From the steam engine to visions of a national high-speed rail system, railroads have made their mark on American culture.
In his first term, President Obama promised to create a national system of high-speed rail, though he was scarcely the first politician to have done so. The January 2010 stimulus bill allocated $8 billion for high-speed rail projects, but Congress rejected federal funding for it.
In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, the president reiterated the goal of having passenger rail rise again.
But these new projects could conflict with the freight systems that go largely undetected for many Americans.
As it stands now, Amtrak pays private companies in the center of the country to run its low-speed passenger trains on freight-rail tracks. But high-speed trains would need their own tracks, depriving the freight-rail system of some of that revenue.
How to build a high-speed system without hurting the freight industry is a problem that has not yet been solved, says professor Christopher Barkan, director of the RailTEC center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
"The freight railroad network is a great asset to our economy and environment," he says, "and we need to be careful that expansion of passenger service does not harm the viability of that efficient freight-rail transit system we've developed."
Mark Sprague's Illinois farm covers about 3,000 acres near the Mississippi River. He grows mainly corn, soybeans and a bit of winter wheat, and he relies heavily on freight rail to get it around.
"For the past several years, I'd say close to 70 percent of my corn has actually left this area by rail," he says.
Cheap rail is hugely important to Sprague's harvest.
"You can move a ton of freight about 125 miles with a gallon of diesel fuel [by truck]. But by rail, it's more like 500 miles you can move a ton of freight with a gallon of diesel fuel," he says.
From Sprague's farm in Hull, his corn travels 130 miles by rail to the city of Decatur, in central Illinois. He says he feels like he's in a good spot: Freight rail carriers compete for his business, which helps keep it affordable.
"There's good competition between the rail lines. There's several major carriers, and here in the Midwest we're served by all of them essentially," he says.
Edward Hamberger is the president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads, a freight-rail industry group.
"We have 140,000 miles of track, an interconnected network that binds this country together," he says.
Hamberger says Sprague is just one of millions of customers served by American freight rail.
"Not everyone knows that the freight-rail system in America is privately owned. This year alone America's private freight companies will spend $24.5 billion — that's 40 cents of every revenue dollar — back into the infrastructure in terms of new locomotives, railroad ties, miles of track, signal systems, rail cars," he says.
Hamberger says freight rail is a geographic necessity in America.
"In the U.S., with 3,000 miles from coast to coast, we better have a pretty effective, efficient and cost-effective way of moving that freight just to get to ports so we can compete in world markets," he says.
Even though freight trains are heavier and slower than trucks, they're more fuel-efficient, and therefore more cost-effective. Plus, many American highways and bridges need infrastructure repair.
But most Americans don't see trains every day, like they do trucks. So Hamberger says their idea of the railroad is kind of out of date.
"Everybody says, 'My grandfather worked on the railroad,' and everybody says, 'My goodness, why don't we have a railroad system like Japan has?' We have the world's best freight-rail system, but no one sees that," he says. "And when they do see it, they're waiting for a mile-long train to go by so they can get to their child's soccer game."
Hamberger says that image could be a problem as America begins to build high-speed passenger rail systems. The issue, he says, is that high-speed passenger trains could actually threaten the health of freight rail if not carefully coordinated.
In addition, political opponents of the president's vision say America is just too spread out, too large and diffusely populated for high-speed economics to work.
"The population densities in countries where it has worked are different than in the U.S.," says RailTEC's Barkan. "Well, that's definitely true out in the West, where you have vast swathes of land with very little population."
It's a different story in large metropolitan centers in the Midwest, though, Barkan says.
"If you actually look at the demographics and the distribution of the people and geography, it's not that dissimilar from, say, France," he says, "which is another country that has a very successful high-speed passenger rail system and continues to expand their system."
JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.
Coming up on today's show, a leading voice in the young Muslim movement in the United States, poetic tweets and our first reading from round 10 of our Three-Minute Fiction contest.
But first, railroads have been a part of American culture since the 19th century when the iron horse, the steam engine began to transform the landscape. Here's a song from a Dust Bowl migrant's camp of the '30s.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WABASH CANNONBALL]")
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) ...to the jingle. The rumble and the roar. As she glides along the woodland through...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) ...by the shore. Hear the mighty rush of her engine, hear that lonesome hoboes call.
