Tuesday, March 12, 2019

The road not taken

Just got back from a train trip from our home in Wisconsin to California and back. We took the route that goes through the Sierra Nevada mountains, and then on in to the bay area.

Sometimes we were next to the interstate, and sometimes, we were off on our own. Had a bit of trouble getting through the deep snow, ended up stopping in Reno, bussing the rest of the way.

Got me to thinking about the condition of the rail system, and what it could have been.

Its genesis could be said to have started with Dwight Eisenhower in 1919. He was part of a cross country Army convoy, to assess military mobility and status of the existing roads. It was a disaster, and the roads at the time were pretty bad, making quite an impression on him.

So, when he later was president during the cold war, the perceived need to easily evacuate cities and mobilize military forces prompted the creation of the Interstate Highway system. Signed in 1956, it took 35 years and almost $500,000,000,000 to build. ( that's with a B)

It created a lot of jobs and spurred economic growth, but what if he had championed another solution?

What if he had decided that the better choice was to upgrade the rail system, and overlay that on the nation's terrain instead of highways? After all, a lot of the right of ways were already secured.

It might have gone like this:
- a network of rails similar in arrangement to the interstate.
- upgraded rails, with a couple more tracks on each route, with beefed up bridges and rail-bed capacity.
-intermodal hubs to enable quick offload to trucking for the final miles to destinations.
-modified curves and bed stability to allow speeds up to 100MPH, maybe more.

And here would be the positive side effects if this option had been taken.
-more energy efficient freight hauling with large energy and money savings resulting.
-cheaper highway system, with much less semi truck traffic to tear it up, and lower load capacities, with cheaper construction and maintenance costs.
- a better infrastructure to piggy back passenger train travel, making for fewer car trips needed.
- probably less air travel, both for freight and for passenger travel.
- traffic in between towns would revitalize small towns, most of which now are bypassed by interstates.
A couple shots of our trip through the Sierras ( sorry for poor quality, overcast and through a train window)

Hard to tell scale, but these cuts through the drifts were done with giant snow blowers, and the cut is higher than my head in most places, and about ten feet in a few places.


  1. Hi Steve,

    Yeah, the rail system here is a former shadow of itself too and plenty of it iwas dismantled in the late 1950's to 1960's. We still have good country rail links and the trains are reasonably fast 130kmh / 80mh which is fast enough, but you can see from the train where lines once headed off in different directions to towns that have no public transport other than buses.

    Mate, that snow is something else. I saw an article that a train was stranded in Washington state due to the snow, and the passengers were evacuated. I hope you weren't part of that story?

    We have the other side of the problem with the trains and when the temperature is past about 95'F, the trains are slowed to 80kmh / 50mh which adds some serious time to the journey in to the city which is normally slightly under an hour from the local station.

    Did you have a sleeper cabin for such a huge journey across the country?


  2. Hi Chris;

    No we were not on the stranded train. They were actually out in between stops, so getting to them was a bit tricky. Amtrak knew ahead of time our track was blocked, so dumped us onto busses at the last stop before the snow.

    We tried the cheaper option once, where you sit in a chair ( it reclines a bit, but still...) for two days and two nights, but it was a tough go. As we age, we REALLY appreciate that we can afford the sleeper car option.