A Railway or railroad is a form of fixed guideway transportation. Vehicles, with flanged wheels ride on steel rails, with often one or more power sources (locomotives) pulling/pushing unpowered vehicles (passenger or freight cars). Usually several connected vehicles form Trains.
There are several different kinds of railroad service:
- Urban Passenger
- Rapid Transit / Metro / Heavy Rail: grade separated from streets, usually underground and/or elevated
- Light Rail / Trolley / Streetcar: surface-level, often crossing streets and sometimes running in streets
- Suburban / Regional / Commuter
- Intercity Passenger
Railroads are a very efficient and relatively environmentally friendly form of land transportation. The first common-carrier, or open to the public for a profit, railroad in the United States was the Baltimore and Ohio, founded in 1827.
The environmental friendliness is because rail vehicles are the vehicles most efficiently powered by electricity, because they do not have to store electrical energy in batteries. They can get their electricity from extra rails or from overhead cables. There are some buses that do that, electric trolleybuses, but they are rare. This is important because most alternatives to fossil fuels most efficiently deliver their energy as electricity. Even nuclear reactors are primarily electricity sources.
Railroad electrification dates back to the late 19th Century, and electric trains were the first zero-emission engine-driven vehicles in regular use. Rapid-transit and light-rail systems are almost universally electrified, though suburban ones are less so, and intercity ones even less. In all of North America, the only surviving electrified intercity route is the Northeast Corridor, Boston - DC with Philadelphia - Harrisburg. However, many European and Asian nations have electrified much of their busier track-age.
Railroads, like all big business, have a long history of doing bad things for profit but their transport is also useful. The tracks and trains themselves are really neat.
In many nations, railroads have long been nationalized, though some such places have more recently had various privatization efforts, with varying amounts of success.
However, for the most part, United States railroads have not been nationalised, despite the railroad companies having been big corporate villains in the late 19th Century. That villainy resulted in a backlash of regulation that kept them from competing effectively with cars and buses and airplanes. In the late 1960's, the Pennsylvania and the New York State Central railroads were failing rather badly, and in 1968, they merged to form the Penn Central. In 1970, that ill-fated company went broke, in one of the largest US corporate bankruptcies ever. Its pieces became the freight-railroad company Conrail and the passenger-railroad company Amtrak. Since many railroads were losing money on passenger service, Amtrak was created in 1971 to bail out US intercity passenger service. In response to the prospect of other railroads going the way of the Penn Central, even without passenger trains, Congress passed in 1980 the Staggers Rail Act, pushed by Rep. Harley Staggers, D-WV. It removed a lot of awkward regulation, and the railroad companies recovered. There was a certain price to pay, however. Amtrak ran a train from DC to WV that got nicknamed "Harley's Hornet" and the "Staggers Special". Most recently, Conrail has been split up between CSX and Norfolk Southern, themselves created by lots of mergers in past decades.
Turning to urban-rail systems, many cities in the US and other industrialized countries got them in the early decades of the 20th Century. But as cars and buses became common, many surface-level systems were dismantled and converted to bus systems, while rapid-transit systems got relatively little expansion. That started to change in the 1960's, as increasing road construction failed to solve the traffic jams that were becoming very common.
The first US city to build a new urban-transit system was San Francisco, with the Bay Area Rapid Transit system extending from there to the East Bay. It was intended for the entire Bay Area, but several counties dropped out and one almost did so. It was intended to advance the state of the art in urban rail, including mostly automated operation, but the system took some years to debug, with BART employees sometimes reduced to waving flags to signal the trains. BART was followed by the Washington Metro (Washington Area Rapid Transit?), Atlanta's MARTA, and systems in Baltimore, Miami, and Los Angeles, but interest in new systems gradually petered out because of their expense. But several of the newer systems have been extended over the last few decades.
That lead some urban-rail planners to consider a scaled-back version, "light rail". Though light-rail systems are mostly surface-level, complete with crossing streets, they usually avoid running with traffic, a major difficulty of the older systems. Instead, light-rail systems are usually built in street medians and in their own rights of way, often existing railroad ones. The first one in North America was opened in 1978 in Edmonton, Canada, and in the US in 1981 in San Diego, California. Since then, a sizable number of systems have been built and extended, with new systems in various stages of planning.
Intercity passenger rail has also had a resurgence over the last few decades, with several US states sponsoring expanded intercity service, like California, Washington, Illinois, Michigan, and North Carolina. But the most dramatic resurgence has happened at the eastern and western ends of Eurasia, where several European and Asian nations have been building high-speed rail systems. US efforts have been much more paltry, mainly upgrading existing lines, with the only route halfway comparable to Eurasian high-speed lines being the Northeast Corridor.
Even worse, US rail-transit and high-speed-rail systems have gotten caught in the crossfire of the culture wars, with US right-wingers like Michele Bachmann, George Will, and Newt Gingrich claiming that liberals want to drag people out of their cars and into trains. George Will even claims that that is to make people easier to control.