The Railroad Renaissance

THE STORY OF THE RAILROAD would have been remarkable even if, with the advent of the automobile and plane, it had simply been consigned to history. In that, it would have resembled the trajectory of so many other innovations: birth, brief heyday, gradual decline, and then oblivion. However, despite a period of decline, the railroad has proved pessimistic predictions wrong by enjoying a 21st-century renaissance, and a future that looks assured.

This resurgence of the train has not simply been the result of far-reaching technological developments, although improvements have certainly been made. Railroad passenger cars are more comfortable than those of the 19th century, and freight cars are sturdier and better designed for rapid unloading with the spread of containerization. Signaling is much improved, too, and there have been other sophisticated adaptations to make the railroads faster and more efficient. Despite these advances, train travel in the 21st century would still be immediately recognizable to George Stephenson and other pioneers. Tracks are still usually set 4ft 8½in (1,435mm) apart, and passengers are still transported in cars that stop at stations and are controlled mostly by external signals.

Of course, the function of the train today is different. While the railroad was once a monopoly supplier of long-distance transportation, it is now more of a niche industry—but a very important one. Never again will the railroad serve every village and small town. The heyday of the iron road providing the only fast and cheap way of traveling between many places is over; those little village stations and rural halts are lost forever. Nor will railroads dominate the freight market as they once did. Gone, too, are the baggage rooms and carts once found at every station, wiped out by the semitruck and the van.

The railroads had to overcome a very difficult time: there was a point in the post-war period when railroads were regarded as irrelevant (see Railroads Lost and Found). The French railroad writer Clive Lamming even gave this phenomenon a name—“ferropessimisme,” the notion that the decline and marginalization of the railroads was inevitable. But the railroads are still very much a part of modern life and pessimists have been proved wrong. Many countries are now bemoaning the fact that key lines were closed down and major stations turned into shopping malls or housing developments. Across the world, the railroads are flourishing and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future, because rail travel is still a very convenient form of travel for passengers and an extremely efficient way of transporting goods.

There are several key markets in which rail travel offers great advantages to passengers. Intercity rail journeys of 300–400 miles (480–645km)—or further with high-speed lines—may take longer than a flight, but passengers are able to relax or work on the train and, unlike far-flung airports, train terminals are located in the heart of the city. Local commutes are also more efficient by rail, whether train or subway, as these trips are usually faster and more reliable than driving, and unaffected by traffic. Trains also offer the best way to enjoy scenic routes, and in some cases, as with the Trans-Siberian (see The Trans-Siberian Railway), are one of the only viable means of transportation across remote areas.

Rail is also very well suited to moving large amounts of very heavy, nonurgent freight, such as gravel and stone, which otherwise damage roads. Trains have a competitive advantage too, when transporting loads long distances: they are cheaper than convoys of semitrucks, which require several drivers and may need to stop overnight. Developments in containerization have also made loading and unloading far easier.

The railroads have made a remarkable recovery from their post-war nadir, when it seemed their glory days were at an end and that the train would soon go the way of the schooner or the stagecoach. They survived, in most countries at any rate, because of their competitive edge in several markets, and because road transportation has its own limitations. In an age of uncertainty over oil supply, railroads remain a reliable and relatively cheap form of transportation.

The railroads, however, do not stand still. They are continually adapting and evolving—and expanding. In response to competition, services have been speeded up and facilities improved; redundant lines and services have been abandoned; and major developments can still be expected. One such example is the wider adoption of in-cab signaling to replace external signals; this is safer and more efficient, allowing more trains on the track, but will require considerable investment. Moreover, and more significantly, brand-new and reopened lines are springing up in many places.


There are a huge number of significant projects in the works, many costing billions, or tens of billions, of dollars. Aside from China (see China, the New Pioneer), Saudi Arabia is probably responsible for more major rail and subway developments than any other country. Its 900-mile (1500-km)-long North–South line will enable freight to travel from Al Jalamid (in the phosphate belt in the north) to Az Zabirah (in the bauxite belt in the center of the country), and then eastward to the processing and port facilities at Raz Az Zawr.

Also in the pipeline is the ambitious Landbridge Project, which is intended to run from the west to east coasts of Saudi Arabia, linking the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, thus greatly reducing the time required to transport freight from the Gulf. It involves building 600 miles (960km) of new line to connect the capital city, Riyadh, to Jeddah on the west coast, while upgrading existing links between Riyadh and the city of Dammam on the east coast. In addition, 80 miles (130km) of track will run north–south along the coast to connect Dammam and Jubail. These links will create a useful new route for sending raw materials and manufactured goods between Europe and North America on one side, and East and South Asia on the other.


