2014-11-13

These Old Maps Show That America's Rail System Hasn't Improved In Almost A Century

They depict how long it took to travel by train across the U.S. at various points from 1800 to 1932. Sadly, we haven’t made much progress since then…

People complain about the trains in the United States: They’re not fast enough, they don’t go to convenient locations. This is a chicken-and-egg situation: We are also unwilling to pay for trains that go faster and go to convenient locations. But these antique maps show we could have it much worse, but also that the development of our rail transit has embarrassingly made almost no progress.

Taken from the 1932 Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States, unearthed by Treehugger’s Michael Graham Richards, the maps show how long it would take to get from New York City to any other part of the country throughout history.

For a baseline, let’s look at 1830—largely before the advent of the passenger train. It would take you more than six weeks to get anywhere west of Chicago. Even just getting to Boston from New York took two days. But by the mid-1930s, railroads were being chartered to connect cities all along the East Coast.

By 1857, you can see how the spread of eastern railroads has connected much of New England and the mid-Atlantic. With enough money for a train ticket, you could now easily get from New York to Boston in a day. Chicago is a mere two days from the East Coast. But this is before the first transcontinental railroad was completed (that wouldn’t happen until 1869), so travel times west of the Mississippi are still incredibly lengthy.

What a difference a coast-to-coast train makes. By 1930, you can traverse the entire country in just three days by rail. Here is where these maps stop becoming historical artifacts and start becoming damning pronouncements about our current state of affairs.

Eighty years later, it still takes three days to get from New York to the West Coast by rail. We’ve made zero progress in the speed of our rail travel since 1930. No wonder people aren’t excited about train travel: It works the same as it did during the Great Depression. While around the rest of the world, we see trains setting speed records, we have to be content with our 1930 train speeds. Perhaps it’s time to spend a little more cash to take our trains into the modern era?

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6 Comments

  • GreggorF

    Amen! Railroads helped America grow into a great world power.
    It is a shame that America's rail system has been allowed to become the feeble relic is today.
    Trains were forgotten as passé in an era when motor cars, semi-trucks and modern highways were thought to be the wave of the future. Now we're addicted to these fossil fuel burning parasites.

  • T Rex

    In regards to freight rail I think it's important to note that passenger rail lines make use of freight rail lines. The infrastructure improvements Jim refers to include replacement of ballast, ties and track expansion (i.e. put two tracks where there is currently only one). In almost no cases does that include any changes that would allow for an increase in train speed. The current track network (in some places) supports trains up to 70 mph. Trains simply cannot safely travel faster than that. There is no such thing as high speed freight rail. 

  • Jim

     Freight Rail is spending $23 Billion on infrastructure this years, all private funds, because it makes business sense. So don't think that if passenger rail had a snowball's chance in hell the private investors wouldn't be standing in line. The fact is, it's nearly 2800 miles from NY to LA, and even with minimal stops and 200 mph, that's 3 days out and 3 days back, versus a 4 hour plane ride. Not gonna happen.

  • Jim

    You have a very narrow focus. Before 1830, there were large portions of America
    where you had to walk - and thus had slow transit times.  "Eighty years later, it still takes three days to get from New York to the West Coast by rail." You could just as well say, One hundred and eight years later, it still takes 6 weeks to get from New York to Chicago on foot. On the other hand, by the 1930s, we had invented these things called "Aeroplanes", and transit times from New York to anywhere in the continental United States now takes less than 1 day. (Unless, of course, you get stuck at the airport in New York.) Amazing! With no piles of smashed bison/deer/moose on the sides of the tracks! It's a miracle!

  • bk

    The problem Jim is, in 1930, the commercial airline industry was almost non-existant. Really the only people on airplanes back then were in government, finance, or military.Your focus is also narrow, in that you only envision high-speed freight as useful for human activity, whereas it would more greatly improve the efficiency of commercial distribution. It uses less fuel than air-travel which lowers its cost, making it an attractive option.

    A high-speed national rail network -- I'm talking mag-lev style, would be an incredible investment in our economy, similar to how the national highway system contributed to signifigant business growth.

  • Jason Haworth

    But, Jim, How is anyone ever going to become a paid journalist if they can't make dramatized ultimatums?