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Rail transportation in the United States

United States Railways today consists primarily of freight shipments. Passenger service, rail was once a large and vital part of the nation's passenger transportation network, it now plays a limited role as compared to transportation patterns in many other countries.

The U.S. rail industry has experienced repeated convulsions due to changing economic needs and the rise of automobile, bus, and air transport. Freight railroads play an important role in the U.S. economy, especially for moving imports and exports using containers, and for shipments of coal and oil. According to the British news magazine The Economist, "They are universally recognised in the industry as the best in the world." Productivity rose 172% between 1981 and 2000, while rates decreased by 55% (after accounting for inflation). Rail's share of the American freight market rose to 43%, the highest for any rich country.

The sole intercity passenger railroad in the continental U.S. is Amtrak. Commuter rail systems exist in more than a dozen metropolitan areas, but these systems are not extensively interconnected, so commuter rail cannot be used alone to traverse the country. Commuter systems have been proposed in approximately two dozen other cities, but interplays between various local-government administrative bottlenecks and ripple effects from the 2007–2012 global financial crisis have generally pushed such projects farther and farther into a nebulous future point in time, or have even sometimes mothballed them entirely.

The most culturally notable and physically evident exception to the general lack of significant passenger rail transport in the U.S. is the Northeast Corridor between Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York City and Boston, with significant branches in Connecticut and Massachusetts. The corridor handles frequent passenger service that is both Amtrak and commuter. New York City itself is noteworthy for high usage of passenger rail transport, bothsubway and commuter rail (Long Island Rail Road, Metro-North Railroad, New Jersey Transit). The subway system is used by one third of all U.S. mass transit users.

Other major cities with substantial rail infrastructure include Boston's MBTA, Philadelphia's SEPTA, and Chicago's elevated system and commuter rail system Metra. The commuter rail systems of San Diego and Los Angeles,Coaster and Metrolink, connect in Oceanside, California.

U.S. railroads still play a major role in the nation's freight shipping. They carried 750 billion ton-miles by 1975 which doubled to 1.5 trillion ton-miles in 2005. In the 1950s, the U.S. and Europe moved roughly the same percentage of freight by rail; by 2000, the share of U.S. rail freight was 38% while in Europe only 8% of freight traveled by rail.In 1997, while U.S. trains moved 2,165 billion ton-kilometers of freight, the 15-nation European Union moved only 238 billion ton-kilometers of freight.

U.S. railroads are separated into three classes based on annual revenues:

Class I for freight railroads with annual operating revenues above $346.8 million (2006 dollars)
Class II for freight railroads with revenues between $27.8 million and $346.7 million in 2000 dollars
Class III for all other freight revenues.
These classifications are set by the Surface Transportation Board.


In 1900, there were 132 Class I railroads. Today, as the result of mergers, bankruptcies, and major changes in the regulatory definition of "Class I," there are only seven railroads operating in the United States that meet the criteria for Class I. As of 2011, U.S. freight railroads operated 139,679 route-miles (224,792 km) of standard gauge in the U.S. Although Amtrak qualifies for Class I status under the revenue criteria, it is not considered a Class I railroad because it is not a freight railroad.

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