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Why Freight Rules The US


Meeting Details: Monday March 20th, 7pm, Online

Speaker: Dave Peterson from Engineering Professional Development will be joining us for tonight meetings


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Why Freight rail rules the United States

At over 140,000 miles of track, the United States is the most efficient railroad system in the world. The problem is… the system has been optimized for freight, not passenger. From an ocean port in Long Beach, shipments can be transported in 4 days to anywhere in the US. While not fast, the rail system is extremely efficient at transporting huge amounts of goods all at once. That is why trains 2-3 miles (4km to 5km) long are not uncommon in the US. So why did the United States become so efficient at freight rail, and not passenger rail?

Built from the 1820s thru the 1880s, US railroads were optimized for both passenger and freight, but freight was where the money was. Farmers in Iowa were able to transport their agricultural goods to Chicago, New York, and Europe. Then after the industrial revolution freight trains transported raw goods to factories, and then transported those finished goods to Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and beyond. For example, the 2016 Subaru Forester I drive was made in Ota, Gunma, Japan. My car then traveled by ocean freighter to Long Beach, then transported across the US by train to Chicago. It is ironic that my car begins life with a train…but these large loads are where trains excel in the US. Again, American trains are optimized for heavy, long, slow loads.

However, this brings up the question of building high speed rail. Should all new tracks be built for high-speed trains or should we keep trying to adapt the tracks now maintained for freight. The problem is over the decades' high-speed trains and freight trains have become distinctly different. High-speed trains are fast, light, and relatively short. Freight trains are slow, heavy, and long. This is like using the largest container ship, the Ever Ace, as a sightseeing boat. Or using a Royal Caribbean Cruise Ship, such as the Oasis, to transport coal and cars across the Atlantic.

While all these ships share a similar origin, they are vastly different and serve very different purposes. So looking back at railroads why should freight and passenger share the same tracks? They are incredibly different and should be separated.

This is why building of all new track infrastructure is the way to go in the United States. Let the freight roads thrive on the tracks they have maintained for decades and let passenger high-speed rail thrive by using all-new infrastructure.


What Would Chat GPT Say:

With the popularity of ChatGHT (by OpenAI), we figured we would have it write an article for us. The prompt we choose...

"Why are there no high speed trains on the island of Sodor?

(Sodor if the island of Thomas the Tank Engine)

And here is ChatGPT's response:

Hey there! That's a great question. The island of Sodor, as you know, is a fictional place from the "Thomas the Tank Engine" books and TV series. In the stories, the trains are the main mode of transportation, and they don't have any high-speed rail lines.

One reason for this is that the island of Sodor is meant to be a small, rural community, with a slower pace of life. It's also a place where the trains are the stars of the show, and having high-speed trains might take away from the focus on the characters.

Another reason could be that the technology for high-speed trains may not exist in the world of Thomas the Tank Engine. The trains on Sodor are sentient and have their own personalities, which is not the case in the real world. So, it's possible that the technology for high-speed trains simply doesn't exist in their universe.

But hey, even without high-speed trains, the stories of Thomas and his friends are still beloved by many people, including me. So, let's keep enjoying the adventures of the trains on the island of Sodor, no matter what speed they're going!


The Faster Badger is produced by students at the University of Wiscosin-Madison to help break through the misconceptions of high speed rail and high speed transportation. This blog is for educational purposes only and all opinions presented are of the students.

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