Quick Note: Learning from the Past and the Present

There are two tendencies among Americans in the rail industry that, taken together, don’t really mesh. The first is to ignore knowledge produced outside North America, especially if it’s also outside the Anglosphere, on the grounds that the situations are too different and cannot be compared. The second is to dwell on the past and talk about how things could have been different and, therefore, to spend a lot of time looking at old proposals as a guideline.

The problem with this is that the past is a foreign country. They do things differently there. The world of the imagined past of modern-day Western romantics, usually placed in the 1950s or early 60s, is barely recognizable, economically or politically; Mad Men hits watchers on the head in its early seasons with how alien it is. The United States was an apartheid state until around 1964; France only decolonized Algeria in 1962; Germany had a deep state until the Spiegel affair of 1962 started to dismantle it and wouldn’t truly apologize for its WW2 crimes until the Kniefall and the fallout therefrom.

So as a public service, let’s look at some economic indicators comparing the US to the three low-construction cost countries that the Transit Costs Project is doing case studies about:

IndicatorUSA 2019Sweden 2019Italy 2019Turkey 2019USA 1960
GDP per capita (2017 PPPs)62,63152,85142,70828,19719,444
Female labor force participation, 15+56.6%61.2%41.3%34.5%37.7%
Life expectancy at birth7983837870
Total fertility rate1.
Industry, % of jobs2018262532
Agriculture, % of jobs1.41.74186
Sources: World Bank, Our World in Data, or Data Commons; domestic US sources give a much lower manufacturing percent but I use the higher World Bank figure for comparability with Turkey and Italy.

The US is comparable to Sweden on net – the higher GDP per capita is mostly an artifact of shorter vacation times. It is a considerably more developed country than Italy, by most accounts (except health care, where the US is more or less the worst in the developed world). Italy is a more developed country than Turkey. And Turkey, today, is considerably more developed than the US was in the imagined postwar golden age, even if it’s urbanizing later. The one indicator where they look similar, female LFP, masks the fact that the gender gap for employed women today isn’t especially high in Turkey and that, after a fall in female LFP in the late 20th century, today working outside the home is more middle-class, whereas in early postwar America it was considered a marker of poverty for a married woman to work.

So in that supposed golden age of an America before the Interstates, or when the Interstates were still in their infancy, GDP per capita was about comparable to Mexico today (and underinvestment in public transportation was comparable too; the Mexico City Metro’s expansion ground to a halt after AMLO was elected mayor). Women were only starting to emerge from the More Work for Mother era. Black people were subjected to literal apartheid. 65 was an old age to retire at (the majority of the increase in life expectancy at birth has occurred since age age 65 – it wasn’t mostly about declining child mortality).

Deindustrialization was nowhere on the horizon in 1960, which is a cause for celebration by people today who view industry as more moral than services. But the industrial jobs that are romanticized today were held by the era’s traditionalists to be morally inferior to the rapidly depleting farm jobs, and did not pay well until generations of wage increases brought about by unions. And Sweden, Italy, and Turkey are all deindustrializing rapidly; China today has a slightly lower manufacturing job share than the US had at its postwar peak, and elsewhere in the world than East Asia, there’s a serious issue of premature deindustrialization.

What about the law? Well, in 1960 the US had the same constitution as today, in theory, but the interpretative theories were completely different. The vast majority of the American constitution is unwritten (the word “filibuster” does not appear there) and there are vast differences in practice today and in the 1950s, when, again, members of the largest minority group risked being lynched if they tried voting in the states the majority of them lived. The party system at the time was extraordinarily loose; Julia Azari speaks of strong partisanship and weak parties today, but by postwar standards, both American parties are characterized by ideological uniformity and congressional command-and-control systems, even if the distribution of power within the parties is dramatically different from the European norm. Turkey might be comparable to postwar America – it’s hard to exactly say, since the two entities’ democratic systems are flawed in completely different ways. Italy and Sweden are not.

So the only thing that’s left is the romanticism. It’s the belief of 21st-century Americans that they could have ridden trains out of the old Penn Station, and worked in any of the prestige industries at the time, and done things differently. The constitution of the US today, its politics, its society, and its economy have little to do with their counterparts of 60+ years ago, but it’s useful for a lot of people to pretend that there’s continuity. It feels more stable this way. It just happens to be dangerously incorrect. Burn the past and look at the present.


  1. Eric2

    I mean, there is continuity as well as significant similarities. It’s OK to admit that. It does not mean there are not also big differences. Not everything in life has to be simplistic on an 8th grade level.

