U.S. highway 30, The Lincoln Highway, is right at my back as I took this photo. I'm looking down the deserted sidewalk that once led to the passenger and freight depot on the rail line running though Arlington, NE. Nobody has walked this way in decades. So now the walk needs to be mowed.
There used to be coal bins along the tracks near the depot. Different bins for hard and soft coal. Some people actually heated their homes with coal stoves and furnaces when I was a kid. The train brought it in. Locomotives still used it for fuel. Now we power our iPods with it.
I didn't ride my first train until I stepped onto one in Paris, France in June 1968. After an overnight flight, we students had breakfast and visited a few sights in the City of Lights.
It would be another 17 hours on that train before we arrived in Vienna, Austria where I would spend much of the summer as a student. I would ride many miles on trains that summer and grow to love them. I appreciated their roominess, the smoothness of the rails, the near-total lack of "clickety-clack".
Europe had been blown to bits in World War II, and nearly the entire rail system had to be rebuilt. New technology was developed: pre-stressed concrete ties with cast-in bolts to tie the rails down tight. Welded rails that had no perceptible joints.
And the Metro in Paris had something new and really wonderful. Those urban trains had wheels with a hard rubber insert between the steel rim and the steel hub. They dampened sound and vibrations and rolled almost noiselessly.
Then I came back to the USA and rode lumbering, antiquated trains that bumped along on split wooden ties with spikes coming out, huge gaps between the sections of rails that were still bolted together. Ear-splitting shrieks, bumps and noise on the Chicago Ell. Ouch!
Back there in Nebraska, hardly anything moves out of Arlington by rail except a little grain. Most of that moves out by truck. Nothing comes in by rail. Two types of freight move through: 1) coal from Wyoming bound for coal-fired power plants and 2) shipping containers with stuff made in China stacked two high.
But guess what! We finally have prestressed concrete ties and welded rails. Yet not a single mile of high-speed rail and barely any plans to build one.
China is busy building 13,000 miles of high-speed rail. France recently ran a train at 347 MPH. Not Km/hour, MILES PER HOUR!
Wouldn't it be fun to get from Omaha to Denver, Chicago, Kansas City or St. Louis like that? How about from San Francisco to Vancouver, BC? SFO to LA? Washington to Boston? Maybe Miami to Boston?
Check this out:
Sure, other places have population density we don't have--on average. But we have places of growing density on our coasts, heartland and the front range of the Rockies.
But even for the coal and the containers... And all the grain that gets shipped out of the heartland. There's a cheaper faster way. But only if we build it. Someday, we'll wish we had. It will never be cheaper than today.