It’s not unusual to hear America’s railways compared unfavourably to their counterparts in the Europe. But it’s always from a passenger train perspective. In fact, the USA is way ahead of Europe when it comes to rail freight services. This article (originally from the Economist) draws attention to this, and states that “… outside Germany and Switzerland, Europe’s freight rail services are a fragmented, lossmaking mess“.
On the other hand, rail in the United States is mostly geared to freight. Look at the map embedded in the article – significant stretches of rail in the USA have up to 200 trains per day. At the upper end, that’s a train every 15 minutes in each direction (specifically, one every 7.2 minutes), presumably overwhelmingly freight (admittedly including a lot of bulk commodities, such as coal).
I can vouch for this. Some years back, we visited Horseshoe Curve in Pennsylvania, where long freight trains climb up – and cautiously descend – the Alleghenys, and, yes, there’s one every 15 minutes or so in each direction.
As the Economist points out, if the United Sates wants high speed passenger trains without building dedicated tracks, there’s going to be a real issue of integration because combining slow freight and fast passenger trains is complicated.