Thursday, March 21, 2019

Romance of the Rails

Romance of the Rails: Why the Trains We Love Are Not the Transportation We Need
© 2018 Randal O'Toole
300 pages

"These are the 1930s again, with all the charm and romance, all the gaiety! That was a carefree world, Danny, and I'm gonna make it that way again!"
"You can't! It's nostalgic, it's nice, but it's not true, it's phony!"
"It doesn't have to be phony. If I wish hard enough, it doesn't have to be phony.."
(The Twilight Zone, S01E04. "The 16-Millimeter Shrine")

There was a time when America was knit together with ribbons of steel, linking not only metropolises, but bedroom suburbs.  That time was yesteryear, and it cannot come again – no matter how much we might wish it so. Romance of the Rails is written as a letter to a dying if beloved friend;  former rail advocate author Randal O’Toole reviews the history of passenger trains and their offspring, and scrutinizes the ongoing attempt to bring them back to life, comparing  transit and high-speed rail networks across the globe.  Just as railroads replaced demonstrably less effective modes of transportation,  so they have been replaced – and it is both wasteful and unjust, he argues, to continue propping up a dying industry to benefit a scarce few, in pursuit of recapturing America's boom years.  Although by the end few readers would remain willing to argue for rail transit on economic grounds, O’Toole only briefly touches on other veins of rail support.  

 O’Toole begins with a history of the rise of rail transportation in the United States,   exploring why trains were so successful and what they accomplished.  Trains and other contemporary technologies allowed for a novelty: the  nucleated city, with  superdense business district. Before the Victorian age,  cities consisted of a fairly even mix of residential, commercial, and other areas;    most people traveled on foot (horses and carriages being too expensive), but rails allowed cities to expand outward and upward simultaneously, giving those who could afford it the chance to escape the noise into streetcar suburbs, but also allowing more people ready access into the city. 

In the early 20th century, however,  that began to change – again, because of new technologies. Mass-produced automobiles meant that the same workers who couldn’t afford a carriage a century ago could now afford a different kind of carriage.   Buses, after internal combustion became much cheaper, suddenly emerged as such viable alternatives to trolleys that railroad magnates were investing in them.  The government, too,   was investing in the competition, helping at all levels – from widespread efforts to pave streets, to the federal project of a national highway system.  And then there were airplanes, far faster than trains and buses  and increasingly cheap.  

So it goes. Trains had been completely replaced by services which were cheaper,  which carried more people, which served  more sectors of  the  population, and which were far more nimble.  By every measure,  passenger rail should have been retired to the museums with a hearty “Well done, good and faithful servant”.   Instead, there are continued and expensive attempts to revive rail transit, both trolleys inside cities (which carry less people, at far greater cost,  and consume more space), and passenger rail between cities – either through Amtrak or new high-speed lines modeled on those which were a success in Japan.  Amtrak’s problems are so  severe that even a former creator of the company has written a book urging the public to let it die, and high speed rail is a boondoggle of such great expense that not even California could manage to do it to connect SF and LA.  The economics simply don’t work, O’Toole writes:  trains perform well in Europe and Japan because the populations are so dense and  car ownership so low; that latter is especially important, because it’s why Japanese bullet trains were a success and European ones drove Italy and Spain to the verge of fiscal ruin.  The only thing trolleys do better than at busses, O’Toole says with a bit of snark, is shifting public money from the public itself to the pockets of corporate engineers and lobbyists.  

As someone who has drunk deeply of train nostalgia, I found Romance of the Rails a daunting but sobering read.  I’ve read both histories of trains, and books advocating more mass transit in the form of trolleys, and Romance thoroughly challenges both.  Its amount of documentation is particularly enlightening, as we realize for the cities considered, the introduction of trolley lines to a city already covered by buses often caused a decrease, not an increase, in the amount of transit users. This problem is especially bad when trolleys are deliberately introduced to 'replace' a  bus line, and here O'Toole draws from Human Transit. The history itself was eye opening, as O’Toole argues that commuter trains and inter-city trains were never the transport of the common man, but remained a middle class or above experience.     

There’s part of the story that’s missing here, however,  in that one of the reasons people promote trolleys and such is that they’re more environmentally friendly – not polluting or emitting greenhouse gases.  O’Toole only addresses this lightly, arguing that there is no effective gain in passenger transit over cars, because  passenger trains only displace freight traffic which then has to travel by more polluting trucks. This area of the argument is never explored in full, which I think diminishes the book because it’s such a prominent part of rail advocacy. There's a lot to explore in that vein,  especially given that we can have electric buses which don't have any direct emissions. 

Ultimately, O’Toole believes that there is no evidence-based reason to support trolleys and passenger transit in the United States. Our efforts to do so, he suggests, are based more in nostalgia than the facts. His argument presenting the facts is most impressive, but without  addressing environmental concerns this book is not as excellent as it could have been. Even so,  it's  probably one of the better books on public policy which I’ve read,  and I wish were were more like this, which are written by someone who has changed his position over the years, and so can argue on facts rather than passion which is deaf to any opposition.  Transportation will change enormously in the coming decades, and cities which are serious about a productive transit system would do well to consider how sometimes the best-looking options can perform so poorly. 

And it's not as if cities can't enjoy the best of both worlds....

A bus designed to look like a trolley! (Montgomery, Al.)


  1. Rail travel was doomed by interstate highways, airlines, and more affluent middle classes. Time travel ain’t possible. Railroads are on their deathbed.

  2. disagree... with the demise of oil-driven transport, electric vehicles will take over, imo... i see generators on every stream and river, powering trains and cars and connecting small cities and villages hat will pop up as the urban megalithic centers collapse... probably with solar cells on top of everything...

    1. O'Toole makes a point which may be of interest -- that it's easier to effect greater changes by changing what you have, rather than getting rid of everything and trying to build new mass of something from the ground up. That is, considering how many people already are using cars and buses, it's going to be easier to have an impact by changing those rather than somehow getting everyone to re-enact the 1920s.

      The ready availability of oil is a Damocles knife hanging over us, but these days it seems like such a distant threat that even enthusiast websites like The Oil Drum have shut down. I've had to shift to a watch and wait stance..

  3. Infrastructure issues are so important. This book sounds very relevant and timely. I love on Long Island where hundreds of people ride The Long Island Rail Road every week. Does O’Toole have a substitute for commuter railroads? .

    1. There are a few places where trains still make sense, and the NYC area is one of them - it's mentioned specifically. O'Toole typically advances buses as superior replacements in most cases, but he says at the end that these days ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft are changing even that.


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