The Daily Parker

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Progress in transportation

Tom Vanderbilt on Slate points out that U.S. rail travel was better in the Harding administration than it is today:

[T]he most striking aspect of [1940s train timetables] is found in the tiny agate columns of arrivals and destinations. It is here that one sees the wheels of progress actually running backward. The...Montreal Limited, for example, circa 1942, would pull out of New York's Grand Central Station at 11:15 p.m., arriving at Montreal's (now defunct) Windsor Station at 8:25 a.m., a little more than nine hours later. To make that journey today, from New York's Penn Station on the Adirondack, requires a nearly 12-hour ride. The trip from Chicago to Minneapolis via the Olympian Hiawatha in the 1950s took about four and a half hours; today, via Amtrak's Empire Builder, the journey is more than eight hours. Going from Brattleboro, Vt., to New York City on the Boston and Maine Railroad's Washingtonian took less than five hours in 1938; today, Amtrak's Vermonter (the only option) takes six hours—if it's on time, which it isn't, nearly 75 percent of the time.

What happened? I put the question to James McCommons, author of the forthcoming book Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service. As with most historical declines, there is no single culprit but rather a complex set of conditions.

In sum, cars, trailer trucks, and airplanes happened. On the other hand, as Vanderbilt mentions, other countries seem to manage. The Madrid to Barcelona train in Spain (which travels mainly on the plain) gets passengers between the cities quickly enough to compete seriously with air travel. Imagine if the Acela went near its top speed from Washington to New York, and got people to Penn Station in under two hours. Do you think the Delta Shuttle would have problems competing against that?

Interesting article.

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