Golden Age of Rail

Is the Golden Age of Rail really over for good? If the air passenger industry doesn’t reinvent itself soon, might rail again be the next really big thing?

I saw one of those grand old railroad nostalgia specials on PBS earlier this week. This one was America and the Passenger Train (Producer: Richard W. Luckin):

“This program traces the development of America’s passenger trains from 1830 to 2008 through interviews and vintage footage. Many leading experts from the railroad industry and railroad museums are interviewed – along with people who rode the 20th Century Limited, Super Chief, California Zephyr and the Daylight. Hosted by Tia Marier.”

I grew up right at the tilting-point of those great railroad days. The elegant 1920’s dining-car experiences you can watch on “Poirot” had already mostly disappeared. American rail still offered a luxury service for the well-heeled traveler right up to about 1970. And I was never “well-heeled” anyway.

But by 1970, the automobile and commercial air travel had cut so heavily into rail passenger revenues that many railroads just tossed in the towel. Some railroads hung in there for a while, feeling that even as a “loss leader” the elegance and leisure of rail travel was a great public relations boon.

It was, but it wasn’t enough. The glamor and excitement of air travel, coupled with half-day coast-to-coast travel, spelled doom for long-distance rail travel. People no longer had time to travel by train. Today, it’s theoretically possible for an executive to jet from San Francisco to New York, attend a short conference or board meeting, and jet home to San Francisco in time for dinner.

Theoretically possible, but dehumanizing. There are new barriers and obstacle courses for air travel that didn’t exist two decades ago. Add an extra hour of wait time at each airport, security checks, baggage delays, penurious overhead luggage storage, hidden extra fees for pillows, blankets, soft drinks and suitcases, a generally indifferent and sometimes hostile airline service bureaucracy, and unscheduled flight delays and cancellations. What you have is a disenchanted public and a formula for the next great revolution in travel, whatever that may be.

There’s no question airlines are feeling the pinch of fuel costs. We all are, But the industry’s troubles started way back when oil was well below $60 a barrel, not $100+ as it is today. “The economy” or not, airlines manufactured most of their own problems.

I shuttled back and forth from my Bay Area to Phoenix for over two decades. Apart from infrequent “frequent flyer” upgrades to First Class, I traveled in Steerage, or whatever euphemism they were currently applying to the cattle-car section of the main cabin. I’m only 5’8″ and 150 pounds, yet economy air seats were uncomfortably cramped even for me. I found the last several years of this to be really quite dreadful. One thing all we passengers loved to talk about was the deterioration of air service.

My long-distance rail travel was limited to an aged troop train during the Cuban Crisis, hardly illustrative of the Golden Age of rail travel. But I used and liked “light rail” a lot in the 1990’s; the SF Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) was a generally delightful experience. What I liked about it: you got on your train, traveled to your destination, and got off the train again. It’s that simple.

And who, desiring to hop BART from Oakland to San Francisco, has ever had to shop Travelocity to get the best price for a ticket? If you look at USAir quotes for a no-frills flight to Phoenix over the period of a few weeks, you’ll see what a shell game the ticket pricing racket really is. And we’re their “marks.”

Air travel has something in common with CostCo, apart from the difference that CostCo employees are polite. Sure, you can save money at a CostCo, particularly if you spend a lot there, but there’s one thing you cannot claim. No one has ever parked at a CostCo, dashed in to buy an item, and dashed back out again. That huge warehouse selection means endless corridors in a vast enclosed space, pushing carts for miles and miles “just looking” for your shopping list, and long lines at the check-outs. Airports are designed for compartmentalized efficiency. Think of a REALLY huge warehouse containing a Home Depot, CostCo, Safeway, and a Fry’s Electronics, and you have an idea of what the modern airport is really about. It is NOT designed for passenger convenience.

Call me disenchanted, disaffected, or disgruntled. For my money, the commercial airline industry can abandon interstate air passenger traffic – something it hasn’t been very good at for over 20 years – leaving it free to concentrate on air freight, the more lucrative and uncomplaining cash cow.

This is exactly what the railroads had to do half a century ago, though for different reasons. Is it too much to hope we’ve come full circle?