In addition to these bold initiatives, the Saudi government is building a Mecca-to-Medina line (the Haramain High Speed Rail) to carry pilgrims for the Haj, redolent of the Hejaz Railway (see The Hejaz Railway). Other proposals include the Riyadh subway, to serve six routes, and the Saudi–Bahrain Railway Bridge.


All of these projects involve building lines across difficult desert terrain, often in remote areas, echoing many of the great construction projects covered in this book. It is clear that Saudi Arabia is embracing the railroads in a way that is astonishing for a country that is home to the world’s largest oil reserves, with a wealth built on supplying gasoline for cars. There is no shortage of exciting forthcoming developments and projects worldwide. Russia is planning to improve the Trans-Siberian (see The Trans-Siberian Railway) and the Baikal Amur Mainline (see Brezhnev’s Folly), and has visions of building a line across to the United States. It would certainly beat any other project for sheer ambition and, indeed, cost.

The renaissance of rail is arguably most remarkable in Africa—a continent that has never properly exploited the advantages of rail transportation. Now, thanks in many instances to investment from China, several major lines have been brought back into use and others are being constructed. A plan to build an 1,800-mile (2,900-km) line across central Africa, linking the capital of landlocked Rwanda, Kigali, with the Kenyan port of Mombasa, looks set to proceed with Chinese money at a cost of $13.8 billion. The railroad will partly make use of an existing colonial-era line in Kenya and Uganda, but the section from the Ugandan capital, Kampala, through to Kigali will be entirely new. Connections through to other parts of Kenya and Uganda are also envisaged.

In West Africa, work is starting on a line in order to facilitate the export of minerals. The line would link Niamey, the capital of another landlocked nation, Niger, with the huge port of Abidjan in Ivory Coast, via Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. Nigeria also has plans to renew and expand its railroads, and is seeking to reinstate commuter services in its biggest city, Lagos. In South Africa, a new 50-mile (80-km) mass rapid transit system, the Gautrain, was fully opened in 2012, linking Johannesburg, Pretoria, Ekurhuleni, and O. R. Tambo International Airport. There will never be a Cape to Cairo line (see Cape to Cairo: the Railroad that Never Was), but Africa will become more rail-oriented than it has ever been.

The growth of the railroads is a worldwide phenomenon. In the fall of 2013, the railroad development website,, listed nearly 450 major railroad projects across the world, including more than 100 in Asia and 33 in Australasia. As mentioned previously, there are plans for high-speed lines in numerous countries where previously rail investment had stagnated or declined. High-speed rail is a rising new market as it attracts travelers away from short-haul flights and onto the more environmentally sustainable railroads. It offers not only the prospect of reduced journey times between city centers, but also a far more pleasant travel experience.

Meanwhile, the other great boom in railroad development has been the subway, and this shows no sign of abating. In the summer of 2013, there were 188 subway systems across the world in no fewer than 54 countries, ranging from Teresina in Brazil to Yerevan in Armenia. Perhaps the most surprising adherents are to be found in car-obsessed Dubai, the largest city in the United Arab Emirates, which opened a subway line in 2009. The city has already opened a second line, with plans for three more in the wake of its success.

Light rail, or trolleys, are also enjoying a global revival. Old systems are being renovated and many cities, even in the car-dominated US, are opening new lines. In the US, a new type of housing, “transit-oriented development” (high-density development centered around a transit stop), is proving popular as it allows people to commute easily to work, without having to drive.

Rail travel has succeeded by seeing off the alternatives. For a time other technologies were variously put forward as having greater potential to improve transportation, including numerous bizarre monorail plans. The most prominent of these was “maglev”—magnetic levitation (see Maglev Trains). Magnetic force is used to elevate the “train” slightly above the special track and then magnets are used to provide forward thrust. The result was a very smooth ride at far higher speeds than conventional trains, along with better acceleration and braking. Despite many decades of research and development, and the introduction of a few systems, there are still currently only two maglev systems in operation—one in Japan and the other in China. The Chinese maglev, shuttling passengers between Shanghai and the airport, takes just seven minutes 20 seconds to cover 18½ miles (30km) and reaches a speed of 268mph (430kph). However, the cost of development, the potential risks (there has been one major accident on a German test track, resulting in 23 deaths), and the fact that conventional rail is already a tried and tested technology used across the world, has meant that maglev expansion has been stymied. While there are proposals for lines in several countries, it is clear there is no immediate prospect of this technology replacing rail.


In what has proved to be a real shock to many transportation planners (and past futurologists), the railroads have not only survived to see the 21st century, but are, in fact, booming. As oil becomes scarcer and concerns about environmental impact grow, rail travel will only appear more attractive. Rail offers convenience, safety, and speed, as well as compatability with personal technology: travelers can use mobile devices or work on laptops, using time otherwise wasted behind the wheel. The train is becoming more, not less, suited to life in today’s world. The 21st century will be the second age of the train.

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