In The Plot Against Trains, Adam Gopnik muses about how infrastructure in America has become dilapidated in part because we (or at least much of we) believe little good can come from the government.
What an ideology does is give you reasons not to pursue your own apparent rational interest — and this cuts both ways, including both wealthy people in New York who, out of social conviction, vote for politicians who are more likely to raise their taxes, and poor people in the South who vote for those devoted to cutting taxes on incomes they can never hope to earn. There is no such thing as false consciousness. There are simply beliefs that make us sacrifice one piece of self-evident interest for some other, larger principle.
What we have, uniquely in America, is a political class, and an entire political party, devoted to the idea that any money spent on public goods is money misplaced, not because the state goods might not be good but because they would distract us from the larger principle that no ultimate good can be found in the state. Ride a fast train to Washington today and you’ll start thinking about national health insurance tomorrow.
The ideology of individual autonomy is, for good or ill, so powerful that it demands cars where trains would save lives, just as it places assault weapons in private hands, despite the toll they take in human lives. Trains have to be resisted, even if it means more pollution and massive inefficiency and falling ever further behind in the amenities of life — what Olmsted called our “commonplace civilization.”
The way he brings it back to trains at the end is lovely:
A train is a small society, headed somewhere more or less on time, more or less together, more or less sharing the same window, with a common view and a singular destination.
Well, except when you’re on that Snowpiercer train. Although in the end (spoiler!), Curtis brought the train’s segregated society back to “a common view and a singular destination” by crashing it and killing (almost) everyone on it. Hopefully America isn’t headed toward the same end.
After the Civil War, the economic recovery of the southern United States hinged on trade with the North and moving goods westward via the railroad. But there was a problem. Tracks in the South had been built with a gauge (or track width) of 5 feet but the majority of tracks in the North had a 4-foot 9-inch gauge (more or less). So after much planning, over a concentrated two-day period in the summer of 1886, the width of thousands of miles of railroad track (and the wheels on thousands of rail cars) in the South was reduced by three inches.
Only one rail would be moved in on the day of the change, so inside spikes were hammered into place at the new gauge width well in advance of the change, leaving only the need for a few blows of the sledgehammer once the rail was placed. As May 31 drew near, some spikes were pulled from the rail that was to be moved in order to reduce as much as possible the time required to release the rail from its old position.
Rolling stock, too, was being prepared for rapid conversion. Contemporary accounts indicate that dish shaped wheels were provided on new locomotives so that on the day of the change, reversing the position of the wheel on the axle would make the locomotive conform to the new gauge. On some equipment, axles were machined to the new gauge and a special ring positioned inside the wheel to hold it to the 5-foot width until the day of the gauge change. Then the wheel was pulled, the ring removed, and the wheel replaced.
To shorten the axles of rolling stock and motive power that could not be prepared in advance, lathes and crews were stationed at various points throughout the South to accomplish the work concurrently with the change in track gauge.
As things turned out, having different gauges was advantageous to the South, since the North could not easily use railroad to move its troops to battle in southern territory during the Civil War. Noting this example, the Finns were careful to ensure that their railroads used a gauge different from the Russian railroads! The rest of Europe adopted a standard gauge, which made things easy for Hitler during World War II: a significant fraction of German troop movements in Europe were accomplished by rail.
They also describe the efforts that the South went through to support the stronger standard of the North without switching over:
In 1862, Congress specified the standard gauge for the transcontinental railroads. By this date, the southern states had seceded, leaving no one to push for the 5-foot gauge. After the war, the southern railroads found themselves increasingly in the minority. For the next twenty years, they relied on various imperfect means of interconnection with the North and West: cars with a sliding wheel base, hoists to lift cars from one wheel base to another, and, most commonly, a third rail.
At home, I have a drawer full of sliding wheel bases and third rails in the form of Euro-to-US & Asia-to-US power adapters.
In 1953, the BBC filmed a train trip from London to Brighton. Thirty years later in 1983, they filmed it again and then again 30 years after that, in 2013. Here are all three films synced up and played side-by-side:
1000 extra bonus points to the Beeb for the Star Guitar soundtrack.
No time is wasted. The bullet train is moving all the time. If there are 30 stations between Beijing and Guangzhou, just stopping and accelerating again at each station will waste both energy and time. A mere 5 min stop per station (elderly passengers cannot be hurried) will result in a total loss of 5 min x 30 stations or 2.5 hours of train journey time!
Factor in slowdown/speedup time and it’s even longer. (thx, nick)
A 4,000-mph magnetically levitated train could allow you to have lunch in Manhattan and still get to London in time for the theater, despite the 5-hour time difference. It’s not impossible: Norway has studied neutrally buoyant tunnels (concluding that they’re feasible, though expensive), and Shanghai is running maglev trains to its airport. But supersonic speeds require another critical step: eliminating the air — and therefore air friction — from the train’s path. A vacuum would also save the tunnel from the destructive effects of a sonic boom, which, unchecked, could potentially rip the tunnel apart.
A raspy-voiced woman in her 40s, one of the engineers, calls down from the cab and invites a few of us to come take a look. Without hesitation we clamber up. She tells us that they’re off duty, as her partner, a mustachioed, red-faced man with faded tattoos, nods. When engineers hit their driving quota, apparently, they’re done. It’s an unbendable rule. “They knew, though,” the woman says, speaking of Amtrak. “They should have had someone here.” So this could’ve been prevented? “Oh yeah,” the man says, “but leave it to them and they’ll fuck it up.” And so we wait, in the middle of nowhere, for new engineers. After a couple of hours a truck pulls up with the new drivers.
In 1970, the year that Congress voted to create Amtrak by consolidating the passenger operations of freight railroads, the airlines were about 17 times larger than the railroads, measured by passenger miles traveled; now they are more than 100 times larger. Highway travel was then about 330 times larger; now it is more than 900 times larger.
Today Amtrak has 632 usable rail cars, and dozens more are worn out or damaged but could be reconditioned and put into service at a cost of several hundred thousand dollars each.
Train travel, particularly high-speed train travel, should be *the* way to get anywhere on the East Coast, mid-to-southern California/Vegas, and between moderately large cities clustered together (Chicago, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Detroit; Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, Houston; Florida; Kansas City, St. Louis, Omaha, Tulsa; Portland, Seattle, Vancouver; etc.).
Could European airlines such as Air France-KLM, Lufthansa or Ryanair lose business as high-speed rail service expands? After all, the Eurostar now carries more than 70 percent of passenger traffic between London and Paris. And air service between Paris and Brussels has ended altogether now that trains connect those cities in 1 hour and 20 minutes.