Would the next big thing be high-speed rail? At 220-360 mph, a bullet train will never beat a 600 mph jetliner to the destination, but when you factor in terminal delays and flight cancellations, it comes close. There are more security options, too, including disconnecting the locomotive entirely. A terrorist can’t just hijack a railroad train and crash it into a World Trade Center. If someone pulls the emergency cord, all the passengers can just get off: what are terrorists supposed to do about that? “Take me to Cuba”: not spoken on the rail lines.

You can also electrify rail lines and run them on clean renewable energy. Air traffic consumes tanker-loads of fossil fuels. Aviation will be the last  sector of the energy economy to be switched over, if ever.

Think about rail. There is just something really dangerously attractive about getting on, traveling to your destination, and just getting off again.

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History Snippets: Cradle-land of Battles

“History Snippets” serializes small bits of research from an unfinished test project. The theme is technology and natural events that shaped our modern world.

You have seen it all before, in Egypt’s disintegrating Middle Kingdom. The shifting dunes of time covered man’s works just as surely as the surf and incoming tide leave no trace of the child’s sand fortress on the shores …

Persepolis - from Elvis's weblog

“How the mighty have fallen! The weapons of war have perished!” — David’s Lament for Saul and Jonathan

Cradle-land of Battles

This is about the world of Athens and Sparta in the time of the Battle of Marathon. Sparta did not participate in this battle, but later redeemed itself in the even more famous Battle of Thermopylae. We’ll not rehash those famous battles. We’ll instead seek a cameo snapshot of the people and their embattled civilizations of that time. For their contributions to what would become western civilization, we owe a great debt. In their failures, there may be great lessons yet to be fully realized.

The year was -490, or “490 BC” in the way we reckon years today. It was a time of contentious – should we say global? – preparations for the defense of a divided and vulnerable western world against the generals of the mighty Persian king, Darius.

“Global” meant known land masses within roughly a thousand miles of the Mediterranean, and perhaps included what little might have been known of a few lands even beyond that.

Darius has already conquered and subdued the Greek presence along all of the western shores of Asia, along and inland of the Aegean Sea. We don’t need to brush up on history to recognize many of the place names: Hellespont, Troy, Lesbos, Chios, Ionia, Sardis, Magnesia, Maeander River, Dorian Cities, Rhodes. Once a conquered city found itself paying tribute to the Persian superpower, life wasn’t bad. Stability and security were practically guaranteed. Trade, agriculture and commerce flourished in the Persian war-free zone. It was hard for the homeland Greek cities of the peninsula to win back the affection of those conquered Aegean city-states. Grecian by heritage, those conquered people felt no loyalty to an Athens which had betrayed and warred with them so many times in the past. Continue reading

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History Snippets: Manned Flight

Early Manned Flight

Early Biplane

Early US Mail Plane (1918). The Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” biplane may have been the first widespread commercial and peacetime use of aircraft, being used by the U.S. Government to deliver the mail. Image is from Antique Airfield – a worthwhile site.

Going from the very old to the very recent:

SR-71 Blackbird

SR-71 Blackbird. Here is a fast introduction to high-altitude air travel. Many modern readers may not recognize the “Blackbird”, the super-secret successor to the more famous U2 spy plane. Aircraft length was 107 feet – about the same as a Greek or Persian trireme, only faster, and self-propelled.

The SR-71 hit a top speed of about 2,200 miles per hour (some claim 3,000 mph). It carried a crew of two pilots in the small cockpit. The rest of the aircraft is almost entirely engine and fuel tanks. In a tight turn, it could just manage to circle in an area the width of the state of California. Each engine could produce 32,500 pounds of thrust.

This was not necessarily the first aircraft which actually changed its shape in flight depending on velocity – but the scope of SR-71 in-flight airframe changes even included the air intakes. At “normal” speeds the engine was a conventional turbojet, but above Mach 3 turbine blades would burn up, so adjustable cone-shaped projections within the intakes were designed to convert the engines to ramjets. see Wikipedia for more details.

