Fast Trains

Jon Hilkevitch writes about a topic dear to my heart: the new push to have a national rail system that is worth riding, and is fast enough to replace air travel.

View from the Hiawatha
[View from the Hiawatha]

Milwaukee Road rail line coal-burning locomotive was clocked going 124 m.p.h. on a stretch between the Twin Cities and Chicago — in 1939.

Bringing up the rear of the Art Deco-style Hiawatha train was the “Beaver Tail” parlor-observation car (so-named for its downward-sloping shape), where passengers lounging on recliners and couches watched the countryside pass by.

Such long-distance trains routinely barreling across the Midwest at speeds exceeding the century mark may have been far ahead of their time 70 years ago. On the other hand, today’s back-to-the-future plans by the federal government to encourage development of 110-m.p.h. train service in parts of the U.S. may simply lack the spirit and forward-looking approach that was alive back then, or even as recently as the 1960s, when 200-m.p.h.-plus “bullet train” systems were built in Asia and Europe.

The question is whether that transportation system will be the envy of the world, or barely exceed speeds and travel times delivered by past technology.

“I am shocked by the timidness of America. If billions of dollars are going to be spent, why end up with a rail system that is only half as good as what the rest of the world has?” said Andy Kunz, president and chief executive officer of the US High Speed Rail Association. The non-profit association was created in July after the Obama administration announced $8 billion in economic stimulus funding to start construction of a high-speed rail network.

The association’s goal is to advance and coordinate a state-of-the-art system connecting major U.S. cities by 2030. The vision includes building track dedicated to serving 220-m.p.h. electric-powered trains, advanced control systems, top-of-the-line passenger coaches and elegant stations.

[Click to continue reading Are 110-m.p.h. trains on the right track? —]

Willingly Walk on the Crookedest Paths

Trains routinely went quite fast:

The U.S. government did not regulate train speeds in the early 20th Century, effectively encouraging manufacturers to build lightweight, streamlined trains and prompting railroads to rehab their tracks with heavier rails.

In his book The Hiawatha Story Jim Scribbins, who spent his career working for the Milwaukee Road, described Hiawatha equipment designed to cruise at 100 m.p.h. and reach speeds of 120 m.p.h., with reserve power if needed. “Ninety-one m.p.h. seemed like 45,” Scribbins said about a run on May 15, 1935, between Milwaukee and New Lisbon, Wis., during which 112.5 m.p.h. was maintained for 14 miles.

“At 100 m.p.h., a shout erupted from the mechanical department personnel doing the timing — 103.5 … 105 … 105.5 … 109, and still comfortable. Finally came 112.5, and the train rode like a dream. In the diner, a full glass of water held every drop.”

High Speed Rail proposal
[High Speed Rail Proposal – click here for larger view]

Is there hope? We’ll see, but unfortunately, we’ll all probably be too old to enjoy the Super Trains…

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.