As of 2014, global train travel covered nearly 3000 passenger-kilometers, making it the third most popular form of public transit in the world. In the Americas in 2019, train travel covered roughly 32.5 billion passenger kilometers. While the US is known for its world-leading economy and it boasts a population of more than 300 million, passenger train traffic ranks below many other global regions. Nevertheless, train travel is very popular globally and in many metro areas in the United States.
Thanks to the availability of statistics from multiple government agencies, we can determine which city has the most trains both globally and in the United States.
Popularity of Train Travel
A recent survey commissioned by HS1 Ltd, one of the UK’s biggest and most popular high-speed rail companies, found that train travel to Europe is growing in popularity. In fact, people are now more likely to travel by train than by plane in Europe if they are traveling for business purposes. The company asked 1000 UK workers their opinions, and 66% said they were likely to travel to Europe by train. For leisure purposes, that figure climbed to 77%. When asked for their reasons why they preferred to travel via train, the respondents said that sustainability was a major factor and that COVID-19 had played a role in bringing attention to the need for greener travel options.
In the United States, roughly 65% of the population views rail travel favorably, and 75% of Americans believe that more travelers should consider rail options in order to address the massive impact that transportation has on climate change. About 81% of Americans believe that Congress should provide more funding to improve railroad safety after they discover that 95% of all rail-related deaths in the US are the result of drivers or pedestrians on train tracks.
US Census data from 2021 shows that subway and elevated rail travel are quite common, with 37.7% of public transportation commuters reporting it as their main choice. Just shy of 12% of commuters utilize long-distance or commuter trains. It should be noted that many cities throughout the US do not offer subway, elevated rail, or rail travel and most of 37.7% of commuters live in major metro areas, including (but not limited to) Chicago, New York City, and others.
Which City Has the Most Trains?
When looking at which city has the most trains, the most noteworthy American city is Chicago. It is considered the National Railroad Hub, and Trains Magazine dedicated an entire issue to the city and the history of its ever-important rail system. Globally, the world leader is Wuhan and its famed Wuhan Railway Hub, which boasts more volume than even Beijing.
Breaking down train popularity by country, China is at the top of the list once again with more than 1,550 billion kilometers covered each year. Coming in a very close second is India, followed by Japan, Russia, France, Germany, and South Korea. As of 2019, the United States was 10th on this list with roughly 32.5 billion passenger-kilometers covered in that year.
The Benefits of Train Travel
Part of understanding which city has the most trains involves taking a look at the benefits associated with train travel for both passengers and freight.
- Supports economic development – The Association of American Railroads says that railways create some of the nation’s highest-paying jobs. As of 2020, freight rail workers earned $135,700 – a salary that is higher than 94% of American workers. They also save Americans money by reducing freight transport costs and reducing the overall tax costs associated with the upkeep of roadways.
- Connects rural communities – Unlike highways and interstates, which can be cumbersome and difficult to build, railroads keep rural communities connected to major urban centers with less upfront investment. They provide rural residents with a cost- and energy-efficient way to travel into metro areas for shopping, work, and leisure, and they also allow goods to be shipped in or out economically.
- Reduces congestion on highways and in major metro areas – In areas where train travel is more common, such as Chicago and New York City, there is less passenger traffic on the roadway. Furthermore, as more and more companies discover the benefits of using freight railways, there are fewer trucks in major metro areas, which cuts back on congestion, accidents, and more.
- Reduces dependence on emissions-heavy modes of transportation – It is far more energy efficient to ship thousands of tons of goods via train than via hundreds of trucks; similarly, in areas where trains are utilized for public transport, emissions are significantly reduced.
- Provides an affordable means of travel for commuters – In areas with public railways, commuters find train travel to be extremely affordable and often more dependable than buses. Many cities and metros even provide discounted monthly passes specifically for commuters to entice them to utilize trains.
- Offers safer travel than passenger cars and trucks – Passenger and freight trains are both safer than cars and trucks. Fewer lives are lost each year despite derailments and other major incidents; passenger and freight trains do not have to fight traffic or make sudden stops or shifts in their direction, which makes them inherently safer.
The Most Popular Reasons for Train Travel
Trains are popular for both passenger and freight travel all across the globe. Passengers often find trains “charming” – a fun respite from the typical car ride or flight. Furthermore, in many locations, trains are the most widely available form of public transport, which makes them popular among commuters. Because train travel is so affordable, it is more economical for an individual who commutes 90 minutes to work each way to utilize train services than to pay for fuel, maintenance, and wear and tear on a personal vehicle. Trains are also reliable and safe, which also makes them popular among commuters and long-distance travelers.
As far as freight is concerned, the American Association of Railroads says that freight trains are responsible for about 40% of long-distance miles per ton of cargo, which means they carry more cargo more miles than any other mode of transportation in the nation – including semi trucks! By 2040, the Federal Highway Administration says that total US freight train movement will climb to 25.1 billion tons per year – a 30% increase over 2020’s 19.3 billion tons.
