For 100 years it was a mainstay in America. It took the blood, sweat and tears of Irish and Chinese laborers to build the tracks. It created railroad barons who ruled supreme. It symbolized America’s manifest destiny as it connected the country as it was never connected before.
No longer did you have take stage coaches or wagon trains to travel from New York to California. You didn’t have to be rich either to buy a railroad ticket.
Railroads were part of our culture and you could see it in movies, such as North by Northwest with Cary Grant or Cat Balou with Jane Fonda. And almost every western.
But the train and railroad industry have lost its place to airplanes and cars. That was not always the case.
Transcontinental railroads were built in the latter decades of the 1800s. They created a nationwide transportation network that literally brought the “united” in the United States to the forefront.
The first transcontinental tracks finished were the Pacific Railroad which spanned 1,928 miles and linked California with Iowa in 1869. Built after the Civil War, the railroad company used ex-Army vets, many of whom were the engineers, Irish immigrants and later they brought Chinese laborers over specifically to build the tracks.
This was American ingenuity and it ushered in a new era for this country.
Once the east-west track and the west-east line were completed it still took several years before a railroad bridge was built to truly connect the east to the west. Until that happened in 1873, passengers had to take a ferry to connect with the next leg of the trip. Eventually, more lines were built, such as the Southern Pacific Railroad and the Northern Pacific Railroad.
As the airlines took off, however, more and more people flew cross country in planes. It was faster and the cost was affordable. By 1966, the passenger railroad industry was facing a crisis. Few people were traveling from city to city on trains. The industry was stuck in another century from decades past and had not adapted to the new realities. Nor did they update their trains and equipment.
Another blow to the railroad industry happened when the U.S. Postal Service, which had been using trains to move mail for decades, started switching to airplanes.
Eventually, passenger train service evolved into the government subsidized Amtrak, which bought 1,200 of the best railroad cars that belonged to the train companies that joined the Amtrak operation. Newer cars were eventually bought, but Amtrak still faced a problem because the railroad industry was stuck in the past with stale railroad technology.
Fast forward to today, and more than 30 million passengers now ride Amtrak trains. They are a compromise between the airlines and people’s cars. Yes, airlines get you there quicker, but everything is rushed. Cars involves you driving to get from point a to point b.
Even today, a passenger train offers a more leisurely trip that is affordable for most people. You can read, look out the window and chat with other passengers. Most importantly, you can relax.
But budget cuts from Washington keep putting up obstacles to Amtrak’s economical viability. Now there is a legal requirement to at least break even on the food service in dining cars, which has never been a money-making revenue stream for the railroads. Can you imagine taking a train trip cross country for several days without a dining car? If Washington doesn’t step up, Amtrak could be in serious trouble.
Ironically, some private railroad companies might be getting back into the game. Isn’t it interesting how life comes full circle.
But for trains to succeed, you need ancillary services at the train depots. You need car rental companies or a taxi/cab service to pick up passengers to take them to their hotels or where they need to go. In foreign countries, depots are situated so you can walk to your final destination or take an easy-to-use mass transit system.
Even if there is a renaissance of private railroad traffic, there is still a problem facing the modern passenger train companies in the United States: Why can’t we have bullet trains that travel 200 MPH in other countries.? The fastest our trains run on portions of the Northeast Corridor is between 135-150 MPH. Amtrak is testing out trains that go 165 MPH.
When I started writing this blog, I thought bullet trains reached 200 MPH. I was wrong. There is a Japanese maglev train that touches almost 400 MPH. This is not new technology. These types of fast trains have been around for decades in countries like France, China and Spain. Just not in the United States.
One challenge to super bullet trains in the United States is our country’s vastness. The distance between many cities in the U.S. is huge. It is easier to fly.
Also, in other countries, once your train arrives you can often walk to your final destination or use a mass transit system that is easy and convenient. Here, you have to call a taxi service or rent a car.
If super fast trains are going to make it in the United States, it will happen on lines like the Northeast Corridor which connects Boston-New York and Washington. These cities meet the criteria that is needed for these trains to thrive. Plus, traffic gridlock makes driving an unpleasant option.
But nothing will get done if Congress doesn’t get behind it.