In the US we have varying notions of what a train “is” in this day and age. Taking a look at the trains rolling across the country’s rails, you’ll see locomotives pulling endless trails of transport boxcars, silver Amtrak trains carting pedestrians to-and-fro, and sleek commuter trains plowing through metropolitan areas.

We’ve come a long way from the steam engine that shaped the country throughout the 19th century and a good chunk of the 20th century. So what is specific about trains in the 21st century—the trains of today? Here are some fast facts to get you in-the-know.

  • Despite the decrease in trains being used during the latter half of the 1900s, trains still play an integral role in moving large or heavy goods across the country in an economical, environmentally sound manner.
  • Steam locomotives are still being used in the 21st century for transport and for passenger travel. These and diesel locomotives are the two most common types of train in the US. Of course, antique steam engines still run on many tracks in the US, especially on tourist routes as an attraction for visitors or for events like wine or dinner trips.
  • Contemporary trains are being built with low-emission diesel engines, or even with hybrid engines. The focus is on clean-burning fuels and lower emissions and fossil-fuel usage.
  • General Electric’s new hybrid trains produce enough energy to light 50 homes for an entire day.
  • Newer trains are built with sensors to track their movements through GPS, as well as weather that might be affecting the train or mechanical defects that could cause an accident.
  • Trains are being manufactured with collision avoidance braking systems. These brakes are applied to all of the cars in the train at the same time as soon as a possible hazard is spotted on the rails ahead—regardless of how fast the train is going at the time.
  • While there are no major high-speed train lines in the US, there are legitimate plans to build them in California, the Pacific Northwest, the Northeast, the Mid-Atlantic, and the Midwest between Kansas City and St. Louis and Chicago.
  • Along with the high-speed train lines being planned, many governments are also looking into autonomous trains, MagLev trains, and Vactrains for future infrastructure.
    Autonomous trains are preferable for urban areas, and would mean train lines that run autumotically with pre-programmed routes and speeds, with no driver.
    MagLev, or magnetic levitation, trains use magnetic fields to levitate and run above designated pathways—and the technology for these trains is still in development before it is safe to implement.
    Vactrains, or evacuated tube transport trains, place magnetic levitation technology within sealed tubes to create a train that moves extremely fast because of the lack of air resistance; these trains are also lacking in the technology to begin implementing them right away.

The US is definitely a country that has most recently been built around cars and highway transit, particularly in areas that were built up during the 1970s and 1980s. Governments are looking for more economical ways of adding to infrastructure for the long term, and it does seem that trains will once again play a larger role in that vision into the second half of this century.