More than any other technical design or social institution, the railway stands for modernity. No competing form of transport, no subsequent technological innovation, no other industry has wrought or facilitated change on the scale that has been brought about by the invention and adoption of the railway. - Tony Judt
The late historian Tony Judt has an wonderful piece about trains in the current New York Review of Books. Trains have historically served vehicles of modernization, affecting everything from how we think about time (with the advent of the train schedule dramatically rearranging the Western lifestyle) to how we have historically planned cities.
Trains have historically gone far to assert social mobility firmly on behalf of the downtrodden - it has been said of the creation of the rail network in India did more to emancipate low-caste Hindus than anything done to reform the caste system- while also driving intra-regional connectivity. At the same time, as Judt argues, the rail system imposed a whole additional set of social classes based on what types of rail seating one could afford. The connection of European cities to each other through traditional (and now high-speed) rail networks has done much to drive the regional economic and social linkages that have allowed the European Union to thrive. Meanwhile, lighter rail has historically been the vehicle that allowed cities to grow and reduced near toxic densities in Victorian cities - the first suburbs were, after all, rail suburbs.
Rail has affected cities in other ways. The construction of rail-centers within cities was a monumental challenge, and many traditional rail centers have further served as vehicles to produce monuments, being a favorite construction project during the City Beautiful movement of the early 1900s and later. The great spines of architecture and infrastructure with their off-shooting vertebrae on which the rail system rested, while costly, became, much like the docks to previous generations (and the airports today) the lifeline of the city.
While much of the United States' freight shipping is still done by train, the percentage of goods shipped by rail is diminished every year. Additionally, the good most overwhelmingly shipped on trains is coal. Low-cost airlines have supplanted commuter rail in all about a few areas (New York and New England being notable exceptions), however, a new push is being made to develop high speed rail corridors within the United States. Most notable among these include a proposed Midwestern line that would connect Chicago with Milwaukee and the Twin Cities as well as a San Francisco to LA line (with a hope that this line could eventually be expanded to reach all the way North to Vancouver, BC - passing through Portland and Seattle).
Spearheading passenger high-speed rail connectivity has been an important aspect of President Obama's infrastructure redevelopment push and has helped to reinvigorate the idea of rail in the United States. The notion of developing the type of high speed, efficient and modern rail systems found in Europe is certainly one that appeals greatly. Trains, especially the modern variety, are comfortable, attract wide multi-social class ridership and represent one of the more environmentally friendly means of transportation. While the infrastructure requires large up-front infrastructure costs - high speed requires new tracks to be laid as it uses different technology and different rail gauges than it's historical counterparts - the sort of regional connectivity afforded by a well-integrated rail system in invaluable. France has been a model in this, having decided to extend high speed rail service to almost every city in France, allowing for easy, rapid connectivity to regional centers resulting in wider cultural exchange and improved economic, social and other benefits to it's population.
There remains, however, a great deal of dubiousness about high speed rail projects within the United States, with many recently elected conservative governors, notably in Ohio and Wisconsin seeking to block projects, and to forgo generous Federal funding in order to do so. The Economist notes that rail is increasingly becoming an ideological issue upon which political parties are fighting tooth and nail over. Many on the right have come to view high-speed rail as simply a Utopian liberal scheme, or worse, a white elephant for which the Federal government will simply endlessly pour money in the form of subsidy. This apparently ignoring the billions spent annually on both road maintenance - subsidizing both suburban expansion and the commercial trucking industry, which chews up roads through with heavy cars but also requires highways to be kept pristine to avoid snapping axles - and on the airline industry through lucrative, and potentially needless defense contracts to airplane makers.
Additionally, critics within the environmental community, most notably peak-oil theorist and general Malthusian James Howard Kunstler, has argued that it may be too late for high-speed rail, the push towards the development of rail represents simply falling into a technology trap, and that the money would be better spent in improving and maintaining our existent rail infrastructure, which has increasingly fallen into disrepair. Besides, Kunstler notes, few Americans even bother to take commuter rail as it is and the success of European rail lines likely has more to do with a long-established European culture of rail-ridership that does not exist in the United States. This argument remains a persistent voice that must be considered when promoting high-speed rail. Despite this, however, high-speed rail remains promising.
To me, the argument for high-speed rail trounces that against it. Rail is a technology that, as Judt notes, in a very modern sense links communities. While the personal car has always been viewed in the United States as the ultimate vehicle for personal freedom - Bruce Springsteen made a career of singing about ephemeral dreams of escape through the open highway - true cultural freedom, to me, lies with effective regional linkages that are accessible to the population at large. The notion of promoting trains requires thinking increasingly collectively, or in thinking about the us as a society rather than thinking in terms of freedom of the individual. More so than airlines, which are only open to the truly affluent and are hardly environmentally or economically sustainable to begin with, rail is the genuine vehicle of national and multinational linkage and connectivity. They are a technology that was historically revolutionary in a positive sense, and are a technology that can again be salubrious to the very way we organize our society to how we think.