  2. Benjamin Turon

    American trains were faster back then in the past, France in the 1950s actually looked at US railroads as an example to imitate, leading to the luxury express trains of stainless steel coaches like the ‘Le Mistral’ that imitated preimer American trains like ‘Congressional’ and ‘Empire State Express’. Oh how things have changed…

    • Alon Levy

      Sure, but also there have been 60+ years of progress on this that the United States did not have, and by now, trying to restore the mainline rail network of the 1950s using the wages, travel patterns, and technology of the 2020s is foolish. For example, trains today are competing with more affordable air travel, so the prestige range of distances for the technology is 3-4 hours, rather than the named night trains of postwar America (and those night trains were extremely labor-intensive, it was just cheaper to hire black porters then).

      • Benjamin Turon

        The two American streamliners I mentioned — the New York Central’s NYC-Buffalo ‘Empire State Express’ and the Pennsylvania’s NYC-DC “Congressional” — were premier daylight trains, not overnight sleeping car Pullman trains like the “20th Century Limited” or “Broadway Limited”. In the 1950s-60s 18-car stainless steel Budd trainsets of the “Morning and Afternoon Congressional” were hauled by GG1 electric locomotives between DC and NYC in 3h50m with seven stops, for an average speed of 60-mph.

        The American rail journalist and author Fred Frailey in his authoritative book “Twilight of the Great Trains” makes the point that the NYC and PRR lavished too much money Postwar on its long distant streamliners, when the market they could best fight for was the intercity trips of a few hundred miles. The “Congressional” was replaced by Penn Central/Amtrak’s “Metroliner”, the 1980-2000 version of the “Metroliner” being a more frequent and slightly faster “Congressional in practice, with a AME7 hauling a rack of Budd Amfleet coaches.

        This American history is useful in making it clear to American audiences that large investments in intercity passenger rail needs to be focus on being a fast and frequent service connecting large cities a few hours apart.

        • Benjamin Turon

          What find fascinating is seeing France 1960-1990s switch from the American streamliner model of long-distance passenger train operations of a few (morning and evening) fast premier express trains like the SNCF’s “Le Capitol” to the “Intercity” model pioneered by Britain and Japan of regularly interval express trains throughout the day, like service on the West Coast Main Line after electrification.

        • adirondacker12800

          There were unnamed trains. According to an Official Guide I have, from 1956, every hour or less between Washington DC and New York between 6:30 in the morning and midnight. With a sleeping car only train at 12:05 and 1:15 and the sleeping car train from Boston wandering through Manhattan at 3:50AM. The schedule between New York and Philadelphia are on different pages with the locals on even more pages. They spent the money on Metroliners because they realized that a fast train, at short distances, is better than flying. We then elect people who think it’s still 1955. And tell each other that trains are a Communist plot to sap the precious bodily fluids of Real Americans(tm).

          • Herbert

            Faster trains are actually cheaper to run (up to a point) because labor cost is much more important than “fuel”…

        • Nathanael

          In this case, What Benjamin Turon Said. We are literally running more slowly on the Albany-Buffalo corridor than we did in the 1940s for all-stop services, which is just ridiculous and embarassing.

          The point of looking at the past in this case is not to romanticize it but merely to show how pathetic the US is now.

    • adirondacker12800

      Most were faster. It’s faster between Boston and DC and New York and Albany than it was in the heyday. Still not anything to brag about but faster. Chicago to Saint Louis, after a lot of work, is about the same.

      • Matthew Hutton

        A New York to Chicago sleeper train run to British reliability standards that took 8 hours between them with 4 berth narrow beds for $250 and proper beds for $500 would do very well IMO.

        Without getting up at the crack of dawn getting from New York to Chicago by lunchtime flying is doing decently. And this would be a lot quicker on time elapsed than that. Plus Americans are richer and more time limited than Europeans.

        • Matthew Hutton

          Chinese Z class trains would presumably be sufficient basically straight out the box. Maybe you’d need 8h30 but I’m sure 10:45pm-7:15am would be acceptable.

        • Henry Miller

          The problem with sleeper trains is they don’t work well for “be one the way.” Sure Boston to Chicago would work, but stopping in Ohio in the middle doesn’t work. Those sleeper cars are only useful for one trip per day, you can’t turn around and reuse them.

          I’m not against sleepers, but they are a lot more expensive to run than regular trains for the above reasons. in generally you should be doing track maintenance at night. If you have a lot of tracks sleepers can work, but they need to be substantially more expensive than regular cars.

          • Matthew Hutton

            If you ran a train leaving Chicago and New York at 9pm, 10pm, 11pm and midnight taking 9 hours, then the first 4 hours or so from each end would get access to at least one sleeper train, and the final 5 hours would get an early morning express to their destination for the start of the work day.

            That would be a dramatically better service than today and could also be delivered incrementally. Sleeper trains could be run with diesel trains and level crossings if desired as both can be handled with 100mph running. Additionally the current track alignment used today can probably do 100mph running without much adjustment.

            Plus if you wanted and had the demand you could use the sleeper trains to run daytime compartment trains on the same track departing from 7am to 3pm or so as return services.

