The Human Drama of the Railways

If I can go multi-modal for a moment, I’ve got a piece in the current Metropolis (here or text after the jump) that looks at a new show at Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum, Art in the Age of Steam: Europe, America and the Railway, 1830–1960, in the context of the current state of rail.

Here’s a transpo teaser:

“One of the reasons rail travel can feel outdated is that journey times are often of the last century—or worse. The Brattleboro Reformer notes that in 1938 one could travel the Connecticut Yankee (one of a number of options) from Brattleboro, Vermont, to New York in four hours and 42 minutes. Today, there’s only one train, and it takes around six hours—when it’s on schedule, which about 75 percent of the time it’s not.”

When it opened in 1914 in Kansas City, Missouri, Union Station was the country’s third largest train station, a vast, balustraded, pilastered Beaux Arts fantasy of civic uplift. The renowned Chicago architect Jarvis Hunt, challenged by the financier E. H. Harriman to build a monument, did just that: it was a self-contained metropolis, complete with its own jail, a dedicated floor for freight and mail handling, and the North Waiting Room—capacity 10,000 and the size of a football field. By 1917, it was handling a record 70,000 trains a year. During World War II, as the Harvard University landscape historian John Stilgoe wrote in his 2007 book Train Time, the “immense station throbbed with activity almost impossible to imagine today.” Nearly half of all soldiers going to war, Stilgoe noted, “walked through its Grand Hall.”

In the 1960s, in the wake of the interstate-highway system, Union Station was handling less than half of its World War II peak. Two decades later, a mere half-dozen passenger trains made a station stop in Kansas City. The ignominious coup de grâce came in 1985, when Amtrak moved its remaining operations to a smaller facility. Following a thorough renovation in the 1990s, Union Station again bustles with life, but today’s visitors mostly travel no farther than the museums, shops, and restaurants that are now the station’s stock-in-trade. Instead of catching a train, visitors pilot the vintage-train simulator at the KC Rail Experience.

Given that many Americans now see train travel in the dim light of nostalgia, something to be “experienced” in a museum, it is difficult to conjure the social palpitations induced by the emergence of train travel in the 1800s. The way artists first responded to the train is the subject of Art in the Age of Steam: Europe, America and the Railway, 1830–1960, a show at Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (not so far from Union Station), produced in conjunction with the Walker Art Gallery of the National Museums Liverpool. Something as seemingly innocent as the train compartment, the cultural historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch observes in The Railway Journey, broached a whole series of incipient social questions, ranging from class and gender mingling to the specter of crime and the question of whether passengers should speak to one another.

These discrete tensions—or what the show calls “the human drama of the railway”—are exemplified in First Class: The Meeting…and at First Meeting Loved, an 1854 work by the English painter Abraham Solomon. It depicts three people in an ornate first-class compartment: an elderly man sleeping, a woman playing with her necklace, and a young man dreamily gazing upon her, his hand propping up his chin. The painting was denounced as “vulgar”; Solomon, in response, produced a sequel in which the older man is awake and placed between the pair as chaperone—no hint of licentiousness here! “Victorians saw the railway compartment as a forum for social comment,” Ian Kennedy, a curator at the Nelson-Atkins, says, “[on] the dangers of traveling on the railway, what happens to pretty girls if they’re unsupervised, the hustle and bustle of modern life.” In America, Kennedy says, which “one hundred years ago had almost as much track as all the rest of the world combined,” the art was more about the “heroic scale of the enterprise” and the railroad’s mythic place in the course of westward expansion, as illustrated in paintings such as Albert Bierstadt’s 1873 Donner Lake from the Summit.

While all this might seem merely steam-­shrouded history, Kennedy, who describes himself as a train buff at heart (“one of these weird people who like walking along deserted railway lines”), points out a curious fact about Kansas City: “It’s still an important rail hub. It’s the second most important after Chicago.” But it is not passenger trains that are entering the city—it is huge freight trains, run by the likes of Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway. Far from being outmoded, freight trains are an increasingly viable business. Warren Buffett, famously, has been buying rail stock and now owns nearly one fifth of BNSFR. He has invested with good reason: trains are not only more efficient than trucks; they’re more efficient than they were even a few decades ago—by some 80 percent.

“A lot of the railroads are jammed up with freight,” says James McCommons, a nature ­writer and Eng­lish professor at Northern Michigan University, who is completing a book, called Waiting on a Train, about the future of the rail in the United States. “They’re moving low-sulfur coal out of Wyoming, grain shipments, containers of goods from Asia.” There’s just one problem: the trains are moving record amounts of freight—on fewer rails.

This is happening just as passenger rail, perpetually on the verge of extinction, is also beginning to seem more viable because of rising fuel prices and intractable congestion. Amtrak’s ridership, says David Johnson, assistant director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, is up nearly 11 percent this year—May saw the single largest ridership in its history—and is poised to break the 27 million mark for the fiscal year. “This would likely be higher,” he says, “if Amtrak had more equipment.” Small signs of rail resurgence are everywhere: on the New York–Philadelphia route, Amtrak earned record revenues in 2007; the segment of the Pacific Surfliner that runs from San Diego to Los Angeles often has as many as 100 passengers standing. Transportation departments, once focused on highways, are floating plans to connect places like Chicago and Iowa City, and Okla­homa City and Kansas City.

