The aforