“Nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return,” Milan Kundera, Ignorance
Pick up an American op-ed hostile to rail and somewhere along the way you are likely to read that rail boosters are either technological reactionaries (they want a return to 19th-century technology!), or that they are clouded by nostalgia for a supposed golden age of travel. These criticisms are deceptively powerful, and frequently true. This mentality surely motivates much rail support, especially among the baby-boomer set.
I too have a great personal love for trains. My handy copy of the 1,200-page Complete Guide to the Railways (1954) fills me with something approaching awe. (You mean there used to be service from St. Louis to Mexico City, with connections to Oaxaca?!? Or for that matter, an electrified ride through the Cascades?) The scale of service we have lost in the past 60 years is truly incredible. But it is critically important that as rail advocates we carefully differentiate the sentimental from the sensible.
More after the jump…
We should be careful not to essentialize trains. As an historical aside, perhaps no other industry so devastated local environments as the railroads. Gifted acres of land by the millions, choosing the choicest routes along the best rivers, and operating without a trace of labor or environmental laws, the railroads clearcut, blasted, and mined their destructive way to the coasts.
Thus trains – like any tool – are not an inherent public good, and they only become a public good relative to prevailing alternatives; their status as a desirable means is contingent upon some agreed comparison of ends. In places where we need high capacity, high frequency, dedicated rights-of-way, and high speeds, rail can be an unparalleled performer. But we do a disservice to our credibility when we play amateur route-makers and pine for rail wherever there is an historic right-of-way. (Rail in Maple Valley or Covington will never make sense!) Likewise, we do ourselves a favor when we oppose bad rail ideas. (IMHO, Ohio 3C and Florida HSR were both bad projects that burned valuable political capital.)
Rail scales up well and scales down terribly. Thus it seems self-evident to me that a skeletal, widely-dispersed national system exempt from competitive pressures represents the worst way to do rail; our 40-year experience with Amtrak should prove as much. Such a system absorbs all the sunk costs of rail operation without reaping the profits that its true capacity offers. (And despite the recent focus on speed – I still maintain that not going slow is much more important than going very fast.)
None of this is to deny the condescension, arrogance, and disrespect of process by which the governors of Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin canceled their recent projects. Their criticisms were mostly boilerplate designed to maintain a facade of rationality behind the bitter partisanship. But as rail advocates we need to keep our own house in order; we need to be selective but passionate with our support, and do our best to focus upon the mobility and development outcomes of any project rather than getting sidetracked by the sexiness of steel.
But at the same time let’s put our critics’ straw man to rest. We don’t want a return to the 19th century; we are done with stumptowns, regrades, Great Fires, and a world without labor and environmental laws. What we want is entirely new and entirely progressive: yesterday’s density with today’s affluence. We don’t want yesterday’s density-by-necessity, we want today’s density-by-choice. And we won’t get there with sentimentality, with nostalgia, or by blowing our political capital spreading projects too thin. In the Northeast, California, and Chicago, we need to go big. In the Pacific Northwest, our quiet incrementalism will pay off.