beaten tracks

29 July 2008

Talk of how we’ve entered a new “gilded age” tends to center on questions of inequality, but it has also led a number of people to draw analogies (sometimes well, sometimes poorly) between the old Gilded Age and our time. I remember during the internet boom of the late 90s hearing people say that the internet – or the information superhighway, as they said back then – was a lot like the 19th century railroad: annihilation of time and space, generation of great fortunes, boom and bust, and so on. But lately it’s been looking like the 19th century railroad might be more like the 21st century railroad.

There’s political influence and looming battles over regulation:

Two western railroad companies are donating an unusually high amount — more than $1 million — to the Denver National Convention (DNC) host committee — at the same time that railroad regulation proponents say they’re close, for the first time in decades, to winning additional oversight of the rail industry.

The companies offering up their political support include Union Pacific (UP) and Burlington Northern Santa Fe’s (BNSF). Nebraska-based UP disclosed its $1 million donation to Democratic convention organizers; company officials have said that an additional donation has been made to the Republican National Convention, which will be held in Minneapolis-St. Paul, though they haven’t revealed that amount.

And there are likely to be fights over rates ahead:

Meanwhile, the railroad industry’s long-standing antitrust exemption has attracted the attention of lawmakers. They seek to eliminate the exemption and closely examine the rates railroads charge to haul freight, which the industry says would cripple its expansion at a critical time.

The railroads’ rate structure has also drawn the ire of some of their customers: Nearly 30 antitrust lawsuits have been filed against major railroads in recent months, including one by agri-giant Archer Daniels Midland last month, alleging collusion and price-fixing.

For some lawmakers and advocacy groups, today’s rail industry recalls that of the late 1800s, when the only ceiling on rates was the limit of a rail baron’s avarice. The railroads say today’s rates are reasonable and reflect something the industry has not had in decades: pricing power.

Meanwhile, what’s the Gilded Age internet? The telephone. Seriously, that’s a very well-drawn analogy, from the story of the replacement of “the people’s telephone” (or “telephone 2.0”) with “telephone 1.0”, to the sobering concluding speculation. I couldn’t help but think of net neutrality while reading it.

trainover country

7 May 2008

I’m a fan of rail service and I was glad to see Obama bring it up recently:

The irony is with the gas prices what they are, we should be expanding rail service … We are going to be having a lot of conversations this summer about gas prices. And it is a perfect time to start talk about why we don’t’ have better rail service. We are the only advanced country in the world that doesn’t have high speed rail. We just don’t’ have it. And it works on the Northeast corridor. They would rather go from New York to Washington by train than they would by plane. It is a lot more reliable and it is a good way for us to start reducing how much gas we are using. It is a good story to tell.

Notice that ellipsis after the first sentence? Both of the places where I initially saw these comments included it, but following the links I found a more detailed report of that Obama appearance. And it turns out those three dots hide quite a bit:

“The irony is with the gas prices what they are, we should be expanding rail service. [Begin ellipsis] One of the things I have been talking about for awhile is high speed rail connecting all of these Midwest cities – Indianapolis, Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, St. Louis. They are not that far away from each other. Because of how big of a hassle airlines are now. There are a lot of people if they had the choice, it takes you just about as much time if you had high speed rail to go the airport, park, take your shoes off.”

He continued to talk up Amtrak.

“This is something that we should be talking about a lot more,” Obama said. [End ellipsis] “We are going to be having a lot of conversations this summer about gas prices.

because this blog needs content

15 February 2008

It is probably a practice frowned upon by the arbiters of blogger ethics but I’m going to start posting long comments I write elsewhere over here, for archiving purposes. On steamboats vs. railroads:*

1. Schwantes’ book on steam travel in the Northwest is beautifully illustrated. (As is his railroad book on the same region, which may have been the first to come out, though chronologically the sequel.) Just thought I’d recommend it, though I haven’t read the text.

2. As dware points out, railroads have not actually been in vogue in western history for a while. They might become so in the future if they aren’t already becoming so. (Disclosure: I came very close to writing a railroad dissertation.) I have the impression that some of the better regarded railroad-related books to come out more recently weren’t western railroad books.

3. I suspect steamboats lose out for a couple of reasons.

There’s the perception that their era didn’t last very long – the fact that you can start talking about railroads in the 1830s overshadows the fact that the east-(mid)west routes were not completed until later (the 1850s? I don’t remember the precise dates). And it takes a while for (railroad) Chicago to supplant (Mississippi River) St. Louis.

There’s the perception that their impact was still quite localized even considering its reach. You can have competition on the Mississippi but it’s pretty much all on the Mississippi. Competition between railroads involved competing routes in different sections of the country and competing communities along those routes. In terms of ports, you’ve got New Orleans as an endpoint on the one hand, and Boston vs. New York vs. Philadelphia vs. Baltimore on the other. It would be interesting to know if steamboats lack attention in histories of other regions. I assume they preceded railroads in a number of European colonies.

There’s the fact that they weren’t a new power source – steamboats and the steam engine were around already for ocean travel. And somewhat related to this is the fact that being able to get around the world sort of overshadows being able to get into the interior of a continent. But it can be argued that the steamship deserves more attention too. It certainly seems to get less attention than wind-based maritime exploration.

There’s the fact that water travel was already, and had long been, quicker than land travel. Traveling faster over a river is one thing; traveling faster overland – not being required to stick to (and build, in the case of canals) a watercourse – by an entirely new technology is quite another. A better boat is still a boat; a railroad is not a horse-drawn carriage.

4. Robert Fulton apparently thought that the submarine would, by being such an effective tool of war, force countries to make peace with one another rather than fight. He had some problems making this idea work in practice.

*Maybe one day I’ll link to a blog that is not that one.