Trains in the West then, now — and someday?

Mapping the state of the rails across the region.

Imagine walking out the front door in, say, El Vado, New Mexico, Thermopolis, Wyoming, or even Lakeview, Oregon, strolling down to the depot, boarding a train and settling in for a trip to San Francisco, Denver, Chicago — even New York City. Once you arrive, you hop on a streetcar that ferries you to your final destination. 


Such car-free travel might sound like the futuristic fantasy of a public transit geek, and, at the moment, that’s what it is. But just over a century ago, it was reality: Back in the 1920s, the nation — even much of the rural West — was crisscrossed with rail lines that carried ore, timber, cattle and people to central rail hubs, where they could then continue onward to almost anywhere in the U.S. without ever needing an automobile. Streetcar systems — light rail’s ancestor — were the norm in larger cities, with now car-centric cities like Los Angeles and Denver sporting extensive networks. 

But then came the internal combustion engine, the passenger car and the cargo truck — and a whole fleet of industries to support them — along with plenty of cash to influence politicians and policy. Streetcars surrendered to bus lines, which gave way to private automobiles, wide-street suburbs and traffic jams. Highways sprang up, and slowly the rails were abandoned. By the 1980s, only a handful of major freight lines and a tourist railroad or two remained. Amtrak was relegated to borrowing the freight operators’ tracks, where coal, oil and other goods have priority over people. Rail, especially passenger trains, virtually vanished from the Western U.S. 

In recent decades, though, transportation officials and others fed up with the automobile’s dominance have sought to revive portions of the rail service of yore, from building light rail systems in Denver and Phoenix to commuter rail in Utah to California’s long-running effort to develop high-speed passenger trains. 

We mapped the current state of the rails in the West, showing what was lost, what remains and what may someday come to be.


Mapping by Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

SOURCES: Amtrak, Four Corners Economic Development, All Aboard Northwest, Colorado Department of Transportation, Library of Congress, U.S. Department of Transportation, California High Speed Rail Authority, Nevada Rail Coalition, Nevada Department of Transportation. 

Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of Sagebrush Empire: How a Remote Utah County Became the Battlefront of American Public Lands.