LYDEN: But railroads will also help us imagine our tomorrows. That's our cover story today: Tracking the railroad, passenger, high speed and freight.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WABASH CANNONBALL")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) From the hills of Minnesota where the rippling waters fall. No changes can be taken on the Wabash Cannonball.
LYDEN: In his first term, President Obama promised to create a national system of high-speed rail - not the first president to have done so. In January of 2010 in the stimulus bill, $8 billion was allocated for high-speed rail projects. But Congress rejected federal funding for high-speed rail.
Last week in his State of the Union Address, the president reiterated that goal.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail.
OBAMA: This could allow you to go places in half the time it takes to travel by car. For some trips, it'll be faster than flying without the pat down.
LYDEN: There are significant political hurdles in Congress for a national high-speed rail system. But Christopher Barkan is the director of the Illinois Rail Transportation and Engineering Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He says there's lots of reasons to invest in high-speed rail.
CHRISTOPHER BARKAN: High-speed rail provides very convenient, comfortable, environmentally friendly, economical transportation. It's easier to use than, say, traveling by air. You can walk up, buy your ticket using a machine and be on the train in 10 minutes. You know, there's no waiting around. You don't have to get to the airport an hour early. You don't have to go through all the security hassles, and they're highly reliable because they're not really affected by the weather or other environmental factors.
LYDEN: But, he says, never underestimate the decades-long American love affair with the automobile.
BARKAN: People in this country are quite accustomed to getting in their car and driving wherever they want. And for some trips, that's a very - that is a better way to go.
LYDEN: Barkan says that in order for high-speed rail to be viable, something will have to change to make car travel less appealing. One change already happening in many places, in raging traffic.
BARKAN: In highly congested, highly populated urban regions, the opportunity to get on a train without much difficulty, ride in comfort with your Wi-Fi, it's just a very comfortable, convenient mode of travel, and that's very definitely the experience in many other developed nations in the world. And, frankly, right there in the Northeast Corridor where you are, that's actually an excellent example of a successful what we would call higher-speed rail system that's operating and has been operating for almost a century, and it's continuing to improve.
LYDEN: What about the vast interior, the land of the golden spike? That would be Promontory, Utah, by the way, where the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads came together in 1869. Many critics say the president's goal for a network of high-speed passenger trains is impractical, that America is just too spread out, too large and diffusely populated for high-speed economics to work. Outside of political opposition, though, there are some practical obstacles as well. Again, Chris Barkan of the University of Illinois.
BARKAN: The population densities in countries where it has worked are different than in the U.S. Well, that's certainly true out in the West where you have vast slaws of land with very little population. But those of us who live in Illinois or Indiana or Minnesota or Wisconsin or Ohio, you know, that have large metropolitan centers, and if you actually look at the demographics, the distribution of the people, the geography, it's not that dissimilar from, say, France, which has had a - which is another country that's had - has developed a very successful high-speed passenger rail system and continues to expand their system.
LYDEN: Let's head west to a state that very much wants to make high-speed passenger rail work.
JEFF MORALES: I'm Jeff Morales. I'm CEO of the California High-Speed Rail Authority.
LYDEN: Last year, voters in California favored going ahead with a multibillion-dollar high-speed passenger rail project.
MORALES: We're talking trains that will be going over 200 miles an hour. We don't have any of these trains in the U.S. today, but the fastest trains in the U.S. right now are going about 160 miles an hour. That's the Acela on the Northeast. In most places around the country, we're talking about 79 or at most 90 miles an hour.
LYDEN: From 90 miles an hour to over 200 miles an hour, such a system would revolutionize travel on the West Coast. In addition to billions of dollars in state bond money, California now has to raise about $10 million in private cash. Right now, they only have enough to begin construction on a small portion of their plan. This summer, they'll begin construction on a 200-mile stretch of rail through the Central Valley, west of San Francisco.
MORALES: Our current plans, we expect to be running full high-speed trains within the next decade.
LYDEN: Will this spur passenger rail elsewhere? Morales says here's some advice for states considering the kind of project California's undertaking: Think long-term.
MORALES: You know, what we're building is, you know, something that came to the state highway system. It's certainly a system that'll be in place for well over 100 years. You know, when you're making an investment like that, you're talking billions of dollars of investment.
LYDEN: As much as political problems have beset passenger rail, freight rail is a very different story. Now, if you were a farmer, you might realize that.
MARK SPRAGUE: My name is Mark Sprague, and I'm a farmer here in Illinois.
