These Old Maps Show That America’s Rail System Hasn’t Improved In Almost A Century

They depict how long it took to travel by train across the U.S. at various points from 1800 to 1932. Sadly, we haven’t made much progress since then…

People complain about the trains in the United States: They’re not fast enough, they don’t go to convenient locations. This is a chicken-and-egg situation: We are also unwilling to pay for trains that go faster and go to convenient locations. But these antique maps show we could have it much worse, but also that the development of our rail transit has embarrassingly made almost no progress.


Taken from the 1932 Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States, unearthed by Treehugger’s Michael Graham Richards, the maps show how long it would take to get from New York City to any other part of the country throughout history.

For a baseline, let’s look at 1830–largely before the advent of the passenger train. It would take you more than six weeks to get anywhere west of Chicago. Even just getting to Boston from New York took two days. But by the mid-1930s, railroads were being chartered to connect cities all along the East Coast.

By 1857, you can see how the spread of eastern railroads has connected much of New England and the mid-Atlantic. With enough money for a train ticket, you could now easily get from New York to Boston in a day. Chicago is a mere two days from the East Coast. But this is before the first transcontinental railroad was completed (that wouldn’t happen until 1869), so travel times west of the Mississippi are still incredibly lengthy.

What a difference a coast-to-coast train makes. By 1930, you can traverse the entire country in just three days by rail. Here is where these maps stop becoming historical artifacts and start becoming damning pronouncements about our current state of affairs.

Eighty years later, it still takes three days to get from New York to the West Coast by rail. We’ve made zero progress in the speed of our rail travel since 1930. No wonder people aren’t excited about train travel: It works the same as it did during the Great Depression. While around the rest of the world, we see trains setting speed records, we have to be content with our 1930 train speeds. Perhaps it’s time to spend a little more cash to take our trains into the modern era?

About the author

Morgan is a senior editor at Fast Company. He edits the Ideas section, formerly