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Trains: Getting Slower All the Time

It's a well known fact that trains in the United States aren't especially speedy (we documented this first hand a few issues ago). What's less...


It's a well known fact that trains in the United States aren't especially speedy (we documented this first hand a few issues ago). What's less well known is that they've actually gotten slower in this country since they first became popular. A writer over at Slate spent some time thumbing through old train brochures, paying special attention to the timetables listed in the back. His discovery? In every instance he could find, trains are slower now than they were in the early 20th century.

A trip from New York to Montreal took about nine hours, whereas today it takes 12. A route from Chicago to Minneanapolis passed in four and half hours; today, more than eight. Conductors in 1934 would complain of trains grinding along at 85 mph, though speed routinely reached 100 mph or more. Today's "high-speed" Acela averages 87 mph, despite an engine capable of more than 200 mph.

There are some logical explanations for this. The introduction of cars and planes played a big roll. So did increased freight traffic on rail lines. But as he notes,

Hovering over all of these causal factors is a widespread societal shift that occurred, one that saw the streamliners of the 1930s eclipsed by the glamour of the jet age, as well as the postwar automobile boom and the building of the Interstate Highway System. Passenger trains lost their priority to freight, and there simply wasn't the same cultural imperative for speed and luxury on the trains.


But it doesn't change that fact that countries like Japan, Germany, Spain, and China are all seeing tremendous success with high speed rail program. Here's to hoping that Obama's high-speed rail plan will put us back on top of our game.

Photo (cc) by Flickr user Cindy47452.









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