walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

_Train Time_, John R. Stilgoe

Subtitled: Railroads and the Imminent Reshaping of the United States Landscape

I've been trying to wrap my brain around trains lately, and every glimpse I get of the topic indicates that it is a vast, gaping maw of Too Much Information. This book is my initial effort to limit the scope by sticking to recent and relevant. Published in 2007, Stilgoe teaches something or other at Harvard, but he's all about getting people to really Look At what's around them and try to understand it, and what was once there and what might be there some day. He's been working a variety of angles on this for a while, and wrote a book in the early 1980s that explored train corridors around big cities.

In the wake of that, he was asked some pointed questions by non-students that got him curious about what developers and real estate speculators might be thinking about when it came to once and future railroads. This book is the result of that thinking. I'll warn you right now: when people say Stilgoe has a weird writing style? Definitely an understatement. If only it were obvious how to fix it, but, alas, it is not obvious. Thus, we can reasonably expect him to continue to write about things in an oddly elliptical and non-specific way, with awkward grammar. I could wish that he was a bit clearer about his sourcing. You should know, however, that I wish that about almost everyone.

The book I read before this (_Wrestling with Moses_) was a small part of why I was reading this one. After all, if I think Moses goatfucked transportation in and around NYC (to be fair, all the other planners were doing the same thing in their cities), what _should_ they have done? And did they know that? Stilgoe provides partial answers to those questions, and they are depressing. Yes, they probably should have known: railroads had plans to electrify, straighten and otherwise increase speeds on existing lines and add more. Why did the car win? Well, remember: the guv'mint pays to lay asphalt down and maintain it. But railroads have to put their own roads down -- and what they can charge for using them is damn highly regulated, too.

The book is really one bizarre revelation after another. If I understood Stilgoe correctly, JFK had access to trend-line projections that indicated current transportation policy would lead eventually to downtowns composed exclusively of multi-story parking garages. I know I understood him correctly when he said that the decision to have the USPS start shipping parcels -- and subsidize rates -- wiped out the express and railway mail companies that were rolled up from other companies in 1929. Anyone who has tried to ship something weird, large or heavy via UPS, FedEx or other knows It Can't Be Done. What I didn't know was how damn easy it used to be -- which explains a lot of fiction written up through WWII.

I knew that short-line railroads were still shipping stuff in and out of big farms in the Midwest. I also knew that farmers were running big rigs. I had not realized _why_ the farmers were running big rigs, nor did I know the cost to the roads of doing so -- or what happened to farm economies when the short-line railroads (no longer getting the harvest business that was now being trucked to a pays-slightly-more facility some miles away) quit serving the farms (and supplying fertilizer, propane...). I can't quite decide which hoary saying is more appropriate. Maybe I'll go with, penny wise, they're definitely being hanged for that 2 cents a bushel premium.

Stilgoe is so fascinated by the speculative real estate possibilities, and (apparently) so enamored of Small Town Living (or at least the rich suburban illusion thereof) that he is making a set of assumptions about light rail versus commuter rail that I wonder about. I'll try to simplify.

There are rail rights of way in and around downtowns, often currently being used for freight to some degree, formerly used for freight and passenger as part of a regional and/or national wide network of rail transportation. These rights of way are very tempting to people who want to put in some kind of rail-transportation of people, either light rail or whatever. If you use (part of) that right of way for light-rail, as the usage of the remainder continues to be used by freight -- in fact increased movement of freight by rail (as fuel becomes more expensive, and as congestion makes trucking ever more non-viable in cities) -- means there isn't an opportunity to put in commuter rail. What, you might reasonably ask, is the difference? Light rail = street car = not gonna go 80 mph, not gonna go more than 20ish miles out. Commuter rail = Real Train = could go 100+ mph, probably not stopping until at least 20 miles out and then not often. Generalizations such as these will be violated.

Someone looking to really densify a metropolitan area is going to go, screw you, to the commuter rail -- that just encourages suburbia, and continues the viability of the exurbs. It is worth pointing out to those people that NYC in through the teens (of the 20th century), hit some problems and started thinking about creating a ring road -- a road of the _rail_ kind of road. People who love their Lake Stevens, WA, or Hollis, NH lifestyle, however, are likely to argue in favor of leaving the commuter rail option open. That Stilgoe describes taking part of I-93 south of Boston over for a commuter rail line (since the other options are pretty much impossible) as obscene gives one pause: does _he_ think that's obscene? Because I could have sworn he said I-93 was built on top of 6 track anyway. I'd call that just another example of reuse recycle repurpose what goes around comes around.

In general, it is hard to escape the suspicion that Stilgoe has positive feelings towards the industrial magnates and rail barons who escaped to remote wilderness resorts by private railcar in the glory days of rail. It's definitely clear that Stilgoe sees some of that coming back as people with the resources realize they can get some of the goodies that created and went with that lifestyle back by returning to rail. I find this stance (imagined, or real, I don't know) problematic. But you might not.

Other topics in the book include long-distance passenger transportation on rail, what it used to accomplish and what it might do once again, not-so-hidden subsidies of airline travel (especially service to smaller airports), container shipping, automation of railroads, intermodalism, rail-access to resorts and vacations in the days of rail past and perhaps again.

A fascinating book and very thought-provoking. There are endless lines of possible research to pursue after reading _Train Time_ through once, and I suspect I'll be turning right 'round and reading it again before passing it along to my step-father-in-law, who is a real historian, and who can tell me definitively whether Stilgoe is full of crap or not. Because I honestly cannot tell.
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