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The Design of American Rail Travel; 2012-05-01

May 1st, 2012

Volume 1, Number 1

The Third Century.

Historians and preservationists, cover your ears: The Pennsylvania Railroad was not entirely wrong in demolishing New York’s Pennsylvania Station.

More on that in a moment. First a moment of reflection.

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world.
The unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself.
Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
— George Bernard Shaw

To the inspired Reader: why are you here?  Why are you reading these columns?  Quite possibly it is because you wish to see more trains in more places for more people.  Perhaps you wish to improve our society, our ecology, or our economy.  Perhaps you desire those trains so that you and your family and friends could use them.  Some of you do, or could, make a living in the railroad industry.  None of you, I suggest, would be here if you did not wish to adapt the world a little to yourself.

Everything is possible.  Look at just the most recent quarter century.  Earthquakes and tsunamis have wiped whole cities off the map.  The Soviet Union fell.  Big things change all the time.  There is no end to history — indeed, as we look back, even the chapter divisions become fuzzy, leaving only an ebb and flow like the tide. At length, I find peace, and power, in this.

Enter the third century

“Vanity of vanities, sayeth the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.
The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be;
and that which is done is that which shall be done:
and there is no new thing under the sun.”
— Ecclesiastes 1:2,9

From the perspective of two hundred years ago, 1812, the year the United States declared war on Great Britain, it would be a decade or two before the establishment of regular passenger train service.  Yet inventions like Eli Whitney’s cotton gin (1793) and James Watt’s steam engines (first commercially deployed in 1776) were fueling the nascent Industrial Revolution, and there were fortunes to be made for those who could recognize and seize opportunities.  (Further reading: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oldest_railroads_in_North_America )

Today is no different, for the tide is again turning.  Caterpillar is bringing some production back from Japan to a brand-new factory in Georgia; Michelin Tire is building a new plant in Indiana. Kinkisharyo’s innovative Ameritram could dramatically cut the costs of building and maintaining streetcar systems by eliminating much of the need for overhead wire. Down the line we see Bombardier, Siemens, Kawasaki, and the other railway equipment manufacturers of the world gearing up for America’s new age.

Yet the revolution will come not through conservative entities like Amtrak, but through progressive railroads, with the Saratoga & North Creek and now the Florida East Coast  poised to lead the way.

You read that right — Amtrak is a conservative agency, in the truest sense.  It resists every attempt to change from within or without.  States who want to run new trains are rebuffed with absurd costs. All Amtrak seems to have done in the past forty years is slowly wither: Even the vaunted Acela only replaced the Metroliner, without adding appreciably to market penetration.  The fault lies not within their stars — for the people of Amtrak are generally eager and passionate about their work — but within the “self” of the organization, the bureaucratic fiber with which it is woven.

“One entered the city like a god. One scuttles in now like a rat.”
— Vincent Scully

Must we dismantle Amtrak to build the future of passenger trains in America? Perhaps not, but consider New York’s Pennsylvania Station, designed by McKim, Mead, and White just over a hundred years ago.  The edifice fulfilled the role of being a temple of commerce — dare we say a temple devoted to the worship of the Pennsylvania Railroad itself?  It was the right building at the time, an advertisement in stone and steel for the wonders of steam and electricity, a sales brochure in motion for coach and Pullman travel. At the time of its opening, it was the largest and grandest railway station in the world.  The seeds of its demise lay in its foundations: Pennsy president Alexander Cassatt “wanted to add a large hotel upon the site, while [architect] McKim, who, with his classical training, was vehemently opposed to high-rise, ‘anti-urban’ buildings did not… McKim won the argument, and retained the contract. Yet it must be added that the addition of a revenue-earning tower block to the station might have helped to stave off [its] demolition in the 1960s.” (“Pennsylvania Station” Steven Parissien, Phaidon Press, 1996, p.8)

By the late 1950s, the Pennsylvania recognized that its monument no longer fulfilled the commercial needs of the day.  In the battle of Art versus Commerce, was it wrong for a corporation bound to make profit for its shareholders to forsake a building which had come to be regarded more as Form than Function?  I suggest not, although certainly some architect could have done better than the dismal Madison Square Garden which today perches over the platforms, a poorly applied bandage on the open wound of our nation’s unhealed transportation network.

Just as the imperial Pennsylvania Station symbolized its builder, so too does today’s “Penn Station” represent Amtrak: A field of opportunity which has lain fallow for decades too long.

The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north;
it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits.
— Ecclesiastes 1:6

If you cannot see the fortune to be made in passenger trains in your home state, in your home town, then open your eyes.  State after state, region after region, and eventually railroad after railroad are ready to move beyond the past into the future.

And the readers of this column, assembled, have everything required to effect the revolution.

In this ongoing column, we will consider the design of the trains, the buildings, the network, the connections, and the opportunities which await.  We have an exciting journey before us in the third century of American Rail Travel.

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