Comparing European and American Transport

Americans visiting Europe often come away feeling that Europe made some very different choices regarding transportation, with a wistful notion that life would be better in the United States if we followed their example. The reality is a lot grimmer, at least for Europeans.

The view from an English train in Cornwall.

The big thing people notice is all the passenger trains. Why did Europe decide to keep its passenger trains while American decided to drive instead? Before answering this question, it is worth taking a hard look at the data to see what really has happened. The Antiplanner’s data today mostly comes from the European Union itself: the Panorama of Transport 2000 has data from 1970 through 2000; Panorama of Transport 2009 has 2007 data but is mainly useful because it compares Europe with the US and Japan; and EU Transport Statistical Pocketbook has 2010 data plus population data for 1990 through 2010. I found 1970 and 1980 European population data on Geohive.

Most of my comparisons will be with the EU-15, that is, the fifteen members of the European Union as of 2000. Data for the other members of the current EU-27 aren’t available for before 1990, and the EU-15 mostly consists of countries whose wealth is about the same as the United States, while more recent additions to the EU are well behind.

The first thing to note is that, from 1970 to 2010, all forms of travel grew in the EU-15, but auto and air travel grew the most. Air’s share of total travel grew from 1.5 percent to 8.0 percent, while auto’s share grew only from 73.9 to 74.7 percent. Bus, urban rail, and intercity rail all lost market shares.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Transportation Statistics, as of 2010, highways had an 87.6 percent share of passenger travel while air was 11.6 percent with everything else adding up to about 1 percent. So while the auto’s market share is higher in the U.S. than in Europe, the automobile still dominates European passenger travel and has done so at least since 1970.

The picture for freight is different. According to Panorama 2009 , 46 percent of EU-27 freight goes by highway while only 10 percent goes by rail, while in the U.S. 43 percent goes by rail and only 30 percent by road. (In both cases, nearly all of the rest is waterways and pipelines.)

So, it isn’t so much that Europe decided to move people by train rather than by automobile. It is more that Europe decided to use its railroads to move people while the United States decided to use them for freight. America moves almost six times as many ton-miles (or tonne-kilometers) of freight by rail as Europe, while both move about the same number of tonne-kilometers by road. While Europe moves about twice as many tkm of freight by waterway as the U.S., we move six times as much oil by pipeline.

Why did Europe decided to dedicate its railroads mainly to passengers while we dedicated them almost exclusively to freight? I think the answer is ownership: during the 20th century when these decisions were being made, most European railroads were government-owned, while American railroads were private.

Government ownership means political control, and politicians try to be popular by having a visible effect on people’s lives. Passenger trains are a lot more visible to people than freight, so they were emphasized by European politicians. In contrast, America’s private railroads wanted to be profitable, and it is a lot more profitable to move large quantities of coal, grain, oil, and containers from one point to another than to deal with finicky passengers who start from millions of different origins and want to go to millions of different destinations.

Most European countries didn’t nationalize their railroads for ideological reasons. Instead, they often did it because they feared the railroads would be controlled by another, wealthier country. The Netherlands nationalized their railroads because they feared German control; the Belgians nationalized theirs because they feared Dutch control; the Italians nationalized theirs because they feared Austrian control; and so forth. Britain is a major exception to this rule, as it nationalized its railroads in 1947 when the Labour Party took control of the government (and semi-privatized them in the 1990s when the Conservative Party was in control).

Once governments starting building railroads for whatever reason, they often ended up taking over all private railroads out of a sense of equity, that every part of the country deserved government-subsidized service. In most cases this was followed by overly generous labour agreements and continuation of service to unproductive but politically powerful regions that forced most rail lines deep into the red.

The Antiplanner thinks the American way is better for three reasons. From an environmental viewpoint, it makes more sense to use railroads for freight than for passengers. A 50-ton freight car can hold 100 tons of freight, so the energy cost of moving the dead weight is low. But a 50-ton passenger car normally holds less than 10 tons of passengers, so the energy cost of moving all the dead weight is high.

Second are the financial benefits: American freight railroads require almost no subsidies, while local American roads and streets are partly subsidized but state and interstate highways are nearly all paid for with user fees. In contrast, urban and intercity passenger trains in both the United States and most of Europe require subsidies to cover half or more of their costs. Private or use-fee-funded transportation imposes a discipline that prevents costs from getting too high.

