A Radical Proposal: Restore Atrophied US Rail System to 1920's Levels

slate trains image

Image via Slate.

Who said North America's trains are slow? Take the Montreal Limited: Departing from New York's Grand Central Station in the late evening, it arrives in Montreal's Windsor Station early in the morning. With plenty of time to get a good night's sleep, the 9-hour trip is made pleasurable by "modern air-conditioning [which] scientifically controls temperature, humidity and purity of air at all seasons."

Or, at least, that's how it was back in the 1940's. Today, points out Tom Vanderbilt in a recent article in Slate, the same trip would take 12 hours. Back to the Past

The good news is that the country's leadership now gets this. "I don't want to see the fastest train in the world built halfway around the world in Shanghai, I want to see it built right here in the United States of America," said President Obama recently, explaining his decision to allocate billions of dollars for high-speed rail projects.

However, says Vanderbilt:

"Obama's bold vision obscures a simple fact: 220 mph would be phenomenal, but we would also do well to simply get trains back up to the speeds they traveled at during the Harding administration."

According to Vanderbilt's research, the train system has not only stagnated over the last century, but has actually atrophied, with the number of rail miles in existence today roughly equivalent to that of 1881. In an era in which the onslaught of technological progress is considered a given, he argues, the train is the only technology that has (in practice) regressed since the early 20th century.

The article blames the post-WWII shift to motor vehicles, and the construction of the Interstate Highway System, for rail's decline, along with the priority currently given to freight trains over passenger lines on the rails.

However, he notes, lost technologies can be recovered whenever there is a strong enough public will to do so. The Roman Empire's cement industry, for example, which reached new heights of technological innovation before disappearing, was eventually "reinvented" in the 13th century.

Luckily, today's rail pioneers have at their disposal a wealth of technological innovations, such as algae-based fuel cells, "green trains" and experimental magnetic levitation trains. So, as high-speed rail lines begin to appear between cities, let's hope the Obama years will also see the return of regular old passenger rail service as well, of the type that could rival what once existed in the US.

More trains:
Is High Speed Rail the Answer?
FRA: No Cookie Cutter High Speed Rail for the US
High-Speed Trains Coming to California: Voters Approve Prop 1A

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