Why trains run slower now than they did in the 1920s.

How we get from here to there.
May 15 2009 12:22 PM

Stop This Train!

Are trains slower now than they were in the 1920s?

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

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.

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

I have recently been poring over a number of prewar train timetables—not surprisingly, available on eBay. They are fascinating, filled with evocations of that fabled "golden era" of train travel. "You travel with friends on The Milwaukee Road," reads an ad in one, showing an avuncular conductor genially conversing with a jaunty, smartly dressed couple, the man on the verge of lighting a pipe. The brochure for the Montreal Limited, from an era when "de luxe" was still two words, assures travelers that "modern air-conditioning scientifically controls temperature, humidity and purity of air at all seasons."

But the most striking aspect of these antiquated documents is found in the tiny agate columns of arrivals and destinations. It is here that one sees the wheels of progress actually running backward. The aforementioned Montreal Limited, for example, circa 1942, would pull out of New York's Grand Central Station at 11:15 p.m., arriving at Montreal's (now defunct) Windsor Station at 8:25 a.m., a little more than nine hours later. To make that journey today, from New York's Penn Station on the Adirondack, requires a nearly 12-hour ride. The trip from Chicago to Minneapolis via the Olympian Hiawatha in the 1950s took about four and a half hours; today, via Amtrak's Empire Builder, the journey is more than eight hours. Going from Brattleboro, Vt., to New York City on the Boston and Maine Railroad's Washingtonian took less than five hours in 1938; today, Amtrak's Vermonter (the only option) takes six hours—if it's on time, which it isn't, nearly 75 percent of the time.

"I don't want to see the fastest train in the world built halfway around the world in Shanghai," President Obama said recently, announcing an $8 billion program for high-speed rail. "I want to see it built right here in the United States of America." There is something undeniably invigorating about envisioning an American version of Spain's AVE, which whisks passengers from Madrid to Barcelona (roughly the distance from Boston to Washington) in two and a half hours at 220 mph and has been thieving market share from the country's airlines.

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