Alternative Transportation modes – The Train System, Part 1

In the first post on this blog we talked about technology and its impact not just with the industrial revolution but also the insidious production of pollution.  In the 1700s the development of the steam engine allowed the rapid development of multiple forms of engine that could work far more effectively than had simple muscle power for most of human civilization.  One of the most obvious of these engines was the locomotive steam engine and the vast network of rails that carried them across immense distances in relatively short periods of time.

While started in Great Britain for use in mining, the onset of passenger and freight rail began in earnest by 1804.  Between 1830 and the 1880s, rail networks sprang up across all of Europe and the North American Continent, all driven by the stream engine fueled by wood and then coal.   It was said that in the USA, you could get to within 10 miles of anywhere you wanted to go in the country by rail since the rail network was so expansive.  In 1869 the last spike was driven in the ground at Provo in Utah creating the first rail line from the Pacific to the Atlantic.  Freight and passengers could now go from San Francisco to New York in less than a week compared to ships that took as much as 3 months and had to navigate the treacherous Cape Horn route at the tip of Patagonia.  If you look at a night sky picture of North America it is interesting to note how the cities and towns west of the Mississippi river to the Rocky Mountains all seem to follow moderately straight lines.  These towns grew up along the rails being laid down and where towns were established at rail fueling stops.  Indeed, one of the many myths used to bring settlers west was that the smoke from the steam train stacks created clouds that produced rain for the westward expansion of farmers.  These emigrants were eager to claim land under the many land laws used to settle the public domain.  The period between WWI and WWII was characterized by a decline in Rail use because of lobbying efforts by Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller to establish road transportation as the dominant mode of movement in the USA.  One minor side note is the just before WWII the diesel-electric train engine began to appear making the smoky exhaust stacks of coal fired steam engines a thing of the past.  Now the pollution was less obvious, yet still as pervasive in reducing air quality.

In the 1971, Amtrak was created to consolidate the remaining 20 passenger rail companies still left in the USA.  At the time it was the state of the Art in Locomotive passenger travel with some trains running as fast as 125 mph in open long sections of track.  And there it stayed with no further innovation, being more of a tourist transportation system than a passenger movement system.  Freight rail is still popular because of its ability to move multiple cars of heavy freight at the same time.  Air travel took over as the main form of mass people transportation with the less popular Bus lines (e.g. greyhound) taking up some of the slack, and more people using their own cars to get around.  The creation of the Interstate freeway system meant further decline for passenger travel using mass transit.  The American love affair with the automobile and the urge to get places fast are today the main stumbling blocks for innovation in further railroad development.  But are we actually moving faster around the USA?  Airport and freeway backups coupled with automobile gridlock in the cities makes innovative rethinking of how we move around more essential than it has been since the mid-1800s.

Meanwhile in Europe and Asia, rail innovation has taken off and even supplanted air travel for quick efficient travel across the continents.  The famous Shinkansen bullet train in Japan was built in 1964 and a high-speed rail system has become the norm for most industrialized countries.  Think about a plane flight from Denver to Chicago.  Having driven it many times from Loveland I can attest that it is about 18 hours or more of driving.  To fly is obviously quicker, but let’s add up the time it actually takes.  The drive to DIA from Loveland is about an hour with no holdups.  By the time you park your car and get to the airport could add at least another 30 mins on an average by parking shuttle (assume you are not just being dropped off).  You arrive 2 hours early as required to play it safe to get through TSA and to the concourse train and to your gate.  The flight takes around two hours but the airports around Chicago (O’Hare and Midway, or Mitchell in Milwaukee) are not near the city center.  To get from the gates to the outside curb can take 30 minutes.  If you want to get downtown you need to take the airport train or a taxi, which adds another 45 minutes.  Time to get from Loveland to actual downtown Chicago about 6-7 hours by air travel.  And unless you upgrade your basic ticket you are crammed into a tight seat for the actual travel or sitting around in a less than exciting airport.  Now imagine less of the hassles and getting to Chicago in the same amount of time and where you can relax in comfortable seats and walk around without restriction while actually traveling and you are looking at rail travel in the rest of the world.  And the cost of train travel (also electric trains, not diesel) is actually cheaper than air flight, and goes from city center to city center.

To be continued …..

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