Folio — From the July 2014 issue

21st Century Limited

The lost glory of America’s railroads

( 2 of 15 )

We are following the route of the New York Central’s most famous train, the 20th Century Limited, which once rivaled Europe’s Orient Express in extravagance. At five o’clock every evening, porters used to roll a red carpet to the train across the platform of Grand Central Terminal’s Track 34. The women passengers were given bouquets of flowers and bottles of perfume; the men, carnations for their buttonholes. The train had its own barbershop, post office, manicurists and masseuses, secretaries, typists, and stenographers. In 1938, its beautiful blue-gray-and-aluminum-edged cars and its “streamline” locomotives — finned, bullet-nosed, Art Deco masterpieces of fluted steel — took just sixteen hours to reach Chicago, faster than any train running today.

The 20th Century Limited became a cultural icon. It was a luxury train, but middle-class people rode it, too. In the heyday of American train travel after World War II, they also rode the Broadway Limited, the Super Chief from Chicago to Los Angeles, and the California Zephyr, which were nearly as celebrated and beloved.

Map by Dolly Holmes

Map by Dolly Holmes

Some twenty years later, it was all over. Virtually every privately owned passenger-rail line had died by 1970, done in by cheap gas and jet engines. The pathetic mishmash of decaying stock that remained was lumped together into a Nixonian experiment: a publicly funded, for-profit corporation dubbed Amtrak. It was widely believed that this arrangement was set up to fail, because saving trains seemed pointless. Americans wishing to travel long distances could drive their cars on the interstates or take a plane or intercity bus. Railroads seemed as archaic a mode of transportation as the wagon train.

But unexpectedly, ridership began to creep up — from fewer than 16 million in 1972 to more than 21 million in 1980. After 9/11, when air travel turned into unmitigated misery, it shot up to 30 million. Along the Northeast Corridor, between Washington and Boston, which generates 80 percent of Amtrak’s revenue, the train’s share of all combined plane and rail traffic has more than doubled, from 37 percent in 2000 to 75 percent today.

Barack Obama, during his 2011 State of the Union address, promised to lead America into a green industrial economy, and he committed his administration to a vision of giving “eighty percent of Americans access to high-speed rail within twenty-five years.” In 2009, invoking our history — Lincoln starting the transcontinental railroad while the Civil War raged, Eisenhower building the interstates during the Cold War — and challenging our national honor (“There’s no reason why we can’t do this: this is America”), the president made the argument that “building a new system of high-speed rail in America will be faster, cheaper, and easier than building more freeways or adding to an already overburdened aviation system — and everybody stands to benefit.”

Trains would help end our dependence on oil as well as our rapid transformation of the earth’s climate and allow us to re-create sustainable communities. Now we would have new trains, fast trains, magnetic-levitation trains that never touch the ground. Not just between nearby cities but across entire states and regions, eliminating the need for new airports and highways, replacing countless barrels of oil with electricity, or maybe using no traditional power source at all!

Yet by the fall of 2013, plans for any new high-speed national rail system — plans even for seriously upgrading our existing rail system — had been delayed for the foreseeable future. How had this come to pass? We used to value trains, used to imbue them and their stations with all the grace, beauty, and efficiency we were capable of as a people and a democracy.

To cross the continent by train in the fall of 2013, just as the organized right was about to shut down the national government, was an opportunity to trace our country’s entire fantastical boom-and-bust progress. It was also a chance to glimpse an American treasure that if squandered might never be regained.

is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine. His latest novel, The Big Crowd, will be out in paperback from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in September.

More from Kevin Baker:

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