            Overall that would give a dramatically better service to today.

          • Alon Levy

            Additionally the current track alignment used today can probably do 100mph running without much adjustment.

            No, it can’t. Even Chicago-Cleveland isn’t quite that fast – the track is mostly straight but there are short, sharp curves between straight segments. Then east of Cleveland you can deal with the joy of the Appalachians, or detour via Upstate New York and still have slow zones (historically the NYC and PRR routes did NY-Chicago in the same amount of time).

            The fastest legacy routes that I’m aware of average 140 km/h, like Stockholm-Malmö and London-Manchester, but they’re electrified, heavily upgraded, straighter than American tracks, and 200 km/h. Tel Aviv-Haifa could do 120 km/h with diesel but it’s straighter than the NY-Chicago route too. The NYC Water Level Route, currently the Lake Shore Limited, could plausibly average 120 km/h and then do NY-Chicago in 12.5-13 hours but that’s with a lot of passenger priority over what’s currently a freight mainline. To get it down to 9, as Adi says, you need long HSR bypasses and if you do that then you might as well go all the way and get it down to 5.5 hours.

          • adirondacker12800

            The work that would have to be done to make it 9 hours wouldn’t be much different than the work to make it 6 hours.

          • Matthew Hutton

            The bulk of the chiltern mainline has been upgraded to 100mph with minimal fuss, so I’m surprised you can’t do the same for the New York Chicago railway.

          • Matthew Hutton

            And strictly the fastest London Euston to Warrington bank quay non stop trains average a timetabled 105mph over that stretch – which is pretty quick!

          • Alon Levy

            British lines were built with much gentler curves than most American lines from the start. The American exception is the NEC in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, which is pretty fast. (The fast segments south of New York are late-19c cutoffs of curvy lines from the 1830s.)

          • Nathanael

            “The NYC Water Level Route, currently the Lake Shore Limited, could plausibly average 120 km/h and then do NY-Chicago in 12.5-13 hours but that’s with a lot of passenger priority over what’s currently a freight mainline. ”

            Well, yes, and this should have been done already. The right-of-ways were wide in most places (4-track mainline from Buffalo east) and the adjacent land is genuinely cheap in most of the places it’s running through. It would be very easy to straighten out the worst curves. The problem is entirely political; it won’t happen until the states buy the track from the incompetent and malicious “freight railroads”.

          • Nathanael

            I mean, I could go into detail, but you can achieve 100 mph from Schenectady to Chicago along the NYC Mainline almost everywhere except station approaches (where you’re going to be stopping anyway) with very minor right-of-way alterations involving buying very cheap land, ranging from farmland to abandoned buildings. There are a few exceptions; perhaps the most problematic location for straightening the ROW is Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge. Some expensive bridge realignments would be required.

            The problem is *entirely* one of political will. Will to take control of the line away from CSX and NS and spend some money upgrading it.

          • Matthew Hutton

            8pm-8am from New York to Chicago and 7pm to 9am Chicago to New York isn’t terrible frankly

          • adirondacker12800

            You would need Class 6 track and signaling which gets expensive.
            The passenger trains would catch up to the freight trains. If there are going to be separate tracks they might as well be high speed tracks.

          • Matthew Hutton

            The Chinese still run Z class sleeper trains on the same track as freight trains and it still seems to make sense for them to do so. I’d assume America could do the same if it wanted to. And that that would cost a lot less than a dedicated high speed line.

      • Benjamin Turon

        Amtrak’s “Downeaster” is like 30mins slower (after a speed up) than the B&M’s “Fly Yankee”, but the mainline Boston-Portland was doubled track back then, and the “host railroad” was also the “train operator” and wanted the service to do well.

  3. Gok

    You can’t learn from the past because the economy and politics were different? This seems out of line with like…your entire hypothesis about learning.

    • Alon Levy

      You absolutely can! But Italy today is far more like the United States today than the United States of the 1950s was, and yet there’s much more willingness to learn from an apartheid state with the incomes of today’s China than from a peer rich democracy.

  4. Herbert

    I’m not sure people long for the 1960s but the “postwar consensus” had things going for it… Let’s see…
    1) a general belief that the future was a good thing
    2) a general belief that institutions – including the state – had a role and were supposed to deliver on promises made in an adequate time frame
    3) a general belief that to make 1)&2) happen there would need to be some sacrifices of some people sometimes and a general disdain for NIMBYism that nobody even thought of voicing opposition to anything on NIMBY grounds
    4) a believe in Keynesian “you don’t run out of money, you run out of resources and we won’t run out of them anytime soon” economics of general prosperity as both achievable and desirable
    5) “science” and “experts” were not partisan issues. If an industrial process or product was deemed safe by experts, it was accepted by the public
    6) no couching of everything in moral terms – energy policy wasn’t couched in moral terms any more than agricultural policy was
    7) strong unions and strong wage growth without much need for strikes (this started crumbling early on in the post-consensus era)

    However, there were of course downsides to the postwar consensus. The belief in abundant cheap fossil fuels came crashing down in ’73. Sadly the consequence drawn wasn’t “get away from fossil fuels, then” but rather making energy use into some sort of moral evil.

