Saturday, November 12, 2011

High Speed Rail Redux

I frequently see articles in various news sources about the controversies of building high-speed rail in this country. The proponents argue that, rather than getting on an airplane, the lines will provide much easier and more pleasant ways to travel between distant cities. High-speed rail will rejuvenate outlying areas along the route that will see a new wave of investment in housing and business. Critics argue that high-speed rail will never pay for itself. People much prefer to drive or fly. If too many stops are planned along the route, the line will no longer be high-speed.  And because passenger rail is now run by Amtrak, a government-owned corporation, high-speed rail will turn into a taxpayer boondoggle.

It's worth remembering that long before the current debate, the U.S. had many "high-speed" passenger lines run by private railroad companies. These lines were profitable even as automobiles became the preferred mode of local transportation.

Perhaps one of the most famous of these early high-speed trains was the 20th Century Limited, operated by the New York Central Railroad between New York City and Chicago.  The service was inaugurated in 1902 and ran for 65 years, finally being discontinued in 1967.

In the early days of the 20th Century Limited, it took 20 hours to make the overnight run. By the 1930s, the time had been reduced to 16 hours. The train left New York City at 6:00PM Eastern time and arrived in Chicago at 9:00 AM Central time the next morning. The train consisted of Pullman sleeping cars, a dining car, a postal car, and a baggage-club car - usually nine or ten cars per train. Passengers entered and left the cars over specially-designed red carpets, giving rise to the expression "the Red Carpet treatment". Men were given carnation boutonniers and the women perfume when they boarded. Everything was meant to convey taste, efficiency, and good service.

NYC RR J3-a Hudson by Henry Dreyfuss
The trains became decidedly more beautiful in 1938 with the advent of the streamlined trains of industrial designer, Henry Dreyfuss. The powerful Hudson-class locomotives oozed an impression of power and speed, even when standing still. Compared to the brick-like design of today's Amtrak engines, the Dreyfuss-designed trains made people feel they were partaking in something special.

The 20th Century Limited, like the European Orient Express, became an iconic image for American culture and was used as a backdrop in many films including Hitchcock's North by Northwest. Hard to imagine a similar movie on the Acela.  The 20th Century Limited was only one of dozens of "named trains" that crisscrossed the country in the middle of the last century. The ghosts of some of those trains now reside in the few long-distance Amtrak trains that make their way (usually slowly due to outdated trackage and equipment) between distant cities .

I, for one, would like to see high-speed rail brought back into wide usage in this country. While some argue that it is a waste of resources, the future belongs to fast, efficient transportation with a low-carbon footprint. Most of the rest of the industrialized world gets it - the last century's transportation options will not be adequate for the coming century. A little classy design by a modern-day Dreyfuss would also be much appreciated.  Oh yes, and bring back the Red Carpet.

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