President Obama recently remarked that he wants to see the world's fastest train produced not halfway around the world in Shanghai, but right here in the United States. That would be an amazing feat indeed, considering that our rail system peaked in the 1920s and hasn't just stagnated, but actually atrophied during the decades since.

The number of rail miles in existence today is roughly equivalent to that of 1881.

Let's think about that for a minute. 1881 was 128 years ago, and some of the events that took place that year help emphasize just how long ago that really was:

  • President James Garfield is inaugurated, and assassinated.
  • Billy the Kid escapes from jail in Mesilla, N.M.
  • The Red Cross is founded by Clara Barton.
  • The gunfight at the O.K. Corral occurs in Tombstone, Cochise County, Ariz.
  • Sioux chief Sitting Bull surrenders to the U.S. Army at Fort Buford, Mont.
  • Cecil B. DeMille and Pablo Picasso are born.
Since 1881, society has come a long way. Much of today's technology could not have been fathomed back then. Yet our rail systems remain roughly the same — while the rest of the world shoots ahead of us with sophisticated, efficient high-speed transit. Trains even run slower today than they did 70 years ago — for example, a trip from Manhattan to Montreal that once took nine hours now takes 12. For a country that prides itself on progress, that's pretty sad.

So what happened? Cars, in a word. Demand for trains dropped as the American love affair with personal vehicles began. Crisscrossing highways offered shorter routes and fewer bottleneck than rail service. But the time for efficient rail service has arrived again, at least in populous urban corridors. Let the catch-up game begin.

Riding the rails in 1881
America has the same number of rail miles today that we had 128 years ago.