In the United States almost all railway lines are privately owned, and by companies that dropped passenger rail service decades ago. The majority of passenger rail traffic in the United States takes place on tracks that aren’t owned, but ‘rented’ from private companies (the successful Northeast Corridor is a notable exception). This means that the freight trains on those lines can take priority over the passenger trains. Since many freight trains don’t run a very strict timetable they can often affect the timetable of passenger train traffic. On the relatively short train ride from Detroit to Chicago it’s not uncommon to have delays of upwards of an hour.
So how do the European railways do it? How can freight and passenger traffic ‘share the [rail]road’ with dense traffic and strict timetables? There are several elements that work together to make this possible. First, the majority of right-of-way (the train track and land it’s on) is owned by the state, or at least is state controlled. This allows the state to set the priority of passenger traffic over freight traffic. Second, most freight traffic runs on almost as strict a schedule as passenger traffic. There are freight train timetables as exact as their passenger train counterparts. Third, to keep freight trains from blocking passenger trains they are often run at night, or if they run during the day, they are short enough to be pulled into sidings frequently to let the faster passenger traffic pass. Usually those stops at sidings are already included in the freight train’s timetable. When an extra train (a transfer of a defective railcar, or a maintenance train, for example) is squeezed into the daily traffic it can oftentimes end up parked on a siding for hours until an opening in the schedule allows it to proceed to the next siding.
Finally, most European countries either have built or are in the process of building dedicated high-speed passenger rail lines. These lines are reserved for not just passenger trains, but high-speed passenger trains in particular that run at higher speeds and make fewer stops. Slower passenger trains like commuter trains, along with freight trains, use the older lines, with the two lines sometimes running parallel to each other.
With European railroads focused on providing a useful transportation system for passenger as well as freight traffic, it’s not surprising that capital investment in railroads is high. This investment results in less highway congestion, less pollution, and an affordable option for everyone and everything from school kids to retirees and auto parts to bananas to travel across town or across Europe quickly and safely.