Going Backwards on the Tracks

Author Tom Vanderbilt suggests that train service has been headed in the wrong direction for the better part of a century.
May 22, 2009, 9am PDT | franny.ritchie
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"There is at least one technology in America...that is worse now than it was in the early 20th century: the train.

I have recently been poring over a number of prewar train timetables-not surprisingly, available on eBay. They are fascinating, filled with evocations of that fabled "golden era" of train travel. "You travel with friends on The Milwaukee Road," reads an ad in one, showing an avuncular conductor genially conversing with a jaunty, smartly dressed couple, the man on the verge of lighting a pipe. The brochure for the Montreal Limited, from an era when "de luxe" was still two words, assures travelers that 'modern air-conditioning scientifically controls temperature, humidity and purity of air at all seasons.'

But the most striking aspect of these antiquated documents 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 aforementioned 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."

Thanks to Franny Ritchie

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Published on Wednesday, May 20, 2009 in Slate.com
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