Americans are waiting anxiously to know just what the forthcoming Administration will include in its Recovery and Reinvestment Plan. President-elect Obama said in his radio address on Saturday, January 10, that “We’ll put nearly 400,000 people to work by repairing our infrastructure—our crumbling roads, bridges and schools.”
What about our passenger train system, that lags sadly behind other developed countries—and is far worse than what Americans enjoyed decades ago?
The fact is that Barack Obama and the senior members of his team are too young to remember what good trains we once had—all the senior members, that is, except Vice President-elect Joseph Biden.
Joe Biden no doubt remembers that when he was a boy in Scranton after World War II, the city was served by passenger trains—twelve of them each weekday—on the old Lackawanna line that ran between Buffalo and New York. There are no trains to Scranton today, but Biden as U.S. Senator has for years commuted by train between Washington and his home in Wilmington, along Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, the only U.S. passenger rail line that approaches European lines in speed and service…or does it? Amtrak’s Acela Express averages just over eighty miles an hour between Washington and New York. Fast trains in Europe, Japan, Korea and Taiwan now run at average speeds, start-to-finish, of over twice that.
Perhaps, though, before we plan totally new lines like those the TGVs run on in France and the bullet trains in Japan, we can just try to get back to the halcyon days after World War II, when for a dozen years our passenger trains were modernized, schedules were shortened, and traffic boomed.
In 1958 the Broadway Limited, with dining, lounge, and sleeping cars, ran overnight from Chicago to New York in just fifteen and a half hours, and busy people found it more pleasant and convenient to take the train than to get out to O’Hare, fly to La Guardia, and then make their way into Manhattan. Amtrak’s only overnight Chicago-New York train now takes over nineteen hours—if it is on time, a problem to be discussed.
But the best train in the country, I always thought, was the elegant, all-sleeping-car Panama Limited that ran overnight between Chicago and New Orleans, arriving in either city in time—and it almost invariably ran on time—for well-rested passengers to get to ten a.m. meetings.
There were lots of fast trains like the Broadway Limited and Panama Limited. Few still exist. Who remembers the Zephyr-Rocket that used to run overnight between St. Louis and Minneapolis, or the Southern Belle between Kansas City and New Orleans, or the daytime Powhatan Arrow between Norfolk and Cincinnati? Today there is no train service at all between those major cities, and no trains serving the smaller cities and towns along the way for which the railroad provided easy access to a metropolis. Fifty years ago, one could take a fast morning train from a small Iowa town like Manchester straight to Chicago, spend the day, and return home that evening. Today, if you live in Manchester, you can fly to Chicago—but first you have to drive 45 miles to the Dubuque airport, in winter there may well be delays, and after you land at O’Hare you are still 45 minutes from downtown Chicago.
Some of the best trains in the 1940s and 1950s were those on short routes. The Rock Island Rockets linked Peoria and Chicago in two and a half hours, a start-to-finish speed of over a mile a minute. Today there is no train to Peoria. One may be able to drive that distance in three hours; the Greyhound bus takes almost five hours; how many people really like to fly 150 miles?
Or take New England. People are pleased at the success of the Downeasters, the Amtrak trains that have successfully restored train service between Boston and Portland. The trip takes two hours and a half. Before World War II, the Flying Yankee did it in two hours.
At least three major problems lie in the way of better train service for America.
The first is political. A number of Republicans—John McCain, for one—have continued, at least until recently, to claim that Federal subsidies for passenger trains are socialistic. They ignore, curiously, the immense and long-standing Federal subsidies for highways and air travel. Perhaps they can be won over by the argument that a decent train system is good for national security. This is the argument that helped lead Congress to fund the Interstate highway system, and the argument is yet more applicable in the case of trains. If we ever get into a prolonged major conflict and our access to overseas oil is cut, will we not need to have a means of transporting millions of people around the country with less use of energy? If so, that means trains. It is interesting, by the way, that some relatively Republican states like California and Utah have stepped in where the Feds have not, and have been creating impressive instate train services.
Second, Amtrak trains run almost entirely—the Northeast Corridor is an exception—along privately-owned freight lines. These companies are legally required to give priority to passenger trains, but often they have not done so. Washington is tightening up; railroads will incur greater penalties if they do not let Amtrak run through on time; but there is some question whether, with the best of will, they can do a much better job of this. The California Zephyr, for example, is often several hours late into Denver on its run westward from Chicago. It runs through Nebraska into Colorado along the single-track main line of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe, and too often freights get in the way despite a modern traffic control system. (Even the nearby Union Pacific main line, which carries 135 freight trains a day, is overloaded, despite triple tracks and state-of-the art traffic control. We have perhaps gone too far in allowing the amalgamation of our major railroads. Today there are only two major U.S. systems in the West, the Union Pacific and BNSF, and fewer transcontinental lines than we used to have.)
Third, even if we agree on the need to modernize our trains, how do we do so in these hard times? That is part of the overall question of our infrastructure. If the will is there, we can do it. The Europeans are not being deterred by their own economic woes from planning further improvements to their already impressive rail systems. If we do undertake large-scale rail modernization, we should do all possible to ensure that American and not foreign firms will do a major share of the work—and end up in a more competitive position abroad, in what will remain a major business sector.