For a number of years, considerable discussion has taken place about constructing a high-speed railroad from the Twin Cities to Chicago. Though the benefits of such a train over flying the same route are nonexistent in many ways (90 minute flight vs. 6-7 hour train ride, the same as driving), there is a much deeper lesson to learn about this issue from the history of Twin Cities to Chicago railroading.
Ironically enough, the driving force behind these rail projects is the United States government, the same body that conceived, built, and continues to fund the Interstate Highway System, the highway system that fundamentally changed the face of virtually every aspect of American society since it was built.
Prior to the construction of the Interstates, most intercity transportation took place aboard a train. These trains were operated by privately-owned railroads whose funding came from the freely-given, voluntary contributions of those who actually used the trains. At that time, railroads were profitable, self-sustaining, and inexpensive.
With the debut of the Interstate Highway System, Americans discovered that travel by rubber tire was (artificially) less expensive than travel by steel wheel. Because of this unfair competition from the government, railroads found themselves unable to remain profitable with decreasing passenger and freight traffic. Today, American railroading is a shadow of its former self with far fewer—albeit larger—railroads serving far fewer locales. Formerly sustainable rural communities are now ghost towns while population and economic power is increasingly concentrated in large, unsustainable urban centers.
Nowadays, a perverse shift in policy tinkering in Washington, D.C. wishes to resurrect in its own image the intercity passenger rail service it destroyed in the latter half of the 20th Century. This time, the trains will not be funded by voluntary contributions like railroads of yesteryear, but with money coerced and forcibly taken from those who did not sign up to make such payments. As the final slap in the face, these new government trains will not be appreciably faster than those of decades ago.
These will not be your grandfather’s railroads.