The Chattanooga Choo-Choo
Roger Bara

We British invented the railway and led the world into the industrial age, helping define us as a nation. On September 27, 1825, Locomotion No. 1 became the world’s first steam engine to carry passengers on a public line, the Stockton and Darlington Railway, in North East England.

George Stephenson, affectionately known as the “Father of the Railways”, drove that first train, pulling 450 passengers at a speed of 15 miles per hour. His rail gauge of 4 feet 8.5 inches became the global standard gauge for most of the planet’s railways.

With the bicentenary of that momentous occasion just a couple of years away, I have to report that the U.K.’s rail network, though incredibly safe, is in pretty poor shape. Massive strikes by all sorts of rail workers, unaffordable fares making travel not viable for some, and even the biggest rail project in our history, only our second high-speed line, from London to the North is being cut back and poorly managed.

Despite all that, passenger and freight activity is expected to double by 2050. In a world beset by increased CO2 emissions and atmospheric pollutants, relying more on rail travel has the potential to cut that growth. Rail is among the most energy efficient modes of transport both for freight and passengers. 

Boring a high-speed rail tunnel
Boring a high-speed rail tunnel

Rail travel is well matched to the U.K.’s urban needs. High-speed rail can serve as an alternative to short-distance air travel, and conventional and freight rail can complement other transport modes to provide efficient mobility. 

So, rail travel should very much be the future for Britain’s transport needs, but the trouble with rail infrastructure is that it is exceedingly expensive to build and maintain. Big projects mean long-term strategies, in which as we all know, governments are completely disinterested. Their only concern is to get re-elected. 

If our government can get their act together, maybe there is a chance that we will get a cohesive and affordable train system. If the publicity machines of this industry do their job properly, then the general public may just start to object to the carnage caused by building new 8-lane motorways throughout the countryside, where you seldom hear a peep of an objection. 

But tell them about proposals for a narrow and ecologically friendly 2-track high-speed electric railway, some of which will be underground, which will create thousands of jobs and provide economic stimulus throughout the land, and just listen to the outpouring of contempt and disgust from Mr. and Mrs. Joe Public.

Rail travel should most definitely be the future, but in my country, I think we are simply too stupid to make it happen. 

Is rail travel the future for Russia?

Our Rusuk Blog writer Sergey

Russia is famous for its trains and railroads. Taking into account the vast size of the country, it is no surprise. The first railroad between Saint Petersburg and Moscow was built in 1830s, based on British technology. Czar Nicolas I personally marked the shortest geometrical way on the map between two Russian capitals: a direct line.

When Alaska was sold to the United States in 1867, most of the money out of the $7.2 million deal, was allocated to build new railroads to the east from Moscow.

At the time of another Czar, Nicolas II, the famous Trans-Siberian railroad was constructed, becoming a strategic lifeline for Russia’s Far East development.

In 1930, Josef Stalin, trying to restore the imperial grandeur of Russia, directed to launch the Red Arrow train to run from Leningrad to Moscow and back. The train that starts from Leningrad were, and still are, #1 in the railroad schedule. The one that runs from Moscow, has #2 in the schedule. By the time it was initiated, the Red Arrow had the maximum comfort possible for a Soviet train.

David Bowie takes CCCP Train
David Bowie

Finally, at the heyday of the Soviet Union, in the 1970s, the longest distance train was launched. The route starts in Moscow and goes east up to Vladivostok, located on the shores of the Pacific Ocean. It is called ‘Rossya’ (‘Russia’) and it takes 7 nights to cover the distance of several thousand miles. Back in 1973, David Bowie, on his trip from Hong Kong to Europe, took this train to undertake a brief Soviet road movie experience. He was like an alien on this train and during short stop at the stations along the Trans-Siberian Road.

Now, I believe, Russia is trailing behind compared to other countries when it comes to its railroad network and high-speed trains. Russia has nothing like the great Japanese Shinkansen super expresses, or Bullet Trains. I remember taking a Bullet Train in Japan, from Tokyo to Kyoto. The train was moving along the highway, and it seemed to me that cars on this road weren’t even moving, so high was the speed, I believe it was over 300 km/h.

Today, Russia’s high-speed trains are not domestic, but German technology, by Siemens. These trains don’t require specially-designed railways; such an approach makes the project expenses cheaper at the cost of speed.

As to the future of railways, Russia is 100% for it, because historically it has always been a railroad country. Most of its cargo is transported by trains, not trucks, compared to the United States or Australia. This will stand. Same with passenger trains: travelling by a train has become a part of Russian lifestyle. I love travelling by train.

Is Rail Travel the Future in The US?

Photograph of Dean Lewis

Stereotypes normally have a grain of truth but they are often misleading. Rail transport in the US is no different. The stereotype is that the Americans have little rail and it’s in sad condition. You should not believe everything you hear. 

Here are a few facts to consider: “The United States has the largest rail transport network size of any country in the world, at a total of approximately 160,000 miles (260,000 km).” What if I told you that the US has the worlds most advanced freight system? It’s true. There’s more: major cities in the US have large webs of commuter rail that stretch far beyond the outer suburbs. 

Yeah, yeah, I can hear you… but the Americans have a terrible passenger rail system. We will let that misleading statement slide for now. In your defense, the US does have several factors that work against high-speed rail and passenger rail in general.

Perhaps the most important of these is that US cities were spared the terror of World War II. Consider this: all nations across Europe were bombed during the war. As a result, most rail lines from Russia to the UK were built in the 1950s. Faster, heaver trains require better rail beds, with long, sweeping curves. Most American rail beds date from the 1850s to the 1890s. Small, light trains running at low speeds didn’t require huge, banked curves. The original rail bed for the first transcontinental route is still in use today.

Old Chattanooga rail terminal
Old Chattanooga terminal

If you want high speed rail in the US, you must start over from scratch. Because almost all train stations are located in city centers, you are talking about many millions of dollars per mile… and that’s just for property rights. You’ll bulldoze thousands of buildings.

There are other issues with rail in the US: This is a nation that covers a Continent. For example; Mississippi is, to the square mile, the same size as France and Mississippi is not a big state. A flight from Coast to Coast is eight hours. A train takes days, running 24/7. Passenger rail is simply not time efficient on many routes in the US the way it is in Europe.

It would be a mistake to believe the Americans don’t think rail travel is the future. In the 2023 US budget, Amtrak is about to get a huge injection of cash. Enough to replace most rolling stock and to expand into several new routes. Most US cities have these cathedrals to the majesty of rail in their downtown areas (impressive, old train stations) and a couple will hopefully be refurbished. Hundreds of miles of passenger rail will be inaugurated. It’s already been decided.

Remember what I was saying about the cost of upgrading rail beds? A single change to the Hudson River tunnel (NYC) will cost over one-hundred million dollars. It’s in the budget and that will allow trains to run faster. There are several of these curves that will be replaced and expanded along the North-East corridor. Crazy sums of money will be spent on each and the Americans will still not achieve high-speed rail from Washington to Boston. Rail is the future, but the future will not look the same here as it does in Europe.