Why America Has More Trains Than Europe: Unraveling the Tracks

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  • Post last modified:February 22, 2024
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When it comes to trains, two distinct images emerge: the sleek, high-speed European passenger trains gliding through picturesque landscapes, and the rugged American freight trains chugging across vast plains. But how did these divergent rail systems evolve? Let’s delve into the key differences that set American and European trains apart.

1. Freight-to-Passenger Ratio

The fundamental distinction lies in their focus: North American railways prioritize freight, handling approximately 84% of cargo and only 16% of passengers. In contrast, the European Union’s railways emphasize passengers, with an inverse ratio of 80% passengers to 20% freight. This historical divergence stems from their original purposes: American railroads were built to transport goods across a sparsely populated continent, while European railways primarily connected densely populated cities.

gray transportation train
Photo by MILARD Emmanuel on Unsplash

2. Train Design

American and European trains reflect their respective priorities. American trains tend to be longer and wider, accommodating freight efficiently. In contrast, European trains are shorter and narrower, optimized for nimble movements and rapid acceleration. The height difference is also notable: American freight cars sit low for easy loading and unloading, while European passenger cars perch higher, offering panoramic views of the passing scenery.

!Italian regional passenger train at a Swiss border station in Chiasso, Switzerland

Free Train Locomotive photo and pictureImage by Jim Black from Pixabay

3. Operating Procedures

Train designs influence operating procedures. American trains typically feature a single powerful locomotive at the front, pulling the entire train. However, this is evolving with the adoption of distributed power systems. In contrast, European trains often employ multiple locomotives—both pulling from the front and pushing from behind. Additionally, American locomotives predominantly run on diesel fuel, while European counterparts can operate on either diesel or electric power.


Free New York 207St photo and pictureImage by Caro Sodar from Pixabay

4. Rail Infrastructure

The American National Rail Network dwarfs Europe’s system, boasting over 224,000 miles (360,000 kilometers) of track compared to Europe’s 94,000 miles (151,000 kilometers). The vastness of the United States necessitated extensive rail networks for efficient freight movement. In contrast, Europe’s compact geography allowed for concentrated rail lines connecting major cities.

orange and white trainPhoto by Matt Flores on Unsplash

5. Funding and Government Policies

Historical development and governmental policies play a crucial role. Europe’s commitment to public transportation led to substantial investments in rail networks. In contrast, the United States prioritized highways and automobiles, relegating rail to a secondary role. European governments actively support rail infrastructure, while American policies have been less consistent.

Free Train Buildings photo and pictureImage by Oscar Portan from Pixabay 

6. Population Density

Europe’s higher population density naturally favors passenger rail. Efficient train travel between cities became essential, leading to well-connected networks. In the United States, where vast distances separate cities, freight transport took precedence.

In summary, the divergence between American and European rail systems arises from historical priorities, funding decisions, and population density. While Europe’s trains whisk passengers across borders, America’s freight trains rumble through open landscapes. Both systems have their merits, but understanding their origins sheds light on why America’s rails stretch farther than Europe’s.

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