Is Train Travel History?

The train station offers some of the most colorful stories of life
in the moment. From Harry Potter waiting for a fantasy train on the
way to new experiences in the Hogworts School to mom and kids going
to grandma’s house, the train brings tales of people meeting and
greeting under a canopy of sights and sounds that air or automobile
travel can’t match.

The whistle blowing, the conductors in their spiffy suits, the
smooth motion of cars on the track all are a part of a way of
travel that is in danger of being eliminated. The financial state
of Amtrak, the national inter-city rail service in the Untied
States, is so dire that a special Congressional committee has been
created to do the dirty work of dismantling it. But will it? Can
it? And haven’t we heard this before?

The rail issue, as complex as it is, will affect what happens to
long distance train travel in the United States, the routes that a
broke Amtrak run. It may, in our fossil fuel economy, seem like no
one cares about the long distance trains that make trips from coast
to coast. And while train travel is a good thing both economically
and environmentally, it’s been a dismal failure outside the
Northeast corridor of the United States.

The sounds, sights and atmosphere of a train and inter-city
stations offer travelers a unique experience, that far exceeds the
seedy reputation that bus travel has. Even though the diesel
inter-city Amtrak trains that exist in the United States aren’t all
that energy efficient, they are a bit more comfortable, scenic, and
memorable. There’s nothing like gazing out a picture window to see
parts of the country where few have been and where roads are

Amtrak should have connected most cities in the United States
decades ago with modern stations and on-time trains. But it hasn’t.
Neither have the high-speed electric inter-city trains that are
common in Europe and Japan caught on in the U.S. This is due not
only to the oil companies’ manipulation of the American
transportation system, but also to the regional political quagmires
that have prevented capital from reaching those lowly rail stations
in cities and towns all across America. Most are desolate places,
lonely stops surrounded by scenic vistas and battered by the

There are many political and logistical problems involved in
installing rail lines and just as many to upgrade and/or change
existing lines. ‘We (the government) don’t own the rail or tracks.
They are private and mostly utilized for freight and goods,’ said
Will Kleindienst, chairman of the board of a Southern California
transit company at a recent meeting of young community leaders.

Funds for railroads are reserved for the elite who use them, the
lawmakers. Rail is effective in and around places where they live.
Congress controls the billions in railroad funds and procuring them
is basically a contest between senators from the Northeastern
‘corridor’ states and individual large states. ‘We have not been
successful in bringing rail money here [in California],’ explained
Kleindienst. Some or all of the money is in jeopardy of being cut
and they’ll cut [routes] in the West, not the East.’

Much of the federal money goes to the maintenance of the
sophisticated existing inner-city rail network that runs from
Washington D.C. to Boston. After a struggle in which many
small-state senators lobby for most of the money, the large states
like Texas and California must make due with less than what is
necessary to not only build new tracks, stations and cars, but to
upgrade existing ones.

The young leaders in this Southern California boardroom heard the
warning that derailments are caused by fatigue in the tracks, as
they pondered the question of why more remote smaller towns and
cities need rail at all.

Has the United States Missed the Train?

Rail history teaches us where the United States has failed and
where most other parts of the world have excelled in rail
construction, maintenance, and dependability. It also teaches us
that train systems almost never make money. Should they?

It’s been a long time since 1830 and the Best Friend of Charleston,
the first regular passenger service steam engine, made its maiden
journey. And while technology has led us from diesel to electric
rail, many countries today maintain regular routes with steam
engine trains. Think of a time line that begins with steam
locomotives, then progresses to coal, and finally ends with
electric. All three still operate if maintained properly. From the
steam engines that roar the length of Cuba to the high-speed
electric lines of Japan and France, rail is not dead.

The first steam engine train line began in Europe and the United
States at about the same time, in the early 1800s. Until the early
part of the 20th century the United States and most other parts of
the world were in synch in their use of rail, not only to carry
goods, but also to transport people.

