France's TGV high-speed train

High-speed trains like France's TGV train may dominate the rails in the future, but occasionally they get in spectacular wrecks, too, just like a regular old train.

Michael Dunning/­Getty Images

The Future of Train Transportation

­The success of the U.S. freight railroad system has shown that moving goods by rail can be economical, efficient and profitable. Trains are an essential part of a country's infrastructure, so what does their future look like?

The future of train transportation will be dictated by the price and availability of oil, the determination of governments to find alternate modes of travel and the public demand for economical, fast transportation. For example, Europe's high passenger rail traffic was driven in part by historical precedent and the price of gasoline. It has improved with advancements of high-speed trains and dedicated passenger railway lines.

In the United States, passenger rail traffic hasn't caught on for several reasons:

  • The country lacks a passenger rail network that's independent of the freight railroad system, so not all areas of the country have access to railroads.
  • Until recently, the price of oil has still been relatively cheap, which makes automobiles and airlines more desirable modes of transportation for many people.
  • Many trains are still relatively slow or make many stops. For example, a train trip from Raleigh, N.C. to Washington, D.C., can take five hours, which is the same amount of time that it takes to drive between these two cities.

However, as oil prices increase, Americans will seek alternative means for long-distance travel, and trains are a good candidate.

But retooling U.S. railroads for passenger traffic won't be easy. For example, travelers will most likely want high-speed trains like those in Europe and Japan. But high-speed trains are expensive to build and maintain. They also work best on dedicated passenger railways. Furthermore, the railways must reach more cities and destinations than they do now. So, making railroads a major form of passenger transportation will require investments to expand and improve the railway systems. Whether this expansion will be done by the government or private companies remains to be seen. And it probably won't happen until public demand for passenger rail transportation increases.

New technologies such as magnetic levitation or maglev trains may increase train speed even more. These trains don't have wheels but rather travel on superconducting magnetic rails, but they're expensive to build and maintain.

Keep chugging along for more interesting train stories, like How the Great Train Robbery Worked.