The majority of the expansion only occurred over a short period of time (1870-1900), but the amount of track laid in thirty years was an engineering marvel. When the major upheaval of the US rail network started there weren’t even 50000 km of track. By the turn of the century there were beyond 320000 km nationally, more rails than the continent of Europe and all of Russia had combined. Seven conglomerates controlled these steel highways across the land at their peak. Jump back to the present and you’ll find only one: Amtrak.
It seems no one really notices trains, unless you have to stop for one. Once the prime mode of transportation, trains have mostly been forgotten about in the US, especially by passengers. Now accounting for only one tenth of a percent of the United States passenger travel, rail was near last on the mode of intercity travel survey released in 2005.
Three major issues surround the decline in train usage: lack of competition, planes, and Richard Nixon. The 1900s and 10s, a boom time for railroads, saw the rise of corporations taking over large chunks of rail property. Owning an entire line gave these companies the ability to control the price of tickets without threat from competition. By the 1920s congress had gotten wind of the monopolies and laid down strict regulations directed at the railroad industry. With price gouging fixed passenger travel by rail increased for a few decades, until the cheap price of fuel boomed air travel after WWII. Train travel decreased over the 50s and 60s and in 1970 president Nixon thought he had the answer to save intercity rail, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation. The NRPC is a government owned and subsidized corporation that operates all but one passenger service route in America. You probably know NRPC by its brand name Amtrak. Owning only 1,100 km of track, Amtrak operates on more than 30,000 km worth of contract routes taken over from other companies through the Railroad Passenger Services Act of 1970. The NRPC basically formed the monopolies Washington had stopped 50 years earlier. Today passenger railroad tickets cost as much as airline ticket but have more than twice the profit margin.
While intercity rail is alive and well in Europe and Asia accounting for over 15 percent of travel, more than three fourths of USA’s railroads are abandoned or in need of repair. Passenger rail service is one of the most reliable, cheapest, and fuel efficient way to travel any distance. Sadly America is lagging behind on this wonderful technology and as long as the government has control over it we may not see advancements.