LYDEN: Mark Sprague's farm covers about 3,000 acres in Hull, Illinois, near the Mississippi River, in fact, across the river from Hannibal, Missouri. Sprague grows mostly corn and soybeans, a bit of winter wheat, and he relies heavily on freight rail to get it all around.
SPRAGUE: For the past several years, I'd say close to 70 percent of my corn has actually left this area by rail.
LYDEN: Farming is crucially, as in many things, a simple matter of economics. Cheap rail is hugely important to Mark Sprague's successful harvest.
SPRAGUE: You can move a ton of freight about 125 miles with a gallon of diesel fuel. But by rail, it's more like 500 miles you can move a ton of freight with a gallon of diesel fuel.
LYDEN: From Sprague's farm in Hull, Illinois, his corn travels 130 miles by rail to the city of Decatur in Central Illinois. He says he feels like he's in a good spot. Freight rail carriers compete for his business, which helps keep it affordable.
SPRAGUE: There's good competition between the rail lines. There's several major carriers. And here in the Midwest, we're served by all of them essentially.
EDWARD HAMBERGER: We're the world's leader in freight movement by rail. We have 140,000 miles of track, an interconnected network that binds this country together.
LYDEN: That's Ed Hamberger, the CEO of the Association of American Railroads, a freight-rail industry group that says its network doesn't come cheap.
HAMBERGER: Not everybody knows that the freight-rail system in America is privately owned. This year alone, America's private freight companies will spend $24.5 billion - that's 40 cents of every revenue dollar - back into the infrastructure in terms of new locomotives, new railroad ties, new miles of track, new signal systems, new rail cars - $24.5 billion, and it is all private money.
LYDEN: He says that for America, freight rail is a geographic necessity.
HAMBERGER: In the United States with 3,000 miles from coast to coast, we better have a pretty effective, efficient and cost-effective way of moving that freight just to get to the ports so we can compete in world markets.
LYDEN: So why are freight trains so cost-effective? After all, they're heavy and slower moving than trucks. The average freight train doesn't break 50 miles an hour. The answer is in the fuel.
HAMBERGER: We move one ton of freight 469 miles on one gallon of fuel.
LYDEN: That's right. On a single gallon of diesel fuel, a freight train can move a ton of freight over 450 miles. Compare that to tractor-trailer trucks. Dave Osiecki is a representative of the American Trucking Association.
DAVE OSIECKI: You know, we average, you know, six and a half to seven miles per gallon, if you will, which isn't tremendous, but that's up from, you know, five and a half, six of just a few years ago.
LYDEN: In simple terms, that means freight trains transport three to four times the cargo that trucks do. And yet, probably, because people don't see freight trains as much, Ed Hamberger says Americans' notions of the railroads are kind of out of date.
HAMBERGER: Everybody says, I love railroads. Everybody says, my grandfather worked on the railroad. And everybody says, my goodness, why don't we have a railroad system like Japan has? We have the world's best freight-rail system, but no one sees that. And when they do see it, they're stuck waiting for a mile-long train to go by so they can get to their child's soccer game.
LYDEN: Actually, the success, Hamberger says, of high-speed passenger trains could threaten the health of freight rail if not carefully coordinated.
HAMBERGER: In the United States, outside of the Northeast Corridor, between here and Washington and Boston, Amtrak operates over these privately owned freight-rail rights of way. And so it is a partnership between the freight railroads and Amtrak all around the country.
LYDEN: That means as it stands now, Amtrak pays private companies in the center of the country to run its low-speed passenger trains on freight-rail tracks. That's indirect federal revenue. But high-speed trains would need their own tracks depriving the freight-rail system of some of that federal money. How to build a high-speed system without hurting the freight industry is a problem that hasn't yet been solved, says Chris Barkan of the University of Illinois' RailTEC Center.
BARKAN: The freight railroad network is a great asset to our economy and our environment, and we need to be careful that expansion of passenger service does no harm to the viability of that efficient freight-rail transportation system that we've developed.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COME ALONG AND RIDE THIS TRAIN")
LYDEN: So it may be one of the great ironies of the 21st century that a 19th century technology revamped will be a new kind of golden high-tech spike linking the country together.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COME ALONG AND RIDE THIS TRAIN")
JOHNNY CASH: (Singing) Come along and ride this train. Come along and ride this train. Cross the mountain, prairies, reservations, rivers, levees, plains. Come along and ride this train. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.