Dan Hall: 21st-century transportation, 'Made in America'

Dan Hall

This looks an opportunity for a two-fer: President Obama is doling out billions of dollars to keep Detroit’s automobile industry on life support. We’re doling out more billions to help build the kind of passenger rail service that countries in Europe and Asia now take for granted. Wouldn’t it make sense to combine those ideas by reopening some empty automobile factories to build high-speed trains?

It’s not such a wacky idea — in fact, it worked once before, during the Great Depression of the 1930s. America’s automobile industry was then the envy of the world. Even so, automakers, like all other industries, were closing plants and laying off workers by the thousands.

America’s railroads, which were still using slow, uncomfortable trains built in the 1800s, were in trouble, too. Cars had not yet replaced trains as the most important means of transportation, but passenger and freight business had fallen off a cliff, along with everything else.

Ralph Budd, president of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy railroad, had an idea — he wanted a fast, modern train that would entice people to travel again. He got together a consortium of businesses, including General Motors, to design it and build it.

The result was the Burlington Zephyr, later known as the Silver Streak.

On its first big publicity run, in 1934, it ran from Denver to Chicago in 13 hours, at an average speed of 77 mph — a record at the time. It could have gone much faster — on one long, straight stretch it hit 112 mph, but then, as now, tracks in most areas could not handle a train moving that fast.

The Zephyr was a huge success, and other railroads immediately began copying it — producing the prototypes for the streamliners Amtrak still runs today. The Zephyr itself remained in service into the 1960s. Now, it’s on display in Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry.

Ford, General Motors and Chrysler would face a huge task converting assembly lines for trains, of course, but they have already shown they can do it. Within months after Pearl Harbor, America’s entire automobile industry retooled to build airplanes and tanks. They built no more cars until the war ended.

We Americans received notice during the Arab oil embargo of the 1970s  that our total dependence on automobiles is dangerous to our national security. Then, last year, we had our economic Pearl Harbor: Gasoline prices soaring above $4 per gallon were one of the many causes of the crisis we face today.

Obama is correct that beyond the immediate task of putting people back to work, we must also deal with the long-term threats that confront us. Putting automakers to work on a 21st-century system of transportation would do that, and it is crucial for our region.

You would never know it from the daily media badmouthing of our area, but New York state and Rochester are big players in the global economy. In 2008, New York state was the largest exporter in the country, ahead of California and Texas. Businesses in Rochester and the surrounding area sold more than $8 billion worth of products overseas, more than any city in the state except New York.

We won’t maintain that position in the 21st century, though, if we rely only on 20th-century transportation.

Europe, Japan and China already have reliable trains running at speeds up to 300 mph. Trains running at a mere 150 mph between Niagara Falls, Albany and New York City would be fast enough to link our state’s most important business and tourism destinations, universities and research centers.

As City Newspaper Editor Mary Ann Towler pointed out last week, they would expand our personal economic horizons — they would make it possible to live in Rochester and work in Buffalo, or vice-versa. They would boost our regional tourist attractions, such as the Rochester Jazz Festival or Geva Theater.

They would make our whole region a more vibrant, attractive place to live and work.

The ancient Romans, the world’s first great road builders, understood the importance of transportation. The Erie Canal built Rochester and Buffalo. Now, nearly a decade into the 21st century, our region is stuck with a transportation system that had already become inadequate by the final decades of the 20th century.

Cars and jets are not about to disappear. As the rest of the globe understands, though, high-speed rail presents a cleaner, more fuel-efficient and often more comfortable and convenient alternative to either one.

All the better if, instead of buying those trains from France or Japan, we build them in factories now standing empty in Detroit.

Dan Hall is the retired editorial page editor of Messenger Post Newspapers. E-mail him at danwriting@aol.com.