Getting There: the Epic Struggle between Road and Rail in the American Century
© 1996 Stephen Goddard
Regardless of the status of George Washington, Napoleon Bonaparte, and William Pitt, each man of power traveled at the same speed as the people they governed: no faster than a running horse. But in the early-mid 19th century, the industrial revolution began producing modes of transportation that would shrink continents, reducing journeys of months into a solitary week. Trains first shriveled the distance and their spans allowed for unprecedented economic growth. That growth produced rail’s first rival, the automobiles — and the highways they drove on. Their competition produced a clear winner in the American 20th century: while the rail lines withered in neglect and passenger service vanished almost entirely, highways covered the landscape. But their struggle was not a fair fight between equals, as both looked for government support and the highwaymen’s superior politicking created a fixed game. Getting There is a history of how the rail barons squandered public trust, failed to unite in the face of potent opposition, and continued to flounder as they were supplanted in the lobbying court by a coalition of highwaymen and automobile manufacturers. The status of the great highways as money pits, however, and the fracturing of that opposing coalition present an opportunity for rail to rally, in Goddard’s view.
Goddard begins with a brief history of rail transportation’s origins before the struggle between the two ensued, a history pitched toward demonstrating how the rail companies’ early success led to abuses of the public, and thus to opposition — — both by popular movements, like the Grange movement of farmers protesting high rail prices in the midwest, then by the Interstate Commerce Commission, the first government institution designed to oversee any part of the economy. The ICC proved first tepid, then tyrannical, and for most of the book plays the part of a ‘bad ref’ or crooked umpire, working the game against trains and for the highwaymen. While regulations forced rail companies to quote the same price for hauling freight regardless of circumstances, unregulated truck drivers could change their rates at their own discretion: rail companies were forced to write to D.C. for permission, and by the time said clearance arrived, the opportunity for hauling would have already vanished. Ironically, the rail companies were partially complicit in their troubles: they promoted the first ‘good roads’ measures so that trucks would take unprofitable short runs off of their balance streets — and so that automobiles would relieve the burden of passengers. Those measures would prove to be another unearned advantage for the automobile industry and highways: while rail companies created and maintained their own lines and stock, car companies, and later car drivers, were given such infrastructure, the funds coming from American taxpayers.
Although the history of American rail is checkered with self-serving episodes, the automobile industry fares no better, as their deliberate campaign to destroy trolley lines in the city and replace them with buses demonstrates. Forcing the rails’ decline and letting the infrastructure fall into scrap would be egregiously unwise, in Goddard’s view. He outlines the problems of our highway-and-auto dominated system: destruction of cities, the financial albatross of maintenance, and pollution among them. While he doesn’t launch into an extensive plea for a rail renaissance, he sees one as inevitable — if government will get out of the way and stop propping up the trains’ competitors. Getting There proves an expansive history — brimming with detail, but never plodding, and covering social life as well as business and politics.
Waiting on a Train: A Year Spent Riding Across America, James McCommons
Straphanger: Saving Our Cities from the Automobile, Taras Grescoe
The Great Railroad Revolution: A History of Trains in America, Christian Wolmar
Asphalt Nation, Jane Holtz Keay