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.

But Obama's bold vision obscures a simple fact: 220 mph would be phenomenal, but we would also do well to simply get trains back up to the speeds they traveled at during the Harding administration. Consider, for example, the Burlington Zephyr, described by the Saturday Evening Post as "a prodigious, silvery, three-jointed worm, with one stalk eye, a hoofish nose, no visible means of locomotion, seeming either to be speeding on its belly or to be propelled by its own roar," which barreled from Chicago to Denver in 1934 in a little more than 13 hours. (It would take more than 18 today.) An article later that year, by which time the Zephyr had put on the "harness of a regular railroad schedule," quoted a conductor complaining the train was "loafing" along at only 85 mph. But it was not uncommon for the Zephyr or other trains to hit speeds of more than 100 mph in the 1930s. Today's "high-speed" Acela service on Amtrak has an average speed of 87 mph and a rarely hit peak speed of 150 mph. (The engine itself could top 200 mph.)

What happened? I put the question to James McCommons, author of the forthcoming book Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service. As with most historical declines, there is no single culprit but rather a complex set of conditions. One reason is rail capacity. From the Civil War to World War I, the number of rail miles exploded from 35,000 to 216,000, hitting a zenith of 260,000 in 1930 and falling by 2000 to less than 100,000—the same level as in 1881. Capacity dropped because demand dropped—people moved to cars, and freight moved to trucks. Despite a World War II train boom fueled by troop movements and fuel rationing, trains have been on the decline since the late 1920s; as a 1971 New York Times article on the debut of Amtrak noted, "railroads asserted that, as an industry, they did not make a profit on passengers after [the] 1930s. They blamed buses, planes and autos and expensive union contracts that increased wage costs after 1919."

Less rail capacity (and rail quality) has coincided with a dramatic rise in freight traffic in recent years, owing in part to a buoyant economy and in part to trains' improving (and now superior) fuel efficiency to trucks—particularly as diesel fuel prices have risen. Despite recent infrastructure spending, bottlenecks are routine, as passenger trains typically yield to passing freight trains. (The recent economic downturn has cut freight traffic, leading to some chatter on rail Web sites about improved Amtrak performance times; one commenter noted, "#422 was running early the whole way ... so much so we sometimes had to sit and 'kill time' shy of reaching stations [so] as not to block main roads through towns.") Sharing rails with freight has a negative effect on passenger speeds for another reason: The rail systems are designed for slower freight trains. Except for the high-speed Acela in the Northeast (and a lone stretch in Michigan), Amtrak is limited to a top speed of 79 mph because to go above that would require all kinds of upgrades to signals, gates, crossings, and ties, among other things. (This Amtrak investigation of a 13-hour delay earlier this year catalogs the typical problems.) What's more, trains themselves can't run faster than 79 mph without "Positive Train Control," a sensor-based safety system that will be mandatory on all trains by 2015.

Hovering over all of these causal factors is a widespread societal shift that occurred, one that saw the streamliners of the 1930s eclipsed by the glamour of the jet age, as well as the postwar automobile boom and the building of the Interstate Highway System. Passenger trains lost their priority to freight, and there simply wasn't the same cultural imperative for speed and luxury on the trains (a condition rather unintentionally satirized in the schlock 1979 TV series Supertrain—the conveyance in question was atom-powered—whose magnate decried "the pitiful state of rail passenger travel in this country today"). Where the Twentieth Century Limited had once touted its trains as having a "barber, fresh and salt water baths, valet, ladies' maid, manicurist, stock and market reports, telephone at terminal [and] stenographer," Amtrak is now scrambling to simply equip itself with Wi-Fi—a technology already available on the bare-bones Bolt bus.

As it turns out, there are actually plenty of examples of "technological regress" throughout history. As this fascinating paper notes, the process of building with cement had reached a high point during the Roman Empire, only to be "lost" until its reinvention in the early 13th century. The United States has lost not so much the technology of rail speed as the public will, the cultural memory; this may have made sense for a historical period, but now, weighed in terms of the congestion, carbon emissions, and comfort of other travel modes, it seems time to reach for the way-back machine. As journalist Philip Longman has pointed out, where "fast mail trains" once "ensured next-day delivery on a letter mailed with a standard two-cent stamp in New York to points as far west as Chicago," today, "that same letter is likely to travel by air first to FedEx's Memphis hub, then be unloaded, sorted, and reloaded onto another plane, a process that demands far greater expenditures of money, carbon, fuel, and, in many instances, time than the one used eighty years ago." In building our "bridge to the 21st Century" we might remember the Roman god Janus, patron of, among other things, bridges: He looked backward as well as forward.

Tom Vanderbilt is author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, now available in paperback. He is contributing editor to Artforum, Print, and I.D.; contributing writer to Design Observer; and has written for many publications, including Wired, the Wilson Quarterly, the New York Times Magazine, and the London Review of Books. He blogs at howwedrive.com and lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/tomvanderbilt.

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