For many Americans, trains are romanticized, storybook fantasy carriages that cart passengers through pastoral countryside scenery on once-in-a-lifetime journeys. Rail travel in the United States is often reserved for special occasions (partially because it’s so expensive). Riding trains in Europe, however, is seen by the people who live there as more… meh.
If you’ve ever traveled to a European city, you might have felt like there was always some train in Europe to hop on or some tram zipping past you in some of the continent’s bustling destinations. Traveling by train or by tram is more integral in the everyday European experience, whether it’s a part of the daily commute or just a way to bop from Point A to Point B. And these rail-oriented forms of transit can often be the best way to get around. Why are trams and trains in Europe so ubiquitous, and why are they not in the United States as much?
What’s Up With All The Trams And Trains In Europe?
First, a primer: when we talk about “trams,” we mean the intra-city light rail systems that carry passengers typically along rails embedded in roads or cobblestone paths otherwise traveled by cars and pedestrians. A metro — also popular in many European cities — is the same sort of transportation-within-a-city concept, except it usually runs wholly or in part underground or aboveground. And then there are trains, which run on much longer inter-city or inter-country tracks independent of road systems. In Europe, you’re bound to find all three in many places you go.
Some travelers from outside of the continent might have noticed that Europe as a whole is generally a very public transit-friendly destination, and a lot of that has to with attitudes about and relationships with the concept of transit itself. There are plenty of reasons — personal, cultural, political, historical and geographic — that feed into the transit-oriented, train-and-tram-heavy narrative. Trains historically have been (and still are) important in the United States, but they’re usually reserved for the carriage of cargo and freight, not passengers.
The differences in travel culture between the United States and Europe are due in large part to the fact that in North America, there’s a lot more space. In many parts of the United States, population density is notably lower; the country’s population is huge, yes, but it has an even huger swath of land it occupies.
And that reality plays into why transportation culture is so different in Europe from what it is in the United States. The United States is a massive country, and a train ride from the east coast to the west coast would take three full days and nights without any stops (it’s a journey of about 3,000 miles). You can travel 300 kilometers in Europe and cross three different countries; in the United States, you can travel the same distance without leaving the same state!
The Supremacy Of Cars In The United States
If there’s one thing many Americans can’t do without, it’s their cars. The United States is one of the most car-dominated cultures on the planet; there are countless movies, TV shows, songs and books that revolve around the need for speed, the smell of burning fuel and the freedom of the open road. It’s not unusual for some families to own two or even three cars. In more rural and suburban zones, it’s not uncommon for people to travel many miles to get to work or school, and to do that they rely heavily on their automobiles. When taking longer road trips, Americans are much more inclined to take their own vehicles so that they can move at their own pace and enjoy destinations along their route.
All of this means that public transit is often decentralized, inefficient, unpredictable or completely absent altogether. (This isn’t the case in major cities like New York, which have some of the world’s most expansive transit systems.) But American highway systems, though sometimes neglected and in need of repair, are actually pretty good at getting you where you need to go, and fast (if you can avoid all that dreaded rush hour traffic).
Gasoline (or petrol) comes pretty cheap in the States, and so there are definitely Americans who don’t think twice about driving gigantic gas guzzlers or even a handful who modify their vehicles to spew diesel exhaust, called rolling coal. (Okay, so there aren’t that many people who do this, but it’s still a thing, and a pretty gross one.)
The Environmental Reasons For Trams And Trains In Europe
Speaking of gas and coal, a lot of the reasons that Europeans are so pro-train are environmental ones. The United States isn’t completely out of touch with green initiatives to protect the planet and conserve its resources, but it’s definitely less inclined to rely on cleaner forms of energy than are most other developed nations, especially those in Europe.
Rail systems are so popular in Europe because they can get loads of passengers to their respective destinations en masse — with much less of an impact on the environment. National governments, looking to reduce carbon emissions and put pro-environmental policy into practice, subsidize or own entire rail networks. And on the cultural level, countries like Sweden even have words for people who fly when they could have taken a train: flygskam, or “flying shame.”
The Aesthetic Reasons For Trams And Trains In Europe
Finally, there is more than plenty to see on these routes that you’d miss from the air or maybe even from the more crowded highways. Some of Europe’s train lines are popular not only because they’re a fairly cheap way to get from origin to destination, but also because they run along some of the most beautiful scenic routes. With so much to gaze and gawk at along the way, trains make more expensive plane travel easy to pass up. Traveling by train in Europe can be a vacation in and of itself if you know where to go and what to look for.
All of these reasons combined mean that rail travel just isn’t as practical in the United States as it is across the Atlantic. Though there are many incentives to build systems of trams and trains in Europe, for many investors and transit authorities and agencies in the United States, the economics of rail travel just don’t make sense. When it comes to building a sustainable transportation future based around rail networks, Europe seems to be on… the right track.