Friday, September 26, 2008

Streamlining Into the Past

The year was 1934. Tough times for trains. Tough times for everyone. In the heart of the Great Depression, the unemployment rate was 25%. American railroads had laid off about one million people, 40% of its work force,

Even before the stock market crash of ’29, railroads had been hurting due to the rise of the automobile. Car registrations increased almost tenfold in ten years. Passenger and freight revenue both shrank. The Depression just deepened the wound.

Then came the Burlington Zephyr. Along with the Union Pacific’s M-10,000, which actually made its debut two months earlier with a nationwide tour, the Zephyr helped revolutionize train travel and industrial design. That spring the gleaming stainless steel passenger train set a new nonstop distance record for trains, traveling a thousand miles from Denver to Chicago in 13 hours, a blistering average speed of 77.5 mph.

The era of streamliners and diesel-electric locomotives had arrived. Even steam got streamed. Many steam passenger locomotives added sleek new hoods, including the prestigious New York Central’s 20th Century Limited and the Pennsy’s Broadway Limited. The Norfolk and Western’s beautiful J series locomotives joined the parade. By the late 1930s the ten fastest trains in the world operated in America.

It was a short celebration, however. Not even the sleek new equipment could stop the demise of American passenger travel. How ironic that the automobile, which drove the railroads out of business, now costs so much to operate that the nation is yearning to ride the tracks again. Will it ever become more than talk, here in Roanoke and elsewhere? We will see. It’s a beautiful image, however: new coaches filled with people rolling right by our VMT, the J-611, and the ghosts of passengers past.

That original Zephyr train made Chicago its destination one final time. After 26 years and over three million miles of service, it entered its retirement home at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry.

Next week I will relive the original historic 1934 trip and it will take me only 20 minutes. At the sprawling museum I will board the revered train for a tour and computer-simulated ride. The train won’t actually go anywhere, of course, except back in time.

My real train ride will also take me into the past as I roll through the mountains of West Virginia and the plains of the Midwest. I will relive the days of the streamliners while riding their heir, Amtrak, the stepchild of the divorce between America and its longtime great love, still valiantly chugging along in a country that has forgotten its transportation roots.

During that journey, including the hours of layover in Chicago on my way to visit family in Missouri, I will experience railroading past and present, large and small. The Museum of Science and Industry also houses The Great Train Story, an HO-scale layout that includes about 58 scale miles of trackage, depicting the train journey from Chicago to Seattle.

I will ride. And look. And remember. And dream.

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At October 4, 2008 at 8:20 AM , Anonymous 70 T Loco said...

Nice, very nice. Enjoyed the history! Let us know about the (train) trip, museum when you return.

At October 10, 2008 at 1:49 PM , Blogger Philosofik said...

Loved the comment about Amtrak as a stepchild from the divorce... great writing.


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