U.S. Versus Scotland In A Passenger Rail Battle: Spoiler Alert… It’s Not Even Close

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This past summer, my wife and I honeymooned in Scotland, where I was floored by the robustness of the country’s incredible rail system. I’ve been warned never to compare European transportation with that of the U.S., but I thought it might be worth it to show just how incredibly different the two countries are with regard to how people move about.

For starters, let’s look at the matter of scale. Scotland’s passenger rail network carries nearly 98 million passengers annually, while Amtrak’s nationwide ridership is 31 million. This massive disparity is exponentially greater when you consider Scotland’s land and population are both strikingly similar to that of South Carolina. Scotland has 359 train stations, while South Carolina has 11 active Amtrak stations.

Let’s look at a story of two stations. My home city of Rochester, New York (population about 200,000) has 8 Amtrak departures daily, serving 123,000 passengers annually. The city of Inverness in Scotland has a population of 46,000, has 42 train departures and carries 1.24 million passengers a year. Let’s look at this again… Inverness has 23% of Rochester’s population and carries 10 times the passenger rail traffic.

To put it into perspective, the sleepy town of Spean Bridge near the Highlands in Scotland receives 8 trains per day. But Spean Bridge has a population of… ready for it? 560. It’s the same number of passenger trains that my home of Rochester receives, but has 0.28% of the population!

And while the sheer number of passenger trains running on any given day in Scotland is astounding, we must look at what this means when passengers disembark from their rail journeys and commutes. Every morning that my wife and I spent in Glasgow and Edinburgh, we watched as a continuous herd of people emerged from the train stations dressed in suits and ties, blazers and pants, dresses, jeans, construction vests, retail uniforms… it was like watching a diverse collage of humanity, with people from all walks of life and all parts of the small country heading to their weekday jobs. And since they were walking, we saw them dive into the coffee shops, convenience stores, breakfast cafes and other local businesses on their way to their employer. No drive-thrus, no idling cars parked in fire lanes in an effort to take 30 fewer steps while getting a coffee at Starbucks… no, these commuters patronized their favorite establishments on foot, organically breathing life into the neighborhoods around the train station as they began their day, all without the need for a car. Even in a city as old as Edinburgh, we saw first hand the incredible power of “transit-oriented development.”

OK, enough. With the exception of some of our largest urban centers like New York, Chicago, Boston and DC, we will probably never see this kind of transit enrichment here in the United States. Some might say it’s futile even to compare transit in the U.S. to the U.K., a sort of “apples and oranges” situation that’s more about economic culture and priority than anything. But we can’t ignore the vastness of the gap between the two, when U.S. cities of 200,000 receive the transit attention of a U.K. town of 500, especially when we consider that transit is one of the most important engines of upward mobility socioeconomic stabilization. We must look at the widening divide between rich and poor and realize that adequate public transit is the key to bridging this seemingly uncrossable chasm in our nation. While we may never reach the dizzying transit reality that much of Europe boasts, it is our duty to our fellow citizens to ensure that we take significant steps forward from where we are today.