From its inception the railroad industry has had a great impact on the world’s economic and social climate, making the transport of goods and people from one place to another faster. Railroads were crucial to the development and expansion of the United States. During the 1800s, the fledgling U.S. rail system helped to shape commerce and to promote westward expansion. Today, this industry continues its tradition of providing businesses with efficient, streamlined options for moving freight and of offering millions of passengers a viable transit alternative.
Although current government and private sector efforts to increase freight and passenger traffic will likely increase demand for rail workers, the laying of new tracks is not anticipated. This lack of construction may slow down some rail growth. In response to the high cost of building new tracks, freight operators have sought other means to increase capacity. Techniques such as double-stacking (placing one rail car on top of another) and running longer trains allow carriers to increase volume without adding to the number of cars or workers on these lines.
The Association of American Railroads reports that today's 700 common carrier freight railroads, 28 commuter railroads, and Amtrak provide a cost-effective system connecting local commerce with the national economy and enabling individual travel. The rail industry, which has been carrying a growing portion of U.S. national freight and exports, enables all types of raw and finished agricultural and manufacturing commodities to ship in a timely and safe manner.
Over the last half century, the development of high-speed rail systems, usually designed for passenger transport, has taken hold. Much faster than traditional rail, high-speed operations use special rolling stock and dedicated track that result in better performance and fewer delays. Today, Amtrak, the U.S. government-owned passenger rail system, offers high-speed service over the 450-mile corridor from Boston to Washington, D.C. In an effort to increase passenger volume, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), a branch of the U.S. Department of Transportation, instituted the High Speed Intercity Passenger Rail (HSIPR) Program. This endeavor has made strategic investments to connect passenger rail corridors nationwide. To date, the nearly $10.1 billion budgeted for the program has been allocated to applications offering the greatest passenger benefits in 39 states, the District of Columbia, and Amtrak.
In keeping with its mandate to enforce safety regulations, the FRA works with public and private enterprises to promote research and development efforts. Most recently, for example, the FRA launched the Rail Crossing Locator, a smartphone mobile application that provides users with quick and reliable access to information about the 200,000 highway-rail grade crossings in the nation. For an industry once seen as losing ground to car, truck, and air transportation, railroads remain a key part of the U.S. transportation system and one that offers many future opportunities for improvement through new technology.