Some Loose Thoughts on Americans and Trains

Apparently there is a movie version of Atlas Shrugged coming out soon, and while I have neither seen it nor read the book (something I plan to remedy within the next month or so), I have read a few of the many criticisms and laments out there about the book and philosophies contained within it. These come from all sides of the political spectrum, but one of the more interesting ones to me concerns the role of infrastructure and the changing nature of support among conservatives and libertarians for large-scale rail projects on American soil. While Ayn Rand’s magnum opus features libertarian railroad moguls who plough vast sums into railroad development, railroads today are pariahs of American transportation infrastructure, and to none more so than the political right.

David Weigel on Slate summarizes the opposition to high-speed rail (and rail in general) from the American right mainly as opposition to state subsidies. There is a widespread belief that money pours from government coffers into railroads – at a cost to the taxpayer of between 13 and 30 cents per passenger, compared with between 1 and 4 cent subsidies for highways and other roads. Whether these numbers are accurate is not the point of this post; merely the perception of it being true is (as with most subjects in American politics these days) enough to colour the popular and official debate substantially. I’ve heard others comment that rail travel is seen as a form of communism.

The irony of that idea, of course, is that railroad owners were among the first übercapitalists of American business, sucking profits from their trade with an almost monopolistic hold on the industry. Names like Vanderbilt and J.P. Morgan and known to us now because many of these obscenely wealthy railroad barons wanted their legacies to live on in the form of grand houses, universities, and other large-scale public charitable works.

I’ve written before about how cars in the early days of automobile travel were seen as a “less technological” option than railroads, more rugged and democratic and, well, American. Travelling by car in those days was both challenging (tires exploding or parts falling off every few miles) and exhilarating (unprecedented access to tourist sites that railroads just didn’t go to). The ideal of the open road, and by extension the “open West,” has echoed down through the annals of American history from beat poets to “Boys of Summer,” and was undergirded by the Eisenhower administration’s creation of the extensive Interstate Freeway System in the 1950s.

But I never picked up on the “communism” angle, in part because that wasn’t a concern or a term bandied about frequently in American political discourse until the second decade of the twentieth century at least. Today, of course, high-speed rail and trains in general aren’t seen as feats of American engineering and technical prowess, but symbols of European- and Chinese-style communism.

Attitudes have changed: both railroads and cars have largely lost their breathless romantic and innovative associations and have become part of the humdrum reality of everyday transportation. Many people view their cars more as prisons (especially when stuck in rush-hour traffic) than gateways to the wonders of nature. And while European-ness today still has some cachet if it involves sitting in a café in Paris on vacation, Americans are confident enough in their own government that they certainly don’t aspire to managing their infrastructure like the Europeans.

The last paragraph of Weigel’s article clearly illustrates the link between railroads, communism and other un-American ideas:

Before and after 9/11, George Will was talking up rail as a way to take more people off planes and make America less vulnerable to terrorists. That argument has more or less vanished. Why? “It helped that somebody bombed a train in Spain,” says O’Toole. “If you concentrate people in one vehicle, then the vehicle is vulnerable. You concentrate society, and it’s vulnerable. So maybe it’s not a good thing to concentrate people.

Makes sense. People concentrated together in one vehicle are vulnerable to attack without the ability to pick up and go whenever and wherever they want to, as in cars. Similarly, people who have a shared and singular collective mindset are vulnerable without the influence of democratic choices. Looks a lot like communism, right? So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised the next time a state governor turns down a billion-dollar high-speed rail line subsidized by the federal government. He’s probably imagining that it’s the last stop on the Lenin line before Revolution Station…

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