When America Led The HSR Race

Mar 31st, 2010 | Posted by

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.

  1. Bobierto
    Mar 31st, 2010 at 21:23

    You’re a good writer, Robert.

  2. HSRforCali
    Apr 1st, 2010 at 07:06

    It really is a shame that we didn’t fo this decades ago. I guess one advantage of doing it now is that the technology has been developed for faster and more efficient HSTs.

  3. Amanda in the South Bay
    Apr 1st, 2010 at 10:30

    Its like the decline in interurbans that happened at the same time-we’re just now catching up with light rail what we already had over half a century ago.

  4. Andre Peretti
    Apr 1st, 2010 at 15:09

    Believe it or not, but until the fifties America was the model for French rail engineers. All the innovations came from the US. Thousands of American locomotives were imported to France or built under license. Trains played an important part in many Hollywood movies. They looked powerful and magnificent, and children wanted the same trains for Christmas.
    Then, suddenly, America killed them all. The model was gone, and France began to look inward for new solutions. Until it, too, became a model. One thing is sure, though: the vocation of many French engineers began with a fascination for American trains.

  5. lyqwyd
    Apr 1st, 2010 at 17:14

    This is a great post, but also kind of depressing, just think where we’d be if we hadn’t taken the path of highway expansion…

  6. Eric
    Apr 1st, 2010 at 20:46

    So went HSR, so goes space technology…

  7. YesonHSR
    Apr 1st, 2010 at 21:46

    We had a huge passenger rail system until it fell apart in the mid-late 50-60s..Overnight trains between many major cities..get on in the evening have dinner..sleep in a nice roomette or bedroom and arrive in the early morning center city..and fast.. like NYC to CHI in 16 hours..Very sad

  8. Risenmessiah
    Apr 1st, 2010 at 22:09

    Economics, finance, engineering, urban planning….all salient factors but they are dwarfed by race.

    Car culture in California is and was as much about racial self-segregation as anything else. Sure, race defined urban planning, especially in Southern California too, but the car culture has contribued to the fin-de-siecle attitude that many whites in the Golden State have. That they can not change and live they way they want, because they have the windows rolled up when they roll through the rough part of town….

    Don’t forget that air travel used to be a luxury that few could afford. After it was deregulated, the most popular services were those favored by nowhite immigrants that offered cheap “no-frills” airlines. That caused the wealthiest to abandon commercial airlines altogether and break the model that had kept many of the legacy carriers in business.

    Spokker Reply:

    I ride the bus with Mexicans! Hooray!

    Alon Levy Reply:

    I don’t think it’s racial, not in California. At the time California started to adopt car culture, circa the 1920s, it was a racially integrated place, not least because there weren’t enough minorities for people to be concerned about. The white/black segregation only became a big issue during WW2, with friction between blacks and Southern whites at factories, and the white/Hispanic issue only became salient once Mexican immigration picked up. Highway construction was instead motivated by hatred of Southern Pacific and its corruptions.

    In contrast, in the Rust Belt, highway construction was often built with the express purpose of moving the white middle-class away from integrated neighborhoods. In New York this was refined to the point where Moses intentionally built highway overpasses too low for buses to pass, especially highways serving recreational beaches.

    wu ming Reply:

    racially integrated in the 20s? wha? california only repealed its miscegenation laws in 1948, and a whole host of anti-mexican and anti-asian laws and regulations in the 40s as well. california was deporting california-born mexican-americans in the 20s and 30s, and had been trying to segregate its public schools since it had public educational system. there’s a whole body of case law just derived from attempts to racially segregate california in the 19th and early 20th century. ironically enough, the blog owner here, robert, is probably one of the better people to ask about race and california’s postwar urban/suburban politics, given that he’s writing his PhD diss on it.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Oh, California was definitely not racially tolerant. But, first, there weren’t that many Asians and Mexicans in it, not by today’s standards. Second, the modern segregation of places is a postwar phenomenon; even at the height of segregation, people of different races lived more or less in the same areas, and had similar cultures. (At least, white and black cultures were similar – I can’t vouch for Hispanic and Asian cultures.) And third, the hatred of Southern Pacific was never racially motivated. That’s all I meant.

