor of engineering and transportation systems at MIT. "It's almost impossible that the American network could ever be able to mirror those ultra-efficient models around the world."
An expansive new system may not be in the cards, but the recent increased interest does signal hope for Amtrak to grow, especially along routes between cities that are too close to fly and, with high gas costs, too long and pricey to drive. A few hundred million dollars in improvements could bring certain routes to acceptable levels, according to Amtrak. Routes connecting Chicago to St. Paul, Atlanta to Charlotte, N.C., and San Diego to Los Angeles could replicate the speedy transit of the prized Northeast Corridor, where sleek trains running on newer tracks allow speeds up to 150 miles per hour in some zones, according to Amtrak CEO Alex Kummant. New rail cars and tracks would surely help, but trains could also run faster with newer signals installed at crossroads to stop traffic earlier. Improving station conditions in rural areas would also make the service feel more comfortable and contemporary.
Critics of Amtrak, which is federally subsidized and has neither made a profit nor met ridership projections in its 37-year history, say the company should not be entrusted with the future of rail travel. Joseph Vranich—a former spokesman for the carrier who, after leaving, wrote two books criticizing the inefficiency of a federally funded passenger railroad—says that the government should stop funding the system and instead allow private operators to bid on existing tracks and equipment to provide competitive service. "If we want to have a good train system, we've got to get rid of the government monopoly on rail transport," says Vranich. Others who oppose government aid to the system, including President George W. Bush, think that private companies operating different routes could also bring down high ticket prices, which have long been a deterrent to using the service.
Amtrak says it can handle increasing capacity along more popular corridors. All it needs, says CEO Kummant, is more money—on top of its almost $2 billion annual appropriation—to invest in additional infrastructure. A $15 billion capital-funding bill for Amtrak currently awaits agreement between both houses of Congress, and similar measures have passed both the Senate and House by veto-proof margins. Kummant says that with money in hand, the first improvement would be replacing older locomotives and rail cars with newer, more-efficient models. Existing tracks along popular travel routes could also be outfitted to accommodate higher speeds. "We're already growing incrementally," says Kummant. "And for the first time in history, the emergent transportation mode actually exists already." The earth might be relieved.