Union Pacific Rail Trail, Summit County, UT. Public domain, by GreenGlass1972
According to the Rails-to-Trails conservancy, 1500 former railroads have been transformed (1250 since they started up) in to trails for bicycles and pedestrians. Western Washington is a classic example of places that have been transformed by Rails-To-Trails
Soon to be included in the 1500 Rail-Trails is the former loop around the Lake, one of the oldest railroads in King County, just shut down in the past two years, that comprised the railroad backbone for the Eastside of Seattle, shutdown a local business that was becoming an important part of their culture (The Spirit of Washington dinner train) and makes bypassing Seattle on rail nearly impossible for most routes (as the NP Railway goes too far South), negatively affecting industry to the North and South. Also included were the railways running to Issaquah, despite the fact that there is still a reasonable amount of industry there, and all the railroads running to the rich farming regions of the Snoqualmie Valley and the far east of King County, except for a few miles of shot-haul railroad between two towns used for entertaining tourists...
Canadian National Railway in the Chicago Suburbs recently acquired a series of rail corridors with the intention of creating a belt line to divert traffic around Chicago. As usual, they also cried environmentalism. State Senator Holmes (D-Aurora) called upon Obama to make staffing decisions "that will protect communities from the unnecessary safety and economic concerns that can be caused by railroad expansion." Nowhere in this reasoning was the economic benefits that railroad expansion can bring, that was nowhere addressed. Nor, for that matter, was the "unneccesary" backed up with good solid reasoning, and I know exactly how shaky their understanding is first hand.
A little under a year ago, I took an AMTRAK train from Atlanta, GA to Seattle, WA, along three rail lines: The Crescent to DC, the Capitol Limited to Chicago, and finally, the Empire Builder to Seattle. When anywhere near Chicago or the Great Lakes, the train would be stopped for an hour at a time waiting for freight trains to pass it. (And to think this was during a recession, when there is less cargo to carry...) As for "safety," how can putting that many large metal objects travelling at 60 MPH on the same piece of rail be safe? And as for "environment," train collisions can leak toxic chemicals all over the landscape, and freight traffic being more expensive on rail leads to more of it on the roads in the form of trucking. The situation is clear, they want to interfere with the free rights of a railroad company to operate in order to shift their burden environmentally and safety-wise to other communities, and increase it. They want to beg their neighbors for $6 to avoid paying $5 themselves!
And as for economic benefits - increased cargo capacity and cheaper freight transportation, not too much higher rail speed will benefit industries of every kind set up along the tracks, creating good, solid work for Americans of every educational level from high school dropout (the assembly line) to PhD Engineer (advanced design work) and consulting services of every kind. Every aspect of society will benefit from more manufacturing. And for the environment, more track and more ease of use makes for easier high-speed and passenger service, possibly, if regulations become light enough, even with private money.
Update 3/15/2010: This New York Times Editorial about Acela is very informative regarding the state and growth restraints of rail service in America, and especially along the Northeast Corridor. It's also a short read.
Update 10/15/2010: This local story from Ballard, Seattle, WA is about a successful shortline railroad that has seen its traffic increase signficiantly in the last couple years and is expanding its business. Excerpt:
"Traffic on the Ballard Terminal's railroads was up 47 percent in 2007 and Cole predicts 2008 will be even better. This is due in large part to businesses reassessing the cost benefit of using rail for their transportation needs. According to Cole, each rail car can carry 100 tons while an 18-wheel truck can only carry 25 tons. Trains are more efficient as a freight engine can move one ton 400 miles on one gallon of diesel fuel while a truck can only move the same weight only 75 miles."
It is worth noting that trains can also be electrified, a technology that reached its zenith in the 1930's and has since been in decline. This article speaks in more detail about railroad electrification and why it never materialized to the degree that it was originally envisioned. Cheap electric costs through relatively non-polluting sources such as nuclear, geothermal and wind could once again make railroad electrification an attractive option combined with rising gasoline costs.