Let’s Get on Track

I’m not an overly nostalgic person. I was at the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, but I only recently saw the movie. I never listen to “golden oldie” stations, despite what I might have been doing when I first heard the hits. I don’t watch Nick at Night. But I’ve become seriously hooked on the idea of reviving the railroads.

It’s hard to imagine the impact the railroads must have had on the world of the early nineteenth century, whose transportation modes were practically unchanged from those of Julius Caesar. Contemporary accounts from the German language book The History of Train Travel show that most passengers were, at least initially, stupefied by fear, which they then sought to rationalize. A German-American passenger on a train from Albany to Schenectady in the 1840s remarked, “If anything draws our attention, the speed is so great that we cannot look at it. Conversation is impossible. We are in the company of other travelers who think of nothing but the end of the voyage.”

The philosopher John Ruskin remarked at about this time that “a balanced person, with a moderate power of feeling, cannot travel more than 10 to 12 miles per day. A trip becomes stupefying in direct proportion to its speed.” The French novelist Gustave Flaubert was also a very nervous rail passenger. “After five minutes in a train, I begin to howl and other people think I’m a lost dog,” he said.

But people got over that. As you may recall, the first “robber barons” were railroad tycoons. They got rich building a national rail network of 300,000 miles of track. The world that was came vividly to life when I visited Chattanooga, Tennessee, recently. Chattanooga’s handsome railroad station has been painstakingly rebuilt—as a hotel. No passenger trains actually visit the city immortalized in the song “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” but you can spend the night in a car parked on a siding that leads nowhere.

It’s hard to imagine it in this era of widespread complaints about Amtrak subsidies, but in his book Getting There: The Epic Struggle Between Road and Rail in the American Century, Stephen B. Goddard points out that railroads of all types once attracted private investment like a magnet. Investors put $2 billion into building 22,000 miles of electric trolley lines by 1902, and they were already carrying five billion people a year. “Railroad capital soared from $2.5 billion in 1870 to $21 billion at its peak in 1916, when railroads were handing weekly paychecks to 1.7 million Americans,” says Goddard.

We’ve started rebuilding our national rail links, but not fast enough. A new Sierra Club report called Missing the Train documents the benefits of rail travel, and accuses the Bush administration of a bias against transit. “Unfortunately, the Bush administration seems to be ignoring what appears obvious in places like Milwaukee, Portland and Cincinnati—all cities with new transit projects waiting in the wings,” says the report. Killing transit projects seems to be a Bush family tradition: It was George W. Bush’s brother Jeb who killed the ambitious high-speed rail network in Florida.

Despite the inattention, public transit ridership has increased 21 percent since 1998. Cities with new lines like Denver, Dallas and Salt Lake City are experiencing ridership gains that are ahead of projections. But transit gets only $1 for every $4 spent on highways, and a backlog of more than 200 regional projects await funding. Among the cities affected by the stalled funding are Tampa Bay, Atlanta, Indianapolis, New Orleans and Detroit.

According to the Sierra Club’s Eric Olson, author of the report, “We can enjoy easier commutes, greater economic revitalization, better job opportunities and a cleaner environment with a stronger commitment to public transportation.”

One idea whose time has come is the magnetic levitation or “mag-lev” train, which rides on a cushion of air and travels at speeds of up to 300 miles an hour. There are still hurdles to get an effective mag-lev system in place, but we’re not funding the R&D in the U.S. (despite developing the technology in the first place).

Think trains are slow? You obviously haven’t ridden a sleek Japanese “bullet” train of the type briefly glimpsed in the film Lost in Translation. In Japan, the sleek “Shinkansen” (literally, “new trunk line”) bullet trains were speeding along at a speed of 137 miles per hour as early as 1963. These trains carry 130 million passengers annually and have never had a derailment or collision accident.

A Japanese bullet train set a national speed record of almost 200 miles per hour in 1979. Service, which is extensive and frequent throughout Japan, is also legendarily on time. The Tokaido Shinkansen recorded an average lateness of 24 seconds in 1999. The trains are also exceptionally popular, with many of them running at 200 percent capacity (which means more than 100 people left standing in each car) during holiday runs.

The 700-series bullet train, which looks like something out of a Star Wars movie and makes the heralded 300-mile Tokyo-Osaka run at 156 miles per hour, entered service in 1999. An even faster train, the 218-miles-per-hour 900 series, is scheduled to start the run in 2007. Because most of the U.S. railway system is not electrified, trains in most places are limited to the pulling speed of diesel locomotives. But every car on the bullet trains is electrified through overhead wires and helps pull the train.

Most of the Japanese accomplishments are mirrored in Europe, where high-speed trains are the norm for travel around the continent. Yes, there are challenges to connect sprawling, suburbanized America to train transit and rebuild the system we once had, but with traffic congestion increasing 400 percent since 1985 it’s time we prioritized fast trains as a national goal. The average commuter spends five years stuck in traffic when he or she could be sitting back and enjoying the ride.