When America Led The HSR Race
Mark Reutter has a fantastic article up at Progressive Fix about the history of high speed rail – and how HSR was made in America. Before government subsidies shifted toward freeways and airplanes, the US was the global leader in high speed rail innovation. After the mid-1950s, the US gave up that lead, but its technology was immediately adopted and improved to serve as the basis of HSR innovation in other countries:
In the period between 1935 and 1950, the 10 fastest scheduled passenger trains in the world were all U.S. streamliners….
What differentiated our streamliners from contemporary trains in Europe and Asia was advanced technology. American railroads and equipment suppliers had not only pioneered the diesel-electric locomotive in the 1930s – a quantum leap over from the old steam locomotive – but introduced lightweight cars with better wheel sets, couplers, braking systems and lower centers of gravity to negotiate curves at higher speeds….
To operate the Shinkansen, or “New Trunk Line,” between Tokyo and Osaka, Sogo actively imported technology from America, including the two-axle trucks of the Budd Manufacturing Co. and dynamic braking pioneered by General Motors’ Electro-Motive Division. To top it off, the Japan ordered the most advanced computer used outside of military applications (built by yet another American company, Bendix) to operate the line’s signal and dispatching systems.
Remarkably, the U.S. government gave Japan foreign aid – money purportedly going to an underdeveloped country – to build a rail infrastructure far superior to our own.
In short, America slept while the world innovated. Perhaps in 1956, the year the Interstate Highway Act was passed and the year M. King Hubbert predicted “peak oil”, when America was the undisputed global economic colossus providing unprecedented economic prosperity to its population, it made sense to assume that innovation could come to an end and that cheap oil meant we could rely on freeways and flights forever.
Of course, in retrospect that doesn’t seem to have been such a good idea, as the US has now become dependent on oil and increasingly crippled by its rising costs. Even though most California businesses, especially those in the Bay Area, are strong supporters of high speed rail, a few folks are unwilling to admit that the 1950s are over, and that cheap oil and freeways and airplanes won’t be able to handle our transportation or economic needs.
As I’ve said before, the fight to build high speed rail isn’t just about economics, finances, engineering, and urban planning. It’s also about whether we assume the status quo is just fine and can last forever, or whether we understand and accept the need to change and embrace the future. The status quo includes the decision to abandon HSR development in the 1950s and 1960s, and the future includes the decision by Californians in 2008 to embrace HSR as part of their state’s future.
California can now lead the HSR race for the country, and bring the best that the world has to offer in steel-wheel high speed trains to the state. Now is the time to take that lead, as looming increases in oil prices will provide another stark reminder of the failure of the status quo and the pressing need to embrace change.