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Paul Theroux, the great American travel writer, once said, "Almost anything is possible in a train" -- and that still holds true today. While the U.S. has not embraced rail travel as a primary means of transportation for several decades, a resurgence is growing. Passengers frustrated with airline delays and rising costs, the high cost of gasoline and road construction are beginning to give train travel another look.
These Aren't Your Parent's Trains
Without a lot of fanfare, Amtrak, which operates most of the passenger rail system in the U.S., has quietly been making small improvements. While capacity and routes have actually decreased since 1985, today's passenger trains tout high-speed wireless access (on some routes), no baggage fees for up to three checked bags and the ability to bring golf clubs, bicycles and ski equipment. Some business class seats also have electrical outlets, conference tables and complimentary newspapers.
On longer routes there are dining and sleeping cars offering first class dining and turn down service. An Auto Train which runs from Lorton, Virginia to Sanford, Florida allows passengers to bring their vehicle along for the ride. It is arguably the longest passenger train in the world and is pitched as a cost-effective and environmentally-friendly alternative to driving for families on the East Coast heading down to Disney World.
Improvements for 2010 and Beyond
According to Bruce Richardson, President of the United Rail Passenger Alliance, "Even if train travel evolves at lightning speed over the next 10 years, it will still not be at the same point in North America it was in 1956." The U.S. is severely behind other nations in providing high speed rail infrastructure and Americans are just now beginning to consider it as a mode of transportation again.
In looking at statistics provided by the Federal Railroad Administration, rail travel has fairly consistently increased over the past 25 years (see below). While there are no federally-approved forecasted numbers for 2010 and beyond, the expectation is that passenger rail travel will continue to increase every year. (For the purposes of this article, Gadling forecasted passenger traffic for 2010 and 2011, as shown in the graph below.)
As part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the Federal Government allocated $8 billion for high-speed and intercity passenger rail (HSIPR). In addition to that, the HSIPR Program includes an additional $92 million from an existing state grant program (see below for the allocation of money by state).