My favorite anecdote about the aircraft: in flight the pilots used to heat up their lunches (toasted cheese sandwiches) by placing them under the windshield in the cockpit. This suggests the difficulty of designing such a craft, when the air friction at Mach 3 could heat ordinary metals red-hot. This would cause immediate catastrophic failure, so the entire airframe and skin were constructed of titanium.

On the ground, I once walked completely around a decommissioned SR-71 at an outdoor air museum. It looked like a completely different aircraft from every angle, giving no sense of size or shape. At the end, even though I knew the aircraft and its celebrated history, the circuit was disorienting. I was unable to describe what I just saw.

The SR-71 aircraft was retired in 1998, and is believed to still be the fastest aircraft ever manufactured in the world. Click the image to see a larger picture. (continued next page)

Continue reading

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History Snippets: Battleships

“History Snippets” serializes small bits of research from an unfinished test project. The theme is technology and natural events that shaped our modern world.

In the 20th century we developed giant warships (now obsolete) we called “Battle Ships”. Weighing about 45,000 tons, with a waterline length of about 860 feet and a speed of about 64 kilometers per hour, these were the most heavily armed ships ever put to sea. The “Iowa class” vessels carried nine 16-inch guns, firing projectiles weighing around a ton up to 20 miles.

In World War II, battleships were found to be indefensibly vulnerable to attack by air. They were replaced, in a historical blink of the eye, by the aircraft carrier.

USS Missouri, Iowa class battleship

USS Missouri. The Iowa class battleship was constructed to a length of 887 feet, with a draft of about 29 feet. Click the image to see a larger picture, with enough detail to show sailors standing on the deck, which gives a better idea of the scale of this vessel. The Missouri weighed about 45,000 tons and carried a massive complement of guns described more fully in Wikipedia. After retrofitting in 1984 she carried 1,851 men and officers. Click the image to see a larger picture.

The USS Missouri served in World War II, the Korean War, the Gulf War and other hot spots throughout most of the 20th century. The historic signing of the Japanese Instrument of Surrender took place on board, signed by General Douglas MacArthur and Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu, with numerous Allied military officials in attendance, on September 2, 1945.

The “Mighty Mo” was reactivated in 2984, outfitted with missiles and modern guidance systems to complement her 16-inch guns, and saw service the Gulf War, where she  served essentially as a seagoing gunnery island to soften up Iraqi positions inland.  She had also served in anti-piracy duty in the Persian Gulf, and must have been a massively imposing deterrent to Iranian-manned cigarette boats operating in the area.

Compare the ship above to the ancient Greek war trireme,  which was usually 120 feet or less in length with a draft (displacement) of about three feet of water.

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History Snippets: Cast-iron Cannon

“History Snippets” serializes small bits of research from an unfinished test project. The theme is technology and natural events that shaped our modern world.

Below is a cast-iron cannon mounted on a wooden carriage, typical of about the 18th century.

Small carriage cannon

Small carriage cannon Image from Wikipedia Common. Here we see a cast iron cannon on what might be a horse-drawn carriage.

What we don’t see is the mine that produced the iron ore, the foundry that smelted the iron and cast the blank for the cannon, or the factory that machined and finished the cannon and perhaps also cast the lead balls. We don’t see the industry that mined and refined the potassium nitrate, ground the sulfur and charcoal, and mixed the gunpowder.

To actually build such weapons first required learning how to heat large quantities of metal to temperatures earlier cultures could not yet attain.  Tools hard enough to cut and fashion the new metal had to be invented, shaping the parts to a precision for which the tools of measurement didn’t exist in earlier times … One could not simply master precision casting of a cast-iron or bronze barrel with a hollow bore. The bore had to be machined or polished to a sufficient smoothness to prevent the projectile from  sticking and blowing up both cannon and cannoneer.

The chain of productive innovation needed to set all this in motion would take the cooperation of a whole country or group of countries, and this would take centuries, not decades. Earlier city-states could rarely afford to develop such undertakings on their own. It is hard to grasp the full challenge of the required  technology infrastructure at first.

Ironically, countries that could best absorb the cost of large-scale military technology would be those that also excelled in the free trade of goods and services in peacetime. Conquistador-style looting, plunder and civilization-wrecking were essentially a static one-time transfer of  wealth by force, and could carry the enormous overhead of industrialization only so far.

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