Trains and Population Density: U.S. and Europe

July 01, 2021

There are lots of silly comments that pass for great wisdom in elite circles. Steve Rattner gave us one of my favorites in his NYT column warning President Biden against putting too much money into reviving our system of train travel.

Rattner tells us:

“America is not Europe, with its dense population centers clustered reasonably close together.”

This is of course true, but in a totally trivial sense. The density of our population per mile of land is much lower than in Europe, especially if we include Alaska. But this is completely beside the point when it comes to trains. The issue is not building passenger lines from New York to Fairbanks, it’s about connecting cities that actually are reasonably close to together.

For example, Chicago is 790 miles from New York. By contrast, Berlin is 670 miles from Paris. If we stretch the trip to Warsaw the distance is over 1000 miles. And, we have many major cities in the Midwest that are closer to New York than Chicago, such as Cleveland, Detroit, and Cincinnati.

In short, if we think about the issue seriously, the difference in population density between the U.S. and Europe should not affect the feasibility of train service in the United States. As a practical matter, we have found it very difficult to build high speed rail for a variety of reasons that Rattner notes. We must address these problems if we are going to have viable passenger train service, but density is simply not the issue.


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