Part of the Civil War history I was exposed to in high school emphasized the advantages the North had over the South in industrial capacity and infrastructure. One of the examples that stuck with me the most concerns rail lines. Specifically, the North had more lines of the same gauge (distance between the wheels) than the South. That meant that freight or passengers didn’t need to be offloaded as much when moving from one line to another. Things could travel faster.
I was reminded of this when the Knight Science Journalism Tracker pointed out this excellent examination of freight and passenger rail in the U.S. Written by Brian Palmer for The Washington Post, the piece describes the differences between freight and passenger rail and explains why while passenger rail in the U.S. is woefully inadequate, the country actually does a fine job with freight, transporting a much higher percentage of it by rail compared to Europe. And while that would be great coverage for a newspaper, Palmer goes further to discuss the two options the U.S. has to modernize its passenger rail, an effort that has received emphasis in this administration via stimulus funding. It appears that the country will try and use both – upgrading existing rail in places and laying new tracks in others.
While this is all great, it will take a lot of time for much of this to come to fruition. This is true of all significant infrastructure changes, even the kind of changes to the waterways I discussed earlier this month. Hopefully the country will have the patience to keep supporting it through the eventual changes in power that may make high-speed rail look like a tempting political target. Once realized, improved rail should have many benefits, not least of which is a reduced reliance on autos and possibly a lessening of demand for short airline trips.