Kruckeberg: Ride ‘Em Out On A Rail!

Kruckeberg: Ride 'Em Out On A Rail!


I know what track walkers are.  I remember the soothing sound of a steam whistle in the middle of the night.  And from the front porch of my Dad’s house I could hear the chuff–chuff–choochoochoochoo–chuff–chuff–chuff sound of a steam switch engine slipping its wheels under a heavy load.  I grew up with the smell of coal smoke and the sound of crossing bells.

The railroads were everything.  They were the reason our town existed.  And we thought they would last forever.  But by the 1050s, they were beginning to falter under the onslaught of overland trucks and passenger cars.  I remember riding the train in 1952 when I was in the Navy and thinking how dingy and dirty the once shining and spotless passenger coaches had become.

Dwight Eisenhower delivered the coup de gras to the railroads when he became President in 1953.  The principal concern of Americans in the ’50s was the possibility of war withRussia.  Eisenhower had fought a war in Europe, trying to move tanks, troops, and materiel over narrow roads with no shoulders.  He felt that, if the United Sates were invaded, we would need an adequate road system to move troops and equipment and to evacuate civilians.

The Interstate Highway System was Eisenhower’s answer to the perceived need for mobility in case of war.  It was also the death knell for the railroads.  As broad new interstates began to span the nation, the railroads became more and more superfluous. Grand old Baldwyns were cut up for scrap iron, railway rights of way were simply abandoned and left to grow up in weeds, and the lofty architectures of iron railroad bridges were left to rust away.  I used to take my sons rabbit hunting when they were growing up along an abandoned railroad track.

Comes now a consortium of investors called the Texas Central Partners with a proposal for a high speed rail line from Houston to Dallas.  The proposed super train, traveling at 200 miles per hour, would whisk passengers from downtown Houston to downtownDallas in 90 minutes.

But I can fly from IAH to DFW in 70 minutes and from HOB to DAL (Love Field) in 60 minutes.  And Southwest and United don’t have 240 miles of high speed track to maintain.

And high speed track is in constant need of expensive maintenance, which is why the “bullet train” is possible in Japan, where railroads are nationalized and maintenance is covered by the government.  But there are other problems with high speed rail inAmerica.  Passenger rail transportation in America is an anachronism.

My Uncle Rudy, who was a brakeman for the PRR, always said that a railroad lives on its freight.  My Uncle Rudy was right.  It wasn’t the passenger car that killed the railroads, it was long distance trucks.  Passenger service was always just frosting on the cake for the railroads.  You can’t make money hauling only passengers, which is why AMTRAK passenger service has to be subsidized by the government.

But beyond that, rail transportation itself is an anachronism in the United Sates. American railroads were a viable interim means of transportation between canals and interstates, but they have been obsolete for fifty years.

When I lived in Japan and in England, I made constant use of their extensive, clean, and on time rail systems.  But rail transportation works in other countries because they have no choice.  Automobiles are scarce, and since petrol is expensive, the automobiles that are available are generally low powered vehicles designed for short range use. Consequently, decent long distance roads are rare.

The United States, by contrast, has a vast interstate and State highway system and a surfeit of automobiles.  Fifty percent – one out of every two – private motor vehicles in the world is in the United States.  And America’s love affair with the automobile is still going on.

Most travelers from Houston to Dallas would prefer to go no farther than their garage to board their transportation – and at any time that suits them.  They also want the freedom to stop off at Buffalo for lunch at Ernie’s Pharm or the Stagecoach Deli, and maybe take a short jaunt into Corsicana for a sweets fix at the Collin Street Bakery.

In short, rail transportation in the United States is a dumb idea.  Yeah, you can spend 10 billion dollars building a high speed rail line, but it’ll be useless if you don’t have any passengers.

Rail transportation in America has been dead for half a century.  Let’s let it rest in peace.

G E Kruckeberg

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