    Robert Cruickshank Reply:

    That’s not entirely true. The lines and practices of residential segregation according to race in California were at their strictest and most divided after World War II, that much is true. But it does not follow that prewar California was “integrated,” not by a long shot.

    African Americans were never present in large numbers in CA prior to 1940, but those that were did tend to live in clusters, and faced discriminatory barriers when wanting to buy or rent outside the neighborhoods where they already lived.

    Restrictive covenants – language written into property deeds forbidding the sale or rental of property to people of color or of non-European backgrounds – became commonplace in California in the 1920s. Many of these are still in property deeds, even though the US Supreme Court ruled them unenforceable in 1948.

    It’s a stretch to say that “white and black cultures were similar” in California in the 1920s. They weren’t entirely different, but then again neither were they entirely different after World War II, since white and black Southerners migrated to CA in roughly similar numbers during the war.

    While there weren’t as many Asians and Latinos in CA in terms of overall numbers as today, there were sizable proportions of Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, and Mexicans in California in the first decades of the 20th century. Asian Americans faced considerable residential segregation that was often enforced by outright violence. Mexican Americans faced residential segregation as well, often enforced by landlords and less frequently by violence.

    As to hatred of Southern Pacific, racism did fuel some of that, though at an earlier time. In the 1870s and 1880s SP was denounced for its hiring practices, using Chinese laborers instead of white laborers. In later years (1890s, primarily) SP was attacked again for resisting white efforts to oppose immigration. Through the late 19th century large corporations were attacked by the white working-class as favoring non-white labor because it was supposedly more easily exploited.

    tomh Reply:

    Car culture is a race thing? Huh? Have you been on BART or CalTrain or the ferries during commute hours? Car culture is about being able to get from point A to point B in one mode of transit (no transfers) without being dependent on a time table. Also, the fact that freeways are HEAVILY subsidized so they appear to be free (in terms of cost) to the driver, drives car culture.

    And non-white immigrants are driving the cheap “no-frills” airlines? Are you serious? Have you even flown on Southwest or JetBlue? No, believe it or not, but even white people are sensitive to price.

    This image of yours of only non-white immigrants (who you must think are all poor) taking public transit and flying on airliners, while only white people (who you must think are all rich) drive and fly in private jets is totally out of touch with reality.

    Risenmessiah Reply:

    Car culture is also about being disconnected from your surroundings. It’s about being a private, controlled space. It goes without saying that initially, whites embraced the car culture so that they could be free of the time table and free to work wherever they wanted. But it also ensured that areas like West L.A. and the Peninsula could resist a subway for a long, long time.

    Moreover, it’s not that all whites are rich or anything of the sort. It’s the new nonwhite immigrants to the US (like Asian Americans) effectively changed air travel by embracing using the Internet for travel plans and focusing more price than say, a travel agent or loyalty programs. Once that happened, the legacy carriers were doomed.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Your history of air travel is wrong. So is the sociology: Asians are only 4% of the US population; they couldn’t make much of a difference in air travel patterns. And Southwest started growing in the 1970s, at which time the US had a foreign-born percentage in the single digits.

    In fact, American low-cost carriers are increasingly competing on service, not price. If you reserve ahead of time, they’re no cheaper than the legacy carriers. It’s the European and Asian low-cost carriers that provide truly no-frills service and compete on price alone. Ryanair manages to thrive without targeting minority markets.

    That, and the notion that using the Internet for booking flights is an immigrant-run phenomenon is ridiculous.

    Robert Cruickshank Reply:

    Agreed. Risenmessiah has a point about California “car culture” and its connection to post-1945 white flight, but the point falls apart completely when it comes to air travel, as you rightly noted.

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