While it’s true that other countries are miles ahead of the United States in terms of passenger and freight rail travel, it isn’t completely lost on the United States. In fact, there are several very busy rail lines cutting across America, and you can learn more about passenger rail travel as well as the busiest rail lines in the US below.
Passenger Rail Travel in the US
In the United States, passenger cars and planes remain the two most common modes of transportation. Trains are not nearly as popular here as in other countries around the world, but they do represent a significant portion of commuters, and there’s a huge tourism industry built around American rail, as well. Once upon a time, the United States were the pioneers of rail travel; it was the primary means of long-distance transportation in the country before the invention of the plane and fuel-efficient motor vehicles.
Private passenger rail service struggled as these new technologies continued to improve, and that struggle led to the formation of Amtrak, which is now the biggest and most well-known passenger rail company in the United States. Amtrak operates from coast to coast, but only in specific areas; as of 2022, there is no single cross-country passenger rail line.
The Future of American Passenger Rail
As of the time of writing, intercity rail was by far the most popular type of passenger train travel in the US. Despite this, several major rail lines – namely Amtrak – serve passengers with longer routes. One of the most popular routes, the Amtrak Acela, runs across the Northeast Corridor and provides fast, efficient, comfortable travel between numerous high-profile destinations – but it is on the pricey side for many average Americans. The Acela fleet is getting an upgrade for 2023, which shows that America is willing to invest in rail travel to a degree, but the passenger rail infrastructure is not currently being built out where it doesn’t already exist.
Other countries have shown that rail travel is safer, more energy efficient, and better for their local economies, but the initial investment involved is quite hefty, which puts many American investors off. Still, as we push into the future and sustainability becomes more of a focus, many hope that our lawmakers – and their fellow Americans – will come to see the value in investing in quality passenger rail that spans the entire nation.
The Busiest Rail Lines in the US Today
While rail travel has never been quite as popular in the United States as it is in European and Asian countries, many commuters – especially in major metropolitan areas – rely on it as a cheap, reliable way to commute to and from work. You can learn more about the busiest rail lines in the US below, but keep in mind that the ridership numbers reflect pre-pandemic ridership – not ridership during the COVID-19 era.
MTA Long Island Railroad
The MTA Long Island Railroad (LIRR) is the busiest rail line in the United States based on ridership alone. Each year, some 117,773,400 people ride along this railroad, with an average weekday ridership of 301,000 people across 735 daily trains.
The rail line serves New York City, exists along 321 route miles, and boasts 11 different lines across 124 stations. It’s been in operation since 1834, making it one of the oldest passenger rail lines in existence in the United States today. It is owned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) and is headquartered at Jamaica Station in Jamaica, New York.
NJ Transit Rail
NJ Transit Rail serves the cities of New York, New York; Newark and Trenton, New Jersey; and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. More than 88 million riders per year utilize the NJ Transit Rail, which is equal to about 240,000 riders on a weekday. The railroad covers 530 miles and boasts 11 lines across 164 stations. It opened its doors in 1983 and has continued to provide service every day since. It is the second-busiest commuter railroad in North America, and it is the longest passenger route in the US based on route length alone.
MTA Metro-North Railroad
The MTA Metro-North Railroad is also owned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), and it is the third busiest rail line in the US based on ridership. Roughly 86.5 million people ride this rail every year, which is equal to weekday ridership of about 311,000 people. It covers 385 route miles with five lines and 122 different stations, and it opened in 1983. It services New York City as well as Stamford and New Haven, Connecticut.
The Metra serves the city of Chicago with an annual ridership of almost 67 million people. On any average weekday, some 275,000 people ride it. It covers 487.5 route miles with 11 lines and 241 stations spread across 692 trains. Metra encompasses several different rail lines, including Heritage Corridor, Milwaukee North and Milwaukee West, Rock Island, Union Pacific North, Union Pacific Northwest, Union Pacific West, and many others. It is the largest and busiest rail system outside of the New York City metro.
SEPTA Regional Rail
The SEPTA Regional Rail (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority) serves the cities of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Trenton, New Jersey; and Wilmington, Delaware. Its annual ridership is a little over 35.5 million people, and average weekday ridership hovers around 135,000. The route covers 280 miles over 13 lines with 153 stations, and it boasts 404 trains. It is the busiest rail line outside of the New York City and Chicago metropolitan areas.
The Busiest Rail Station in the United States
When it comes to railway stations, there’s no denying that the famed Pennsylvania Station (also known as Penn Station) is the busiest in the United States. It’s located just below Madison Square Garden in New York City, and it’s not only the busiest train station in the country – it’s the busiest in the entire western hemisphere. Some 21 tracks with 11 platforms converge in this single location, and according to multiple sources, more than 650,000 people come through Penn Station every single day.
Freight Rail in the US
American freight rail, on the other hand, is widely considered one of the safest freight rail systems in the entire world. The US freight rail system covers some 140,000 miles and drives an $80 billion industry. It’s operated by seven Class 1 railroads, 22 regional railroads, and 584 shortline or local railroads. More than 167,000 American jobs exist as a result of the nation’s freight rail system, and the nation benefits in other ways, too:
- Reduced road congestion. Freight trains remove thousands of standard trucks from highways, which has a significant impact on the amount of road congestion Americans experience as they travel through their hometowns and even across the country via the interstate system.
- Reductions in highway fatalities. The reduction in freight trucks also reduces highway fatalities; the fewer the large trucks on the roads, the fewer fatalities that come as a result. If all the freight moved by rail was moved to the highway system, fatalities would increase dramatically.
- Lower fuel consumption. Moving freight by rail utilizes far less fuel than moving it by traditional truck and trailer means, and the lowered fuel consumption across decades leads to lower fuel prices.
- Fewer greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, because there’s less fuel being used, that means there’s less combustion that creates greenhouse gas emissions. America’s freight rail is important for preserving the environment.
- Lowered logistics costs. The costs that go into moving freight via other means can be significant. The purchase of the tractor trailers, the software required to log miles, and the salaries of the drivers all figure into this cost reduction.
- Drastically reduced public infrastructure costs. Finally, it is also worth considering the costs associated with basic highway infrastructure when compared to rail infrastructure. Both require maintenance, but in the long run, using rail to move freight reduces the severity of infrastructure damage and thereby reduces costs at the federal, state, and local levels.
Who Maintains the Freight Rail System?
It’s also noteworthy that unlike the highway and roadway system in the US, the freight rail system is owned and operated entirely by private entities. As such, those companies are responsible for maintenance and upkeep of both the railways and the freight trains. Every single year, railroad owners in the United States spend $25 billion to maintain and add to the existing rail system – roughly 19% of their revenue.
How Important is Freight Rail in the US?
In the United States, freight moves in multiple modes – including truck, rail, pipeline, mail, water, and air. Most of the freight in this country moves via truck (tractor-trailer or semi truck) at 39.6%. Rail is the second most popular method of freight movement, and it comes in at 27.9%. The most common freight found on railways is heavy freight like coal, mineral ore, and lumber – especially when it is traveling long distances.
The Busiest Freight Rail Lines in the US
By and large, the area between North Platte and O’Fallons, Nebraska is the busiest freight line in the entire United States. Each and every day, between 120 and 140 freight trains move through this area carrying everything from potash to coal and grain. Aside from this, the busiest lines will always be those owned by the Class 1 carriers in North America, which are:
- CPR – This stands for Canada Pacific Railway, which runs through North America, including parts of the United States. They focus primarily on grain, offer heated containers for temperature-sensitive products, and boast regular upgrades along many of their busiest routes. They recently joined the United Nations Global Compact and they have even executed their own climate strategy to help deal with the effects of climate change.
- CN – Another Canadian rail company that serves parts of America, CN is widely known for transporting numerous goods all throughout North America, including automobiles, grains, coal, fertilizer, forest products, metals and minerals, and much more.
- UP – Union Pacific is one of the United States’ oldest rail lines, and in recent years, they’ve focused on bringing greener technology into their company. For more than 160 years, Union Pacific regularly invests in modern locomotives, including one recent investment which marked the largest in history.
- KCS – This is the abbreviation for Kansas City Southern, which claims an advantage over its competitors with efficient access to the market, an excellent security and safety record, and access to overseas markets when required.
- BNSF – BNSF offers a virtual train tour on its website – something that few of the other Class 1 companies do. They’ve been in the rail game for more than 170 years, and today’s iteration of BNSF is an amalgamation of some 400 rail lines that have been acquired over that period. Some of these include Colorado and Southern; Spokane, Portland, and Seattle; Santa Fe; Frisco; and Northern Pacific Railway, among others.
- CSXT – CSX Transportation offers numerous services above and beyond their primary rail service. They’re known for intermodal transportation, particularly train-to-truck, and many of their trains run through the Midwestern states like Indiana, Kentucky, and Illinois, among others. CSX is one of the oldest companies in the Class 1 list with more than 190 years in the transportation industry, and they started with horse-and-buggy transport!
- NS – Norfolk Southern is the last of the seven Class 1 freight rail companies, and they are committed to providing better, more sustainable freight movement now and into the future. They provide GIS-based site and transload discovery as well as a carbon calculator from the homepage of their website.
While America lags sorely behind the rest of the world in terms of passenger rail service, its freight rail is among some of the safest and most sustainable in the world today. The future of American rail in terms of moving freight looks very bright, but unless more investors get on board with building out national railways, passenger travel is likely to remain limited to intra-city areas like New York City and the Chicago metro.