We have all heard environmentalists and other American intellectual snobs lamenting that we just are not as smart as Europeans because we have so much less passenger rail. But because freight and high-speed passenger rail service does not coexist well on the same tracks, urging more passenger rail on the US rail net is effectively asking for more freight to be dumped onto the highways.
Moving freight by rail rather than by truck is an enormous carbon saving; one locomotive can haul as much as hundreds of trucks. It also reduces highway congestion. Unfortunately, it's hard for passengers and freight to share tracks. In part, it's difficult simply because it's expensive to upgrade track to handle passenger speeds, but also because freight moves much more slowly, and on an irregular schedule.
I might well argue that if we were simply trying to maximize environmental benefit, we'd ignore passenger rail, and focus on upgrading our freight systems, which sorely need it. Moreover, these upgrades could largely be made without the massive procedural obstacles that block new high speed rail lines.
But freight rail is not sexy. It does not excite donors, and it does not excite most of the voters who are motivated by high speed rail. Politicians win votes by delivering (or at least promising) highly visible improvements; not by silently enhancing the movement of goods from port to Wal-Mart.
I am not sure politicians really have to do anything other stay out of the way (we already have among the cheapest rail rates in the world, 1/2 of China's and 1/8 of Germany's). The numbers on freight movement are pretty dramatic:
See the percentage of goods moved by freight, which is dramatically higher for the US. The end result is we have a LOT less freight on our roads than the EU or Japan, and might have even less if US maritime laws had not done so much to kill coastal shipping.
This is the great unseen in all these "sophisticated" conversations about Europe. These Euro-philes are so much smarter than the rest of us that they manage to ignore the most important part of the equation (largely because it is unseen and not sexy). In fact, the US has the best rail system in the world, and in fact the governments of Europe and Japan have likely sub-optimized their rail systems by forcing their focus towards passengers rather than freight.
I will leave the last word to the Anti-Planner:
Europe has decided to run its rail system primarily for passengers, while America's system is run mainly for freight. Europe's rail system has about 6 percent of the passenger travel market, while autos have about 78 percent. Meanwhile, 75 percent of European freight goes by highway. Here in the U.S., highway's share of freight travel is only 29 percent, while the auto's share of passenger travel is about 82 percent. So trains get 4 percent of potential auto users in Europe out of their cars, but leave almost three times as much freight on the highway.