If there is one thing that the history of America’s experience with railroad construction teaches, it is that globalisation happened long before the Internet, indeed even much further back in time than the 20th century’s neat reorganisation of post-colonial territories into nation-states.

Arguably one of the most remarkable books documenting the evolution of the mighty transcontinental railroad, the 3,200-kilometre “economic umbilical cord” linking the “mother states of the East with the fledgling California on the West,” is Stephen Ambrose’s “Nothing Like It In The World.”

Providing compelling details on the railroad’s construction leading to its comparison with the Great Wall of China, Pyramids of Giza and Panama Canal, Mr. Ambrose described how workers in this mega-project included not only demobilised Union and Confederate soldiers, former slaves, new Irish, Cornish and German immigrants, Mormons from Salt Lake City; but also “the courageous, disciplined Chinese,” who sought to escape the poverty and terrors of the Taiping Revolution.

While Mr. Ambrose regretted discovering that that the Chinese “had left virtually no letters or personal accounts about the project,” reviewer Henry Kisor noted, their stories centred on “efficient, self-effacing teamwork” stole Mr. Ambrose's heart as he narrated the railroad’s growth from an everyman perspective.

In the early years of its planning – the active phase of work was during 1863-69 – the transcontinental line also had memorable brushes with greatness in American history.

In Mr. Ambrose’s account, a Republican politician from Illinois once came to Council Bluffs settlement in Iowa to make a speech on August 13, 1859, a hot day. When he met 28-year-old railroad engineer Grenville Mellen Dodge at the event he vigorously quizzed the man on the ideal route for a Pacific railroad to the West.

Later, Mr. Dodge said of the politician, “He shelled my woods completely and got all the information I'd collected.” The politician’s name, Mr. Dodge discovered, was Abraham Lincoln – and the future President was actually “a farsighted railroad lawyer before the Civil War,” whose advice may have well influenced the railroad’s choice of starting point – Council Bluffs.

The frontier sagas of these early railroad developers are truly wondrous stories – of the courage and fortitude of manual labourers using horses and mules and sometimes gun powder to blast frozen snow off the tracks, of their battles against Native Americans who saw their way of life being eroded – but also chronicles of corporate looting.

Mr. Kisor, for instance, speaks of the “powerful pirates who created the Crédit Mobilier for the Union Pacific Railroad and the Contract and Finance Company for the Central Pacific Railroad – granting lucrative construction contracts to themselves while nearly bankrupting the railroads they owned.”

In some ways these early entanglements of railway companies with financial impropriety and their ultimately dissolution were warning signs of things to come, and in some senses continue to plague railway development even in the modern age.

There is plenty to be unhappy about. Despite acute, 21st-century hand-wringing over the enormous carbon footprint of air and road travel, America’s love affair with, indeed addiction to, planes and cars shows no signs of abating. Despite the railways’ environment-friendly approach to mass-transport problems in an era of pollutant profligacy a bitterly polarised federal government in Washington has balked at investing in it seriously.

For the longest time this did not matter. From the point when the transcontinental railroad connected the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts of the U.S. in the mid-19th century until approximately 1920, nearly all inter-city travellers relied on rail. Yet the rise of the automobile, particularly the emergence of the Greyhound Bus Company and the mushrooming of the National Highway System, cut into the popularity of rail.

Despite a doubling of train speeds during 1919-59 – or perhaps because of the contradictions set in motion by the technology that made that possible – privately-operated railway companies sunk into chronic decline as their managements contended with onerous rate-setting by the Interstate Commerce Commission and with inflexible unions.

With the railway dream in danger of fading out entirely in the 1960s the federal government prudently stepped in. In 1970 President Richard Nixon and a cooperating Congress passed into law the Rail Passenger Service Act – and with the stroke of a pen Amtrak was born.

Today Amtrak, which continues to be a semi-public-funded service operated and managed as a for-profit corporation, operates 300-plus trains daily over approximately 34,000 kilometres of track, at speeds up to 240 kilometres//hour, according to the National Railroad Passenger Corporation.

It also links more than 500 destinations in 46 states and three Canadian provinces and in FY2012 it carried a record 31.2 million passengers, earning $2.02 billion in revenue while employing more than 20,000 people, according to Amtrak data.

Impressive though these numbers may sound, they pale relative to comparable statistics for air and road travel. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics passenger-miles for rail – including transit, commuter and Amtrak/inter-city rail – was 30.9 billion. Yet for air travel it was 583.6 billion and for highway travel – including cars, motorcycles, trucks and buses – a staggering 4.8 trillion.

It would perhaps seem obvious from both an environmental and economic viewpoint that deeper investments into railways, perhaps by taking rail travel to the next level via high-speed trains, ought to be the next step. Indeed nations such as China and Japan, in their varying stages of relative economic development have embarked precisely on such a venture.

Yet Washington has again played spoiler to President Barack Obama’s ambitious post-recession funding plans for high speed rail, with resistance primarily stemming from Republican-controlled states such as Florida. Although a few states such as California have bucked this trend and voted to start high-speed rail projects, the death-blow any dream that Mr. Obama may have had for a nation-wide network may have already been struck.

While the President in his 2011 State of the Union speech outlined a plan for a $53-billion six-year starter project Congressional Republicans stymied his hopes of passing a budget that included these monies, instead actually threatening to claw back even the paltry $10 billion that had been spent already across “dozens of projects across the country.”

Even worse, Republican Governors in Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin “decided to reject billions of dollars in federal rail money that their predecessors had sought and won, arguing that the projects would be costly boondoggles,” the New York Times observed in 2011. It added that Florida had spurned $2.4 billion that would have nearly paid for the nation’s first high-speed train, connecting bustling Tampa and Disney-World-host Orlando.

In many ways the direction that U.S. railway development takes from here depends entirely on the inclusiveness of the vision its people and their leaders have for this nation. Similar to the visceral questions posed during the healthcare reform debate – will America be all about rugged individualists striking it out on their own in a Darwinian economic paradigm? Or will concern for the environment, care for distributive fairness and a sense of consideration for future generations triumph?

Depending on the answers to these complex questions the country will decide on whether to build up its rail infrastructure into the envy of the world – as it is well capable of doing – or let it painfully get degraded until it ultimately becomes an entirely unviable mode of transportation.

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RAILWAYSMarch 10, 2013

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