Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Why Not Take the Train

An ICE 3 high-speed train on the Ingolstadt-Mu...Image via Wikipedia

A revolution needed in American rail travel

©2009 Daniel A. Brown

If you look at airline magazine ads currently, you’ll notice a disturbing new trend. All of them are geared for those lucky first class passengers with $10,000 to blow. The photograph shows what resembles a miniature flying penthouse, with a horizontal bed, private computer and entertainment system. All the privacy and luxury you need for yourself and your significant other.

As for the rest of us flying in Steerage? They don’t even bother to entice us anymore because they know we’re a captive audience, so to speak. All the former amenities are now gone. No more legroom, no more movies on some lines, no more food (I might be the only mammal on the planet who actually liked airline food) or drinks, unless you’re willing to pay, of course. It’s not that the food or the films were any good. It was the sense of being pampered that made flying fun. Now it has all the glory of a Greyhound bus with wings.

So, why not take the train?

If you’ve traveled abroad, you’ve no doubt noticed the superb condition of the various national railroad systems, especially in Europe. For them, high speed service means exactly that. You can zip between European cities at nearly 180mph in comparative luxury, sitting in wide comfy seats, watching a movie and enjoying a ride so smooth, you can walk down the aisle balancing a drink and not worry about it landing on your shoes. High speed railroads have been in place for so long that Europeans are a bit complacent about them.

By comparison, the state of American passenger trains would; - to borrow from the narrator in the documentary, “The End of Suburbia” - embarrass Bulgaria. The only high speed rail in this country is Amtrak’s Acela which only covers the Northeast corridor and rarely at top speed because of the inferior rail beds in most areas. Why this potential zephyr isn’t cruising across the flat heartland of the United States at 250mph (the speed of Chinese high-speed rail) is a mystery to me.

It wasn’t always this way. Before they were crippled by the interstate highway system and jet airliners, American passenger trains were the envy of the world with such examples of efficiency and luxury as the Super Chief, The Empire Builder, and my favorite, The Broadway Limited, run by the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad. And high-speed trains used to be an American trademark when, as far back as 1893, New York Central’s Engine #999 was clocked rampaging at 112 mph. During the early 1970’s United Aircraft experimented with the Turbo Train which attained 140 mph. Although several lines experimented with it, by then the damage had been done by cheap jet travel. To date, the fastest thing on rails in North America was the M-497, an experimental machine fitted with two jet engines that roared down the line at 184 mph during a test run in 1966. Needless to say, it never reached production.

World War II saw the height of American railroading as soldiers and materiel were hustled coast to coast in a never-ending flood. In 1944, American passenger trains logged over 95 BILLION passenger miles. New York’s Penn Station handled over 100 million passengers alone the following year. Obviously, such extreme overuse put a severe strain on the system and luxury travel was relatively non-existent. On some lines, boxcars were converted to passenger service with the predictable results in terms of comfort. When the war ended, the rail lines had to invest billions to replace worn out equipment and add shiny new streamlined passenger cars to their long-distance route. All to no avail. The auto and oil companies, flexing their power, had other plans in mind for the American traveler who didn’t complain at all. Why should they with gas a quarter a gallon.

They’re complaining now, of course and wondering which forces allowed our once proud and efficient rail service to unravel over the years. We citizens must assume part of the blame, preferring speed and privacy.

But imagine a train that zooms along at 350 miles per hour, getting you from Boston to Chicago in roughly four hours. It’s almost as fast as and a lot more comfortable than flying cattle-car service on some cynical airline. Add time consuming factors like check-in and delays and you’re almost spending as much time as traveling by air. Such a train is not imaginary; the technology for magnetic levitation trains (Maglev for short) not only exists but is in operation in other parts of the globe. But even with updated conventional technology, the French are about to field the new AGV super-train that will hit the 200mph mark. Why not here?

The reason, of course, is money which is a function of will. Take for example that Germany alone spends over $10 billion annually on their rail system while we’re only planning to shell out a quarter of that amount. One wonders if we could scrap any number of unnecessary pork-ridden defense systems and put that money into a rail infrastructure that serves the American people. One further wonders if Americans will give up their car mania to go along for the ride.

Still, the idea of a train that will take you from Greenfield to New York City, or beyond, especially one that has some zip to it, is wonderful to contemplate. And anyone who thinks that railroads are some kind of obsolete anachronism, ought to go to the annual model railway show at the Big E every winter. The place is packed with tens of thousands of people, of all ages. Deep in their American core, they must know that riding the rails is not only a pleasure, but has now become a necessity that can no longer be ignored.

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