Railroads spread rapidly in the eastern and southern states in the
early 1800s. By the 1850s, track linked the Atlantic seaboard to
the Midwest. In 1869, the first transcontinental route connected
the East and West Coast. By the end of the 19th century, rail in
the United States grew 11 miles per day. At that time, innovations
in tracks and rail cars made the United States a leader in rail
development. In the 1930s the first electric line in the world was
built in Baltimore.

So what happened?

Essentially, the railroads became hostage to free markets in which
little room exists for cooperation among various interestsin a rail
environment where working together is a golden rule. Railroads
demand a work force that can maintain a meticulous infrastructure
consistently throughout vast regions.

Bad timing apparently was one of the reasons that the United States
didn’t build an inter-city electric rail service. Steam locomotives
were replaced by diesel in America earlier than in Europe.
Americans replaced steam with diesel locomotives during World War
II while Europe was being devastated by the bombings and barely
held on to their steam infrastructure. Once the war was over, the
new electric technology was available, too late for the United
States’ newly built railroad, but just in time for rebuilding in

Diesel-powered electric engines came to be used in the United
States in a locomotive developed by General Motors. Since then,
inter-city trains haven’t changed much in this country, and the
diesel system is used to carry freight and passengers from city to

Inter-city electric rail does exist in this country, however, and
in the Northeast is being expanded. Recently, the commuter lines of
the Northeast were electrified as part of government-funded
extension of the Washington D.C.-to-Boston line where electric rail
was installed from New Haven, Connecticut to Boston.

But in the U.S. electrification was based on economic
considerations. If electrification occurred, interest rates for
financing it would go up because the railroads would show a lower
profit margin. In Europe, and most notably in the Soviet Union,
electrification and other modernization occurred at a rapid pace if
for no other reason than to show the opposing side of the Cold War
that a communist government could be modern and prosperous.

What About Privatization?

Amtrak is broke. ‘It’s heavily subsidized and not sustainable,’
said Kleindienst. ‘Some or all of its funds are in jeopardy.’

According to the Congressional Research Service, during the last 10
years Amtrak’s revenue from inter-city passenger service, after
adjustment for inflation, was flat, and Amtrak ridership declined
about 10 percent, from 5.9 billion passenger-miles to 5.3 billion

Congress has appropriated funds to pay for a group, the Amtrak
Reform Council, to discuss the future of the rail system. And if
the Republican-dominated council has its way, trains and rail lines
in America would be up for grabs. But the AFL-CIO has already
sought an injunction against the group.

There are serious questions about routes outside the Northeast,
said Michael Buckley, communications coordinator for AFL-CIO
Transportation Trades Department, ‘But Amtrak is politically
popular. Every member of Congress has train station in his or her
district. The quandary is the financial challenges. Congress does
not support passenger rail, but they don’t want any cuts in service
because they use it.’

Still, if the nation’s rail service was to be completely
privatized, the task of coordinating several train companies
running on a limited number of privately owned tracks would
ultimately bring chaos to the rails.

Great Britain, which has undergone much privatization, has the
highest train fares in Europe and the least developed networks of
electric rail. Railtrack is the company that owns and operates
Britain’s railway infrastructure-the tracks, signals, tunnels,
bridges, viaducts, level crossings and stations. About 20 different
companies run on the tracks, the biggest being Virgin (yes the same
company that runs the airline) Railtrack recently went the way of
the American energy company, Enron, in that the stock became almost
worthless, while the British train system has been barely creaking

Meanwhile, high-speed trains made by French, British, German,
Swiss, Italian, Swedish and Canadian companies currently link major
cities on 12,000 km of track. Most of these government-run
railroads have lost billions of dollars, but at least they have
something to show for it-a sophisticated web of state-of-art
electric rail networks. A longer version of
this article originally appeared in the Desert Post Weekly, an
alternative weekly based in Cathedral City, California

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