It seems that the days of the great trains are nearing the end. The car and the plane are eating into the realm of the iron horse. The door-to-door convenience of the car wins for the shorter distances and for the longer distances the plane is much faster and usually cheaper. Lately planes have become a lot cheaper, so that they beat the train even at distances as short as a few hundred kilometers. EasyJet and Ryan Air fly for under a hundred euro to lots of places and not only if you book weeks ahead.
Although it would make me sad to see the train go, I do believe we should start thinking now what to do with the legacy. We could use the land for other purposes and indeed it might very well be the case that already the ground on which tracks are build are worth more then the whole railroad system, but there is something else to it, that could be worth a lot more: the right of way. The most valuable part of a railwaysystem is that it connects the centres of major cities. Cut up the network and you lose the value.
So what will we do with this network after the train has gone? One option might be automated cars. Technically, a lot is already possible. The main problem is: how to get critical mass. If everybody would have an automated car, then it would be worth it to build automated highways, ie highways that let cars know where they are, where the cars are etc. This would reduce traffic accidents greatly, increase speed and if some sort of grouping could be done, reduce environmental stress too. But there are almost no automated cars, so why build automated highways and since there are no automated highways, why build automated cars.
Railroads could be an inbetween. In a way, railroads are already automated highways, only for trains. The railroads know pretty much what is going on. If we could build cars that could also drive on railroads, but then in automated mode, communicating with the automated systems of the railroads already in place, we would have something. We could start with long distances and at night. You drive to a railwaystation, put your car in automatic, go to sleep and wake up the next day, whereever you want. The same as with car trains, but without the trains and with a point-to-point option. From there the system could be expanded to a really general system. Finally when the trains have disappeared we're left with something better.