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The Progressive Fix

How America Led, and Lost, the High-Speed Rail Race

How did America get to where it is today, a country with the slowest and most threadbare intercity passenger rail service of any advanced nation?

Not so very long ago, we were not in this humiliating position. In fact, we operated trains that amazed and impressed the rest of the world. These trains were called streamliners, and their very names – Silver Meteor, Flying Yankee, Rocky Mountain Rocket, Denver Zephyr – connoted speed and luxury. In the period between 1935 and 1950, the 10 fastest scheduled passenger trains in the world were all U.S. streamliners.

One of the great racetracks of this period was the New York Central Railroad’s four-track mainline between Buffalo and Cleveland. Paging through an old timetable, I counted 42 daily passenger trains running on this line in the 1940s. Such trains as the Commodore Vanderbilt, Fifth Avenue Special and the extra-fare choice of tycoons and Hollywood starlets, The 20th Century Limited, routinely topped 90 miles per hour on straightaways and averaged 60-65 mph, including station stops.

The 187 miles between Buffalo and Cleveland were covered in 3 hours then. Today, the sole passenger train traveling this route, Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited, takes 3½ hours, if (and this is a big if) the train is on schedule.

The Rise and Fall of American Rail

What differentiated our streamliners from contemporary trains in Europe and Asia was advanced technology. American railroads and equipment suppliers had not only pioneered the diesel-electric locomotive in the 1930s – a quantum leap over from the old steam locomotive – but introduced lightweight cars with better wheel sets, couplers, braking systems and lower centers of gravity to negotiate curves at higher speeds.

The interiors of these streamliners abounded in creature comforts – wide double-paned windows, recessed fluorescent lighting, luxurious reclining seats and the first air-conditioning found in any commercial transport.

Streamliners attracted customers by the carload. In fact, they made money. Wall Street consultants Coverdale & Colpitts surveyed 58 streamliners in 1948 and found that they grossed $98 million and netted $48 million after out-of-pocket costs, for a return of 49 percent.*

And then almost as quickly as the streamliner era flourished, it ended. There were a number of reasons for the rapid decline of rail passenger service, but the overwhelming factor was the explosion of government funding for new highways and airports. In 1956, Dwight Eisenhower signed the Interstate and Defense Highways Act. First estimated to cost $27 billion, the Interstate system took more than 30 years and $200 billion to complete. At the same time, state and local governments bankrolled airport construction, while Washington subsidized air carriers by fixing artificially high rates for U.S. airmail contracts.

The twin impact of airways and roadways was devastating on American railroads, which, after all, were private companies that paid property taxes and ticket taxes on their operations. For example, between 1956 and 1969, a total of 28,800 miles of interstate highways were opened to traffic. In the same period, 59,400 miles of railroad were taken out of passenger service.

From 2,500 daily intercity trains in 1954 (that’s excluding commuter service), fewer than 500 trains were left when the National Railroad Passenger Corp., or Amtrak, took over intercity rail service in 1971. Outside of the Boston-Washington Northeast Corridor, America’s passenger train had virtually disappeared.

American Technology Goes Abroad

So carelessly tossed away by our policymakers and politicians, the American streamliner did not simply die during those dismal decades of the 1950s and 1960s. Instead, it rose from the ashes as its key technological features moved overseas, welcomed by a visionary group of railroaders.

An all-electric test train ordered by Louis Armand, head of the French national railway, shattered world records with 208-mph speeds in March 1955. This achievement proved the capacity of rail equipment using overhead electricity for propulsion to operate far above 100 mph on a sustained basis.

The French experiments inspired Japan’s Minister of Transport Shinhi Sogo. In 1956, the same year that President Eisenhower signed the Interstate Highways Act, Sogo began planning a rail line without sharp curves or up and down grades that would permit streamlined, all-electric trains to run at extremely high speeds with utmost safety

To operate the Shinkansen, or “New Trunk Line,” between Tokyo and Osaka, Sogo actively imported technology from America, including the two-axle trucks of the Budd Manufacturing Co. and dynamic braking pioneered by General Motors’ Electro-Motive Division. To top it off, the Japan ordered the most advanced computer used outside of military applications (built by yet another American company, Bendix) to operate the line’s signal and dispatching systems.

Remarkably, the U.S. government gave Japan foreign aid – money purportedly going to an underdeveloped country – to build a rail infrastructure far superior to our own. Opened in time for the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, the first Shinkansen train traveled at a maximum of 125 mph. The latest-generation Shinkansen runs at 188 mph, and its ancestor is in a museum.

Japan wasn’t alone. After developing moderately high-speed trains on mixed freight-and-passenger lines, France opened Europe’s first all-new railroad between Paris and Lyon in 1981. This route featured the now-famous TGVs, or “Trains of Great Speed.” Six thousand of 20,000 rail miles in France are now covered by TGV trains. High-speed service has expanded into Belgium, Germany, Holland, Italy, Switzerland and Spain in Europe and in China, South Korea and Taiwan in Asia.

Playing Catch-Up

Compared to these developments, we’re still in the horse-and-buggy stage. Amtrak’s self-declared high-speed line, the Northeast Corridor, does not even qualify as high speed by world standards. The Acela Express is designed for 150 mph, but only goes that fast for about 25 miles in Rhode Island.

Overall, Acela trains average only 67 mph between Boston and New York. South of New York, Acela operates at an average of 77 mph and can’t go faster than 125 mph anywhere because the overhead electric wires are obsolete and can slip off the train’s pantographs at higher speeds.

This is what happens when you starve a business for 60 years. It becomes stunted. Our passenger rail system is stunted today not because of some inevitable law of economics or natural outgrowth of competition. It’s stunted because of longstanding government policy that thoughtlessly, absentmindedly, let some wonderful American-made technology slip away.

This piece is an excerpt from Mark Reutter’s keynote address at the High-Speed Rail Summit last week in Erie, Pa.

* “Streamliners Earn More Than Ever,” Railway Age, March 4, 1950.


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