You can get there from here. You just need patience. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
You can get there from here. You just need patience. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

(This is the second in a three-part series.)

Question: If one train leaves the station traveling at 30 miles per hour and another train leaves the same station three hours later traveling at 40 mph, when will they meet?

Answer: Whenever the second train hits the bottleneck in Chicago.

Until recently, it could take 48 hours for freight trains to travel the 2,200 miles (3,540 kilometers) from Los Angeles to Chicago -– and then 30 more hours just to cross Chicago. The problem: freight and passenger tracks cross streets and each other in 1,900 places in the region. The density of trains on the tracks and the need to wait it out when a mile-long freight train is going by cause huge delays, which also affect cars and emergency vehicles.

We are building a 21st century economy on a 19th century rail network. Some old wooden train tracks are still in use; signal systems are antiquated; and trains move too slowly and hit too many bottlenecks. When government-owned Amtrak was reauthorized under President Bill Clinton, there was hope for high-speed passenger rail in the U.S. Two decades later, maglev and bullet trains are associated with China, Amtrak continues to bleed money, short-haul mass transit suffers from low investment and the U.S. is falling farther behind. Even though it has the world's largest national rail network, the U.S. ranks 17th in passenger miles of service provided each year, barely better Iran, and 32nd in per-capita annual ridership.

Continuing on the same track will make it impossible to tap the benefits of an efficient mode of transportation. But using a little imagination and innovative partnerships, we can modify existing infrastructure without prohibitive cost. For example, the 4,000-foot Virginia Ave. Tunnel in Washington was built seven years after the Civil War along what is now a critical pathway for freight trains from the Midwest to the Port of Baltimore. Its low clearance stands in the way of double-stacking freight containers, which can almost double a train’s fuel efficiency. Its modernization is one of 61 double-stack clearance projects in the National Gateway initiative begun in May 2008 by CSX Corp. with the help of government agencies. The National Gateway is expected to finish in time to handle significantly increased traffic from an expanded Panama Canal, should the canal project stay on track.

Chicago has also made important progress, thanks to a public-private partnership conceived in 2003 to eliminate grade crossings by constructing 25 new roadway overpasses and underpasses, plus six others just for rail. The $3.2 billion Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency project (known as CREATE), includes computerized traffic-control systems to replace obsolete hand-operated switching, increasing speed and safety. Six fiercely competitive freight rail carriers joined with officials across jurisdictions to share technical information and coordinate their planning. Ten years later, about 17 of 70 sub-projects are complete.

Just as railroads depend on the state of the rails, air transportation depends on the condition of the skies. Sometimes severe weather offers no choices; more than 4,000 flights were canceled in the U.S. during winter storms at the beginning of 2014. But even in that situation, Delta Air Lines Inc. and United Airlines cancelled far fewer than others by relying on better ground and air systems, thanks to Big Data. Airlines have always deployed sophisticated avionics and communications systems, some of them initially developed for defense or space exploration. Now new products such as The Weather Company’s “Total Turbulence” package provide real-time data and a system to fine-tune responses to weather, both before takeoff and in flight. Passengers save time. The airline saves money in fuel and turbulence-related maintenance. The climate saves on carbon emissions.

U.S. air transportation gets high scores in international rankings for strengths in availability of domestic passenger seats. U.S. manufacturers of large aircraft and their components are still in the lead. But airport modernization lags in the U.S., which is ranked No. 30 in quality of air transport infrastructure. Again, public-private partnerships point the way forward.

The Federal Aviation Administration's NextGen air-traffic control system leverages private sector network innovations to provide more accurate information about the location of aircraft in the skies. Public-private partnerships are also the best hope for airport expansions. It can take patience and large coalitions to get airport projects underway; Seattle waited 30 years for a new runway. But airport modernization is only beginning to focus on new questions of intermodal connections, such as air to rail, which Atlanta is trying and Detroit envisions. What good is a new airport concourse if passengers are stuck in traffic?

Although Amazon.com Inc.'s low-flying package-delivery drones, air-taxi services from small airfields, and flying cars are still largely dreams, entrepreneurs are ready for experiments, major companies are ready to invest and government must be willing to put some skin in the game. How best to do that -– not only for our skies, but also our rails and roads -– will be the subject of my next column.

(Rosabeth Moss Kanter holds the Ernest L. Arbuckle Professorship at Harvard Business School. This is the second of three articles. Read Part 1.)

To contact the writer of this article: Rosabeth Moss Kanter at rkanter@hbs.edu

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Francis Barry at +1-212-617-6380 or Fbarry5@bloomberg.net.