Problems remain. One of the reasons rail travel can feel outdated is that journey times are often of the last century—or worse. The Brattleboro Reformer notes that in 1938 one could travel the Connecticut Yankee (one of a number of options) from Brattleboro, Vermont, to New York in four hours and 42 minutes. Today, there’s only one train, and it takes around six hours—when it’s on schedule, which about 75 percent of the time it’s not.

McCommons points out that Amtrak has its own issues, among them aging equipment and mismanagement (not to mention underfunding). But, ironically, it’s also a victim of the success of freight rail. In North Texas, “one of the most congested freight areas in the country,” McCommons recently endured a not atypical eight-hour delay on the Texas Eagle. There were track issues; in summer, rails expand and rail beds buckle. But much of the problem was simply congestion. Near the town of Longview, six different rail lines coalesce into a massive bottleneck. The new intermodal trains, which carry containers directly off of cargo ships, are often too large for sidings—so when two trains are on the same track, “it’s Amtrak that has to get over,” McCommons says. Sometimes Amtrak trains have to go past stations and then back in, slowing things further.

But other trains, like the Hiawatha, which runs from Milwaukee to Chicago, or the Capitol Corridor route, from Sacramento to Oakland, California, have good on-time rates, he says, because the states “sat down with railroads. They’ve negotiated. They’ve invested money, along with railroads, to make infra­structure so trains can run.” Most ambitiously, a November 4 ballot looms in California to approve nearly $10 billion in financing for a dedicated high-speed line (backed by Governor Schwarzenegger) that would put Los Angeles within two and a half hours of San Francisco. The model would be something like Spain’s rapidly growing AVE network, which can blaze from Madrid to Barcelona in just over two and a half hours—and has been blamed for a recent decrease in domestic plane travel.

But, in his time riding the rails, McCommons says he has “learned that you don’t necessarily need high-speed lanes. You need trains that are frequent, that go faster than a car, or as fast as a car. That’s what people want. We don’t necessarily need 110-mile-an-hour trains if we could just get trains that are on time and go every hour.” The high-speed future may be coming—and with it, perhaps, a glimmer of the cultural excitement seen in Art in the Age of Steam—but in the meantime, McCommons argues, we will profit simply by getting back to the past. “What we have today is something that we already had decades ago. In fact, what we had decades ago was better.”

Art in the Age of Steam: Europe, America and the Railway, 1830 –1960 is on view at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, in Kansas City, Missouri, from September 13, 2008, through January 18, 2009; (816) 751-1278,

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

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Upcoming Talks

April 9, 2008.
California Office of Traffic Safety Summit
San Francisco, CA.

May 19, 2009
University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies
Bloomington, MN

June 23, 2009
Driving Assessment 2009
Big Sky, Montana

June 26, 2009
PRI World Congress
Rotterdam, The Netherlands

June 27, 2009
Day of Architecture
Utrecht, The Netherlands

July 13, 2009
Association of Transportation Safety Information Professionals (ATSIP)
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August 12-14
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September 2, 2009
Governors Highway Safety Association Annual Meeting
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September 11, 2009
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October 8
Honda R&D Americas
Raymond, Ohio

October 10-11
INFORMS Roundtable
San Diego, CA

October 21, 2009
California State University-San Bernardino, Leonard Transportation Center
San Bernardino, CA

November 5
Southern New England Planning Association Planning Conference
Uncasville, Connecticut

January 6
Texas Transportation Forum
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January 19
Yale University
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Monday, February 22
Yale University School of Architecture
Eero Saarinen Lecture

Friday, March 19
University of Delaware
Delaware Center for Transportation

April 5-7
University of Utah
Salt Lake City
McMurrin Lectureship

April 19
International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (Organization Management Workshop)
Austin, Texas

Monday, April 26
Edmonton Traffic Safety Conference
Edmonton, Canada

Monday, June 7
Canadian Association of Road Safety Professionals
Niagara Falls, Ontario

Wednesday, July 6
Fondo de Prevención Vial
Bogotá, Colombia

Tuesday, August 31
Royal Automobile Club
Perth, Australia

Wednesday, September 1
Australasian Road Safety Conference
Canberra, Australia

Wednesday, September 22

Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s
Traffic Incident Management Enhancement Program
Statewide Conference
Wisconsin Dells, WI

Wednesday, October 20
Rutgers University
Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation
Piscataway, NJ

Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Ontario Injury Prevention Resource Centre
Injury Prevention Forum

Monday, May 2
Idaho Public Driver Education Conference
Boise, Idaho

Tuesday, June 2, 2011
California Association of Cities
Costa Mesa, California

Sunday, August 21, 2011
American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators
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Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Attitudes: Iniciativa Social de Audi
Madrid, Spain

April 16, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Gardens Theatre, QUT
Brisbane, Australia

April 17, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Centennial Plaza, Sydney
Sydney, Australia

April 19, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Melbourne Town Hall
Melbourne, Australia

January 30, 2013
University of Minnesota City Engineers Association Meeting
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January 31, 2013
Metropolis and Mobile Life
School of Architecture, University of Toronto

February 22, 2013
ISL Engineering
Edmonton, Canada

March 1, 2013
Australian Road Summit
Melbourne, Australia

May 8, 2013
New York State Association of
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Rochester, NY

August 18, 2013 “Ingenuity” Conference
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September 26, 2013
TransComm 2013
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Officials’ Subcommittee on Transportation
Grand Rapids MI



October 2008

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