Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Shortest Distance To Your Wallet

Scam or bad engineering, too many years have passed to be entirely sure. They did run trains, or more properly, interurbans; they even ran their own amusement park!

What'm I on about? ...Gimme a minnit; this'n's good. Questions first:

What's the shortest distance between two points? Why are rails-to-trails projects popular with bicyclists and pedestrians? If you said, "A straight line," and "Easy grades and gentle curves," go to the head of the class!

Better yet, go to offices of The Chicago-New York Air Line...oops, you missed 'em. But in 1906, they had a plan: to speed travelers from Chicago to New York City in ten hours (for ten bucks, call it $200-odd in those Federal greenbacks clogging your wallet) on a track so straight and flat it gave surveyors migraines. One straight line, straight through, eat-your-heart-out, 20th Cent. Ltd. They even built and ran trains on a few miles of track in and around LaPorte, Indiana (stops included the aforementioned amusement park) before going belly-up in 1917.

It wasn't really an engineering shortfall that did 'em in -- the Ancient Egyptians would've had the skills to get 'em through Indiana and Ohio and the Glorious Imperial Romans actually built comparable rights-of-way. But the banks were too small. They needed 742 miles of track, straight and level; they built, at staggering expense, right around ten miles and teetered on the slippery brink of bankruptcy from Day One 'til they finally fell. Not even high-order Masons could have guessed what the price of crossing Pennsylvania straight and level might've come to.

Remember this little lesson the next time high-speed rail comes up. The engineering's easy. Folks did it with steam and horses before Woodrow Wilson sent young men off to finish up the Great War. Paying for it's the hard part; speed isn't cheap.

(PS: y'know what killed streetcars and interurbans? --Okay, okay, the flivver; but even after that, they were hangin' on, keepin' little old ladies and teenagers from clutterin' the streets, right up until Mr. Roosevelt's government, still trying to Do Something about that darn Depression and those wicked-evil fatcats who were hurtin' the little people, handed out the Public Utility Holding Act of 1935, which forever sundered power companies from railways. Unable to get their electricity at dealer cost, the traction companies saw their last fragile margin of profit crumble; the final interurban left Indianapolis in 1941, never to return. Yeah, they Did Something, all right. Remember it the next time you're trapped behind blue hair or T-boned by a texting teen).

11 comments:

Justthisguy said...

This is totally off-topic, but I have just found out that the CheeseMistress (LeeAnn) still lives and breathes, and you knew this back in April, but did not bother to email me and tell me so!

I was so bummed out by the death of Acidman that I quit reading blogs for a while, and when I started again, hers had disappeared. I am catching up on her blog(s) under the new names, and hope to get back up to zero shortly. LeeAnn is the champion smartass of the human universe!

Justthisguy said...

P.s. Yah, I know you had no idea, etc.

You should have _assumed_ that all of the cool folks who hang out here were familiar with her snarkiness, since way back when.

No excuses, Missy.

Snork.

Justthisguy said...

Oh, yeah, On Topic:

Georgia Power Company was pretty much the same people as the ones who ran the streetcars in Atlanta, within the memory of my Dad, who was born in 1916. Ga. Power was founded by, among others, General Gordon, he who almost drowned in his blood at Sharpsburg, had not another bullet come along and made a drain-hole in his cap.

When my Dad was a kid, you could get on an electric streetcar in Atlanta and ride it to Marietta. Or Decatur. I've seen the tracks. They're still there under the asphalt, sometimes exposed when the street-scraper-repavers come along.

Anonymous said...

The street cars in Indianapolis went away after a mayor made a sweetheart deal with a tire maker and a bus maker. The tracks were torn up in short order to avoid going back. Prior to all that Indianapolis public transportation was studied by cities forein and domsetic as a modle of efficiency. Things never change when there's a buck to be made. COME ON MONORAIL.

Nathan said...

"Not even high-order Masons could have guessed what the price of crossing Pennsylvania straight and level might've come to."

Well, the 33rds probably can. We 32nds aren't privy to all their wild stuff.

wv: wiskid. Why, thank you, Blogger.

Roberta X said...

...I was sure hopin' somebody could swot the numbers and if there is any group that could, well... ;)

Blackwing1 said...

Here in Minnie-populis the streetcars were apparently done in by a coalition/conspiracy between the city gov't and General Motors, leading to the birth of the dot-gov run "Metropolitan Transit Comission", aka "MTC". Or as we tax-payers used to call it, the "Empty Seats".

The streetcars were the main thing that led to the expansion of the city out to the 'burbs, since it was now possible to live more than shanks-mares distance from your job. According to my parents, who saw their decline, the (private, for-profit) company that ran them provided superb, reliable service.

We now have mostly-empty, heavily-subsidized bus "service" running at a huge loss. In the eyes of the government/union-workers, that's a feature and not a bug.

rickn8or said...

"We now have mostly-empty, heavily-subsidized bus 'service' running at a huge loss."

Except where we're lucky enough to have that AND a mostly-empty, heavily-subsidized TROLLEY "service" running at a huge loss while blocking downtown traffic for the rest of us.

Nathan said...

Bobbi,

According to one of my 33rd friends, "It would have cost more than you could shake a stick at, plus the stick."

:)

@Anon 8:30AM, I'd like to see some source for your assertion that the Indy streetcars went away due to collusion between the mayor and manufacturers and that they tore up all the tracks "in short order". First of all, there are plenty of places in town where the tracks were simply paved over; you can see them any time the potholes get bad or the streets are scraped for repaving (cf. Justthisguy). Secondly, this site suggests that there was no collusion involved, just a simple capitalistic decision to better compete with the bus systems that were taking business away from the interurban trains because their operating overhead was lower. So again: References? Sources? Or just repeating nonsense you heard from your parents or grandparents?

Old Grouch said...

Of course all that marvelous open-country engineering doesn't help when you can't get out of town. From Trains, May 2010:

Advocates of high speed rail are missing the point if they believe that top speed is the issue now. It is clear that today's welded heavy rail can take far greater speeds than [the FEDREALLY-IMPOSED] 79 [MPH speed limit]...
The real issue now is how to eliminate, or mitigate, slow spots and crunch zones... For instance, anyone who has traveled by rail from St.Louis to Chicago knows that trains amble slowly for many miles around St.Louis.


Even 200 MPH rail across rural Indiana won't make much difference in Indianapolis to Chicago travel times so long as it takes an hour to cover the 20 miles between Dyer, Indiana and Chicago Union Terminal.

Anonymous said...

Nathan, My Reference was from an article published in the nevo magazine a few years ago. Go look it up in there arcives ,if they have one. Certanly I understand that there has never been a corupt politician in Indiana in the history of the state and unicorns run the streets crapping marshmellows.