May 17, 2009

TOM VANDERBILT on a technology that’s gotten worse since the 1920s. “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. . . . 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. . . . Obama’s bold vision obscures a simple fact: 220 mph would be phenomenal, but we would also do well to simply get trains back up to the speeds they traveled at during the Harding administration.”

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