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It's Time to Rebuild Our Passenger Railroad System

Restoring the American railroad system is an excellent place to start recovering our sense of national purpose and faith in collective enterprise.

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There were mysterious delays all along the way. The old Beaux Arts train stations in Syracuse and Albany had not yet been turned into banks, but you could no longer buy so much as a stick of gum in them. The inducement to drive, instead, on the brand-spanking-new New York State Thruway, was huge.

By the mid-1970s, American passenger rail, in near total disarray, fell under the baleful sway of Conrail and Amtrak, both apparently created on a Soviet management model, with an extra overlay of Murphy's Law to insure maximum entropy of service.

In 1974, I took the San Francisco Zephyr from New York to Oakland, Calif. It was, of course, uncomfortable, filthy and cold, with worn-out rolling stock, iffy linens and onboard food consisting of mystery-meat sandwiches prepared solely in a "Radar Range."

The most remarkable thing about this journey was how we managed to avoid anything scenic. The initial run was overnight from New York to Chicago in the November darkness. In Chicago, we had such a long layover -- all day, really -- that I was able to tour the Art Institute, the Field Museum and even take in a movie before we resumed our journey on a different train.

We rolled through Iowa and Nebraska all night, and I woke up somewhere along the bleak prairie outside of Denver. In that city, we parked on a siding near a stockyard all day long for reasons never explained and departed at dusk for the leg through the Rockies.

Things finally got interesting the next morning in Sparks, Nev., when we entered the Sierra, but the Radar Range cuisine had introduced some malign flora into my guts, and I spent most of that final leg in the bathroom.

Since then, train travel in the United States has become a pretty bare-bones affair. Amtrak has become the laughingstock of the world. Most Americans now living have never even been passengers on a train -- for them it's as outmoded as the stagecoach.

The final three-decade blowout of the cheap fossil-fuel fiesta led to the supremacy of the automobile and the fabulous network of highways that provided so much employment and so many real-estate development opportunities. This is all rather unfortunate because we are on the verge of experiencing one of the sharpest discontinuities in human history.

We're heading into a permanent global oil crisis. It is going to change the terms of everyday life very starkly. We will be a far less affluent nation than we were in the 20th century. The automobile is now set to become a diminishing presence in our lives. We will not have the resources to maintain the highways that made Happy Motoring so normal and universal.

The sheer prospect of permanent energy-resource problems has, in my view, been the prime culprit behind the cratering of our financial system for the simple reason that reduced energy "inputs" lead inexorably to the broad loss of capacity to service debt at all levels: personal, corporate, government. It's quite a massive problem, and it's not going away anytime soon, which is why I call it "The Long Emergency."

There are many additional pieces to it, including very troubling prospects for agriculture, for commerce, manufacturing -- really for all the "normal" activities of daily life in an "advanced" civilization.

I think we're going to need trains again desperately. Among the systems in trouble (and headed for more, very soon) is commercial aviation. In my opinion, the airline industry as we know it will cease to exist in five years.