The biggest advantage of the American way is mobility. The average American travels twice as many miles/kilometers per year as the average European. Per capita shipments of freight in the U.S. are also nearly twice those of Europe. Europe’s high taxes on fuel depress total travel while its subsidies to rail don’t come close to making up the difference.

European trains are great for visitors. But personally, I would rather have twice the mobility than more subsidized passenger trains.


8 thoughts on “Comparing European and American Transport

  1. paul

    I agree with this assessment. I have friends and relatives in Europe who are spread out in small villages, town, etc. I just rent a car at the airport when I arrive and drop it off when I leave. If I go a large distance I fly from one airport to another. In other words, same as in US. Trying to get around in Europe visiting friends and relatives by public transport takes too long and is too expensive, especially when traveling with a family. I always recall meeting a family of three miserably hauling huge backpacks and traveling with a Eurail pass amazed to discover I had rented a car for the same time period for my family of four, and even with fuel this was going to cost less than their rail passes, and related taxis service, etc.

    I do think that one reason trains were subsidized more in Europe was that autos were taxed there as a luxury and did not approach US ownership rates until the 1960’s. As a result train travel continued to be more important to European transport than autos and this may have resulted in the continued tradition of train travel and eventual subsidy.

    The Antiplanner may want to travel and report on China where the European model appears to have been followed. Too much investment in high speed passenger rail, not enough on coach transport on freeways for lower income people, and too much transport of bulk goods like coal by road.

  2. nada

    I can confirm this, having been to France recently. During the week I stayed in Paris, I decided to try not renting a car because of the difficulty in parking and expense. It turned out to be a mistake – I could only eat at the very few restaurants that are reachable by the Paris rail systems. As a result, there was probably only a few thousand restaurants I could choose from. However, when I rented a car and toured the countryside, I was able to go reach any restaurant available within a 100km radius, greatly increasing my options as a consumer.

  3. LazyReader

    The only irony here is the overwhelming fact that the while Europe favors trains as opposed to cars, Europe still leads in building quality automobiles. Even if you subtract subsidies to cars from the discussion, the US automobile industry has thrived off the taxpayer in one form or another for years.

    Days before CEOs of General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler told the Senate Committee their industry faced collapse without an emergency infusion of billions, a new automobile assembly plant opened for business in Indiana, the manufacturer, Honda. Although the hearing on Capitol Hill received far more media coverage, the unveiling of facility in the American heartland speaks volumes about the future of the U.S. car industry. I was shocked when I learned Mercedes had a large factory in Alabama? And this shows why the proposed bailout of Detroit’s Big Three is so misguided. Corporate bailouts are clearly unfair to taxpayers, but they are also unfair to the successful firms in a particular industry, who are implicitly taxed and burdened when their competition is subsidized.

  4. Not Sure

    I always recall meeting a family of three miserably hauling huge backpacks and traveling with a Eurail pass…


    Why People Don’t Use Mass Transit
    by Steven Dutch

    Europeans use mass transit far more than Americans because of the high population density, and dense and long-established transit systems. So how transit-friendly is Europe? A Eurail Select Pass for five countries and ten days of rail travel is $748. That’s $1500 for two people. I found a Volkswagen Passat (midsize) for ten days for $672. Toss in another $400 for gas and it’s $1072. You do the math.

  5. Sandy Teal

    The Antiplanner should develop this topic into a tight white paper because this comes up all the time in transportation discussions.

    I would add that European countries have had centuries long competition with their rail systems and it is a point of national pride to best other countries railroad in quality and speed. The “bullet trains” are big money losers and cost a lot of property damage but it was done in the name of national pride. Countries like Japan and China likewise look to compare favorably to European standards and over-invest in their rail systems as a point of pride.

    We in the USA should be proud of our road system. We have much better and safer roads, and we travel far more than Europeans do. We don’t need to build rail systems to get into a peacock tail competition.

  6. CapitalistRoader

    I was shocked when I learned Mercedes had a large factory in Alabama?

    And BMW (Greer, South Carolina) and Volkswagen (Chattanooga, Tennessee) in addition to Mercedes’ Vance, Alabama factory. Labor + beni’s are a bit cheaper in the US but energy is dramatically lower here: German factories pay double what their US counterparts pay for electricity and three times more for natural gas. The holdout Porsche can’t be ignoring the obvious advantages of manufacturing in the US.

    I haven’t taken a long-distance train in Europe for almost two decades. As I recall European domestic flights were deregulated back then and costs dropped like a rock. Flying usually makes much more sense than taking the train, even the fast trains. And those fast trains are ridiculously expensive.

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