The Latest Slate Column…

…is up, and it’s about trains. Specifically, about HSR. No, not high-speed rail. I’m talking Harding-Era Speed Rail. Turns out things were faster on the rails back then. Read all the gory details here.

Here’s the intro as a tease:

Quick: Can you think of a technology that has regressed since the early 20th century?

Technological progress is usually considered a given. Think of the titters when you see Michael Douglas in Wall Street walking on the beach with a bricklike mobile phone. Then, it was thrilling, almost illicit—Gekko can call Bud Fox from the beach. Now, the average 12-year-old has a far superior phone: smaller, camera-equipped, location-aware, filled with games and a library of music, and so on. We’ve seen vast improvements in just a few decades, which means the gulf between now and, say, the 1920s seems almost unimaginable.

There is at least one technology in America, however, that is worse now than it was in the early 20th century: the train.

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This entry was posted on Friday, May 15th, 2009 at 3:13 pm and is filed under Etc., Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

7 Responses to “The Latest Slate Column…”

  1. Andrew Says:

    Very old news. In 1969 or so, shortly after the Long Island Rail Road near my childhood home replaced its ancient rusty trains with space age stainless steel cars I assumed progress was being made. Then I found a timetable from the 1920s. The 22 minute ride from my station was 18 minutes when those old cars were new. 22 – 26 minutes today.

  2. Wells Says:

    The one daily Amtrak Zephyr train leaving the Bay Area for Chicago arrives in Salt Lake City at 3:am. Yikes! A 2nd Amtrak Zephyr would arrive there at a more civilized hour.

    Other western states and cross-country Amtrak lines run only one train a day in each direction. Along with lengthy delays that diminish Amtrak reliability, infrequency of service makes train travel inconvenient. Simpler, though still expensive, upgrades to existing RR lines is as important, if not moreso, than new, dedicated right-of-way, electrified high-speed rail lines.

    I’d like to see the Amtrak Pioneer run again between Portland Oregon and Salt Lake City — and from there run to Las Vegas, past Utah’s fabulous national parks to Los Angeles, with Spanish Talgo trainsets that can reach 135mph with the right, non-electrified locomotive. But, the mayor of Las Vegas wants a maglev to Disneyland instead. The odds are neither will happen.

  3. doug Says:

    i want good train service that, very importantly, allows you to simply roll your bike on the cargo car. Amtrak Cascades does this and it is amazing! Ride to the station in Seattle, ride down to Portland and ride away. So good.

  4. Jack Says:

    Beyond sad, perhaps catastrophic.

  5. Fred Klein Says:

    Two aspects of the brief renaissance of the American railroad experience just prior to WWII are worth noting. The technological breakthroughs represented by trains such as the Burlington Pioneer Zephyr, the New Haven Comet, and the Union Pacific M0-10000 were all funded by loan guarantees by US Govt. agencies under stimulus programs growing out of the Great Depression…and from an energy standpoint, those trains demonstrated that they could carry people at 100 mph on 5 to 8 horsepower per passenger…a level of energy efficiency which was (and remains) astonishing. Whether or not current stimulus efforts will result in comparable breakthroughs appears unlikely.

  6. ScottF Says:

    On a related note, Missouri is building sidings long enough for freight trains to pull over to allow passenger trains to pass between St. Louis and Kansas City:

  7. Railroad Man Says:

    You hit the nail on the head with your column about railroads. I have an answer for you on why passenger train travel has regressed. The answer is: government and NIMBYs.

    As the years go on, the Federal Railroad Administration has instituted more and more restrictive regulations. Complying with these regulations costs money. The more money you spend on complying with these Federal demands, the more your services regress or are dropped due to the cost of compliance. For example: in the early 1900s, the Milwaukee Road Hiawatha routinely operated at 100mph. Not just on the Chicago to Twin Cities mainline, but also on branch lines! I have a book with a picture taken on a branch line between Sun Prairie and Waterloo, WI. The caption mentions that the Madison/Milwaukee passenger train that used to run on that line indeed hit 100mph through that stretch of track.

    This is the same corridor that currently is targeted for high speed rail, at a cost of eleventy billion dollars. Because of the cost, and the bureaucratic nightmare surrounding running a train faster than walking speed these days, it has been talked about for years, one or two six-figure studies have been done (that only profited the engineers hired to do it!) and yet today there are no passenger trains running there.

    I’m a railroad operations man, and I can tell you that freight traffic is not the problem in all cases. SLOW trains cause problems, but the faster a train can go, the more options you have to keep it moving. The practical differences and obstacles to trains today, are all Federal government mandates or the result of our citizens losing all sense of self responsibility.

    In the old days, passengers trains going 100mph ran on 90lb. to 130 lb. jointed rail, that was maintained and surfaced (aligned and leveled) by hand. Grade crossings were protected by gates and flashing lights only at busy city streets, highways more often had a simple swinging light, or just signs! Back then, if you got hit by a train, it was your own fault for not looking closely enough. Wrecks did happen, but were not common. The railroads determined what speed was safe, and did it fairly well. Freight wrecks were much more common, because freight equipment rides much rougher than passenger equipment, and the railroads were willing to take more risks with frieght trains.

    Today, there are slews of Federal regulations regarding track conditions and how fast a train is allowed to go along with mechanical and operating requirements. Look at section 49 of the Code of Federal Regulations, parts 208 I believe through Part 232. FRA inspectors constantly visit and will ALWAYS find something to take exception to, their job security depends on it. I’ve seen an entire rail terminal completely come to a halt for most of a day because of minor items found to be in violation, even though operations overall were being conducted very safely. It’s very common!

    Current Federal regulation requires that the entire right of way be completely blocked off and inaccessible between road crossings, and road crossings must have barrier type gates that are impossible to get around for trains to now be allowed to go faster than a certain speed, I believe it is 90mph. Do you have any idea what it costs to isolate an entire right of way across a state? Certainly, it must be more expensive than teaching people the hard way that they are responsible for staying off the darn tracks! More and more regulations are passed every few years requiring more complicated and expensive protection equipment at road crossings to protect our ever-responsible citizens from themselves. Lawsuits filed by citizens injured in grade crossing accidents or while outright trespassing routinely go into the millions of dollars and are sometimes won by the trespasser! And there is not a single town in the US today, that wouldn’t have NIMBYs going ballistic if we started roaring through town at 100mph like the old days. Trains today on almost all US main lines operate on welded, continuous 112 to 132lb. welded rail that is much better than the rail of old, and very much improved crossing protection is in place at more road crossings than ever, including gates. With some very minor and relatively inexpensive track corrections, trains COULD be operating at the speeds of the old days. Yet train speeds are now regulated to be much slower than in the past, by Federal requirement, city and municipal ordinances (thanks to NIMBYs), and in many cases, both.

    Much like our country itself, between the stifling, crushing hand of the government, and our citizens, who no longer feel that they are responsible for themselves and no longer see a railroad as private property that people must stay off and owned by a company that is allowed to conduct it’s business, we have the over-regulated, ridiculously expensive, severely regressive industry we have today.

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

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