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    What the Future of American Train Travel Will Actually Look Like

    Written by

    Brian Merchant

    Senior Editor

    Last week, plenty of folks went nuts over this nice little piece of design fiction—a map of an imaginary future United States where every high-speed rail line proposed in recent years got built. It’s fun to imagine zipping around the nation, Eurail-style, on low-carbon bullet trains, so the map went viral. “This would be awesome!” went the Facebook comment that appeared numerous times in my feed.

    And, yeah, it would. But it’s not going to happen, not anytime soon, anyway. Sorry. The only line on that map that’s getting built is the California line, and it’ll be a decade before it’s anywhere close to being done.

    As such, perhaps it’s better to focus on which train lines we actually could and should build next—let’s look at the near and plausible future of rail as opposed to the distant utopian one. To do so, it’s handy to compare, as the Atlantic did, current train ridership …

    With current population density.

    As you can see, most rail is concentrated in just three population centers: The East Coast corridor, Chicago and the urban Midwest, and California. Others are vastly underserved.

    Here’s Henry Grabar with the takeaway:

    Texas, for example, has three of America's ten largest cities: Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio. But the inexplicable lack of a direct rail connection between Houston and Dallas makes the state look, on Hicks' map, emptier than Missouri. In fact, the nation's second-largest state had only 465,000 riders in 2012. Missouri, meanwhile, had 739,000.

    Ohio, though crossed by regional routes on its northern and southern borders, has no train at all connecting the state's major cities. It has one-fifth the passenger train traffic of neighboring Michigan … the juxtaposition indicates some areas (Ohio, Texas) ripe for additional rail travel. It also makes it clear why the Obama administration has tried to garner support for a high-speed rail proposal in Florida, whose population density ought to make it the East Coast mirror of the Seattle-Portland line.

    So, the primo candidates for new rail lines are Texas, Florida, and Ohio—the former two being booming population centers with fast-growing, increasingly dense cities. But the lack of rail connections in, say, Texas, is far from “inexplicable,” as Grabar claims. Remember, trains are currently, if weirdly, highly politicized. Trains, really just the fancy high-speed ones, are liberal anti-freedom toys, according to the conservative commentariat. And despite shifting demographic trends, Texas is still deep red—if the Republican party hates government-backed trains, Texas hates government-backed trains.

    Obama, you’ll recall, tried to stimulate the depressed job markets in Ohio and Florida by allocating funding for high speed rail projects—and the Republican governors of each rejected the funding outright. Obama didn’t even try for Texas. But trains are coming anyway.

    Because there are other ways that rail get built, of course. Private investors are currently financing a $1 billion rail line between Orlando and Tampa. It won’t be high speed—it’ll top out at 100 mph—but it will be convenient and functional. And, if the projections pan out, it will turn a healthy profit. Meanwhile, Japanese investors are funding a high-speed bullet train line between Houston and Dallas. It’s currently slated to be completed in 2020, if the state’s government can ever decide on how to route it, and where it will stop in between. And it's privately funded, so it's all cool with rightwing voters there. Oregon and Washington, meanwhile, are examining ways to build or improve higher-speed rail between Seattle and Portland. In reality, projects like these, of about this size, will likely mark the future of rail travel in the U.S., not flashy $100 billion 500-mile mega-lines.

    As the economy recovers, expect both government and private corporations to take a renewed interest in rail. After all, gas prices are projected to continue to rise, traffic congestion is projected to worsen, and come on, even conservatives can admit that train is a rather pleasant way to travel. That's why Amtrak keeps breaking its ridership records, like clockwork, every year now.

    Meanwhile, the bulk of the $10 billion allotted for rail in the 2009 stimulus bill remains on the table, and most of it will go to smaller rail improvement projects—tunnel expansions, speed upgrades—that are not politically controversial and could help renew interest in rail lines. Even many Republican congressmen, like Florida’s John Mica, support more funding more inter-city rail lines. They’re just against the big, high speed lines that might serve to drag their perilously sensible positions supporting government projects too far into the spotlight. So, think new stops on extant rail lines, slightly faster travel times, and newer, nicer train cars. That stuff is absolutely going to happen.

    So. Here’s more or less the portrait that's emerging of near-future American passenger train travel, highly tentative though it is:

    • One flashy, big-deal high-tech, high speed rail line across California
    • A few smaller but important rail segments between major population centers.
    • Piecemeal inter-city rail expansion and improvement, much of it of the low-speed variety.

    Plot all that on a map, and you’ve got a reasonable projection for what rail travel will actually look like in America’s foreseeable future. It won't, in other words, look a whole hell of a lot different than this:

    Just a few additional and spruced-up routes—and more and more people making use of the whole thing.