    We also shouldn’t forget that the postwar consensus was the era of rapid spread of the motorcar and the dismantling of most tram systems in Europe (a couple were dismantled later than that in Germany, but then Germany has a weird habit of doing stuff later than everybody else).

    There are a few weird things that happened after the political system reshuffled away from the postwar consensus. Perhaps none weirder than the right embracing the inherently “big government” nuclear power sector whereas the left rejected it. While there were right wingers who genuinely made nuclear power the heart of their political identity in the 1950s (Franz Josef Strauß for one), the Brits entered nuclear power under Attlee – the first commercial reactor was built during his tenure and inaugurated shortly after he left office. Similarly Germany’s first research reactor to reach criticality was opened by Bavaria’s only SPD led government after the passing of the Basic Law…

    And while yes, the race thing and the “Nazi elites still in power” things were very virulent in the 1950s, those things were already combated somewhat successfully while the consensus was still on… Except of course in Austria, but then Austria was a mistake…

    • Alon Levy

      A lot of what you describe as postwar optimism is a projection from the later era of Reagan and Thatcher. To wit, in the 1950s,

      1. France had the Poujadist movement, and an extreme right deep state dedicated to keeping control of Algeria at all costs, including a military coup in 1958.
      2. The US had the Birchers, leading to Richard Hofstadter’s essay on the Paranoid Style in American Politics in 1964; what passed for an intellectual then was JFK, who legacied his way through Harvard and wrote like a child.
      3. Tobacco companies were already figuring out that smoking was causing cancer, and were burying the evidence and calling people who spoke out about it socialists (the hired guns they’d use for that would later become climate change deniers); the guiding view of pollution then was “The solution to pollution is dilution.”
      4. Everything was couched in moral terms of anti-communism. France had very high inequality (inequality only fell to present levels in the 1970s and 80s) and preferred to spend its surplus on the military. The US had lower inequality but still practiced military Keynesianism; the 1950s were a low-growth decade in the US, and the high growth and falling inequality of the 1960s led to concerns about stagflation and the evils of excessive working-class empowerment.
      5. In the US, unions were stronger then than now – but they were selfish and rejected universal benefits like sectoral collective bargaining on the grounds that they would reduce workers’ incentives to join unions. Management meanwhile didn’t want universality either because it sounded too much like communism. The decline of private-sector union density in the US began then, as industrial jobs moved to the lower-wage, anti-union South (the gateway drug of the White South from single-issue white supremacy to general conservatism was opposition to unions and labor regulations).

      There were people who believed in an infinitely bountiful future in the 1950s-60s, but they were a counter-elite – people like Isaac Asimov, everyone’s favorite sexual harasser (he would even give talks at science fiction conventions about how to harass women), were elite by education and status but were never political elites and scorned the political elites for being scientifically illiterate and rejecting obvious truths, which often also included eugenics. The main of American and WEuropean society wasn’t like that. In the US, the era with the most overt optimism by general society and its political elite was the 1990s under Bill Clinton; not many people were paying attention to rising inequality then, but not many people who were talking about general affluence in the 1950s were paying attention to how the majority of the country was excluded from it either.

      • Herbert

        Wait, there was a strain of politics that said something along the lines of “we need to burn more/less oil because otherwise the communists win”? Or “we need to use more/less pesticides because not doing so would make us red”?

        Because that’s the moral framing of energy and agricultural policy today. Using pesticides or fertilizer or machinery or – heaven forbid – genetic engineering (“atomic gardens” from the postwar consensus era produced a surprising share of still used commercial foodcrops which don’t “count” as GMO) is not usually opposed because of any provable harm, but because it feels morally wrong. I have heard the name under which glyphosate trades (“roundup”) seriously heard cited as an “argument” against its use, because the name makes people uncomfortable.

        And while there is obvious harm in producing stuff by burning coal and gas and oil, there is nothing inherently moral or immoral about using energy. Yet 70-90% of society implicitly subscribes to a statement along the lines of “using less energy is a moral imperative”. No it isn’t. Damaging human health and the environment less by using energy is a moral imperative. Just like it is generally. But we can actually drastically increase per capita energy use while decreasing the harm done by energy use if we replace dirty fossil fuels and most usage cases of biomass with cleaner alternatives. And for some “wastes” the best use is indeed “turn it into fuel” – uranium and thorium tailings from mining phosphate or rare earth elements just as much as spent fuel which isn’t recycled due to ideology…

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