Phil-osophically Speaking – March 11, 2011

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High-Speed Rail — A One Way Express To Deficitville?

In another blast of high stakes rodomontade, Vice President Joe Biden in one of his descending from the “mount of God” moments, augustly proclaimed that our nation needs a $53 billion appropriation to build a high-speed rail and it needs to get the job done in a hurry. These implorations may have been heartfelt, but Americans are not quite ready to come aboard this one-way express to deficitville. Nor does the history of American transportation justify Biden’s confidence about a rail-based America being the dominant mode of transportation. 

On July 4, 1828, Charles Carroll, the sole surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, laid the cornerstone for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. He thought that next to the Declaration, and maybe not even that, that this was the most important event of his lifetime. He was justified in feeling the great import of the occasion. Even before the Industrial Revolution arrived on these shores, America was already known as the land of opportunity. By the 1820s travel over the vast landmass known as the North American Continent was no longer an insuperable problem. Thanks to the vision of Governor DeWitt Clinton of New York, America bridled with an impatience to get things done, to innovate and to achieve. Since all Midwestern rivers emptied into the Gulf of Mexico, they did not provide a direct link with the eastern seaboard. But, DeWitt Clinton surmised if an artificial waterway could be cut between the great canal and some navigable stream, the economic advantages would be enormous. Such a route would connect the Great Lakes to the Hudson River and the Atlantic Ocean moving goods and people to spearhead settlements in Midwestern states that would enrich those lush areas creating viable and bustling markets for New York.

The prospects were mind-boggling: A wagon pulled by oxen carried a ton of produce, while a canal barge not only carried on the average 100 tons of produce but made considerably better time over a long distance than an ox-drawn wagon. Construction of the canal commenced on July 4, 1817 (by way of national baptism all auspicious events back then began on the numinous day July 4) and when it was finished eight years later the canal was one of history’s great engineering marvels. Most of it was constructed across densely forested wilderness and upon completion ran a staggering 363 miles long. The longest canal previous to the Erie was a mere 28 miles. The canal’s great success sparked a nationwide canal-building frenzy that was a boon for both western farmers and the national economy.

Not only did these barges carry freight but that first year they also carried 40,000 passengers, which revolutionized transportation. But no sooner was the Erie Canal built than the first railroads were starting a trek that would ultimately lead to the great West and creating a Continental America. By the end of the 19th century, just 70 years after Charles Carroll drove the first spade into the earth, the United States had 50 percent more tracks than the rest of the world combined. Soon it was evident that the railroads and not the canals would become the young nation’s lightning rod into transmuting the wilderness into a civilization. Investors in the canal did their best to exert their influence, not through the marketplace of course, but through their local representatives to legislate suitable protections from the evils of technological advancement. In 1832, the New York Legislature forbade the railroad to carry freight. Twelve years later, in 1844, government relented on straitjacketing the railroad by allowing it to carry freight in the winter months when the canals were closed. As late as 1903, New York State residents were asked to vote to allow New York to spend $101 million of taxpayer dollars (then a considerable sum) to improve and expand the aging infrastructure of the Erie Canal that was rapidly losing market share despite being covered by an umbrella of protections.  

The tide, however, could not be permanently arrested as durable rails, larger railcars, greater speed and faster and more reliable delivery made railroads a better choice than the canal to transport both freight and human passengers. Just like with the canals the world did not stand still with the advent of rail travel. Both automobile and aircraft travel became gigantic industries in America and the former was especially conducive for the construction of a National Highway System that dovetailed perfectly with a low population density. Americans liked the freedom and independence that the automobile provided especially when Henry Ford’s mass production of them made them affordable to the average American. Now from the shackles of timetables that had so controlled their lives, people dazzled by their newfound liberation wrote their own timetables.

More than a few have said that support of high-speed rails is in part to rein in these expansive appetites and to centralize decision-making. I don’t necessarily subscribe to high-speed rail projects first popularized by Japan being an antidote to what bureaucratic elites view as a kind of licentious license by the general populace. There are those who really believe that spending $53 billion of our money is a good idea because it will benefit the environment, reduce our reliance on our carbon belching engines and diminish congestion on our roads and highways.

So it is not a question of political motivations, at least not for me, that is driving this issue but it is a matter of practicality. Japan has an enormously dense population as does Europe and China, where these high-speed rails continue to gain traction. But over here in the states it is a different story. Not only is constructing high-rail transportation prohibitively expensive, it is also fraught with technical problems. Frankly, in a nation as suburbanized as ours, I have grave reservations over its efficacy and I’m not interested in costing the American taxpayer a bundle to prove the point definitively. I made a similar point about the construction of the Third Track in our communities since LIRR ridership peaked in 1949. America’s love affair with cars has not been a one-night stand; it’s a marriage that won’t be dissolved anytime soon. While there will always be an important niche for traveling by rails, passenger service is, and has been for a long time, a money losing proposition which is why trains, including high-speed rails, are relying more and more on freight.

People fled using ox-drawn carts when canal barges became available and canals when railroads could be had. They left the railroads for the convenience of cars and all the sweet talk about improving the climate, increasing competitiveness and even strengthening national security will never bring automobile owners flocking back to the Golden Age of the Locomotive. In the distant, amber light of boyhood the unwithered magic of steam whistles and Pullman cars pulls at the heartstrings of those of us who sat transfixed before our Lionel train sets. Round and round went the clattering locomotive; but there comes a time when we must put aside the infinite wonder of it all and face life as it really is.  

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