Freight Train Commodities
Thanks to recently redesigned railcars, each car now carries an average of just over 4000 tons of material – this is a 1000 ton-per-car increase from 2000.
- Food & Agriculture – Roughly 1.6 million carloads of food and another 1.6 million carloads of grain (and other farm produce) travel across American railways every single year. That’s about 60,000 carloads per week combined!
- Chemicals – Due in part to the safety of freight trains, they are one of the most popular modes of transportation for moving chemicals. Some 2.2 million carloads of chemicals – including plastics and fertilizers – travel around the country on trains each year.
- Coal – Trains are also very popular for moving coal across the nation, and they deliver about 70% of all the coal utilized by power plants. Rail coal volumes are on the decline due to the country’s efforts to move to cleaner, more renewable energy sources, but 3.3 million carloads make their way across the tracks each year.
- Construction Materials – About three million carloads of construction materials travel across America on railways every year. Trains are popular for materials like gravel and sand because one car can replace up to five trucks.
American freight trains are also popular for transporting items like crude oil, vehicles and their parts, lumber, paper, and intermodal goods.
Of all the transport modes used around the world today, rail travel remains one of the safest and most energy-efficient. According to the International Energy Agency, or IEA, trains are responsible for about 9% of all passenger travel and 7% of all freight movement; however, they are responsible for only 3% of the global transport energy use. As such, rail is an excellent alternative to other transportation options in terms of minimizing climate impact, and many countries are taking significant initiatives to expand rail travel.
China is leading the globe in terms of high-speed rail deployment; in 2019, passenger travel increased by 13% whereas that nation’s domestic aviation travel only increased by about 6%. As more passengers travel by rail, fewer travel via emissions-heavy modes such as passenger cars, planes, and trucks. In China, India, and much of Southeast Asia in general, companies are moving toward rail for freight transportation, as well. It is far more energy-efficient and in many cases, it is more economical.
Luxury Train Travel in the United States
While the US lags behind other developed nations when it comes to trains, the popularity of luxury train travel has exploded in recent years. In late 2021, the American government honed in on railway infrastructure – particularly as it applies to companies like Amtrak and private train companies. The American train infrastructure has been in decline since its inception, and Amtrak itself is still utilizing cars that were introduced alongside the brand itself.
Passengers have also turned up the heat on Amtrak with claims that on-time departures and arrivals are few and far between, cars are less than comfortable, and customer service is lacking. Some of this can be blamed on the American government; numerous members of Congress have been against Amtrak since its inception claiming that it wastes taxpayer money that could be focused on other forms of transportation.
Since the pandemic, though, travelers have been utilizing rail services more than ever, and this is driving high-end train travel across the country. In other words, Americans want to travel by train – and many even prefer it – but they do not enjoy cramped cars, late arrivals, and less-than-comfortable experiences. Travelers are more interested in the ability to explore the train, enjoy beautiful scenery, and eat delicious meals, and the last few years have shown that they are willing to pay a premium for those luxuries.
Amtrak Continues to Grow in the United States
Despite the troubles Amtrak has faced in the last half century, ridership is on the rise. In fact, as of Spring 2021, the company reported an 86% increase in passenger traffic; by the fall, that number had fallen somewhat to about 65%. Amtrak reported that these customers were upscale travelers who were not taking the train to commute to work or to visit family in another state; rather, these were leisure experiences. They were riding the train just to ride the train, in other words.
While there are no trains in the United States that can even come close to the Shinkansen bullet train in Japan, there are a few companies working hard to change that. There is a common belief that bullet-style trains that can deliver passengers from one point to another more quickly would go a long way toward increasing ridership, thereby reducing American dependence on passenger cars, trains, and perhaps even freight trucks as time goes on. One such company, Brightline, currently operates in Florida, but has plans to expand westward as time goes on.
The Future of Train Travel
In just a few years, determining which city has the most trains may be a completely different process. Southeastern Asia is investing heavily in train travel, and as time goes by, India may very well displace China for the most trains. The International Energy Agency’s (IEA) “The Future of Rail” Report shows that passenger and freight activity as a whole – via all modes of transport – will double by 2050. The future of rail travel, it says, will depend on numerous factors including the actual demand for transport, the pressure being put on other transport modes to reduce emissions and provide safe, affordable travel, and more.
The IEA shows two potential scenarios for future rail travel: the Base Scenario and the High Rail Scenario. In the base scenario, they predict rail transport will become almost 100% electric before 2050, with the only exception lying in North America. In the US and Canada, the IEA predicts that diesel engines will still be the preferred method for moving freight. In the High Rail scenario, the IEA predicts that passenger rail activity will increase to 15 trillion passenger-kilometers by 2050, but that this increase will be matched by other public transport modes, as well. They predict that public transportation integration efforts as a whole will make travel simpler, safer, and more affordable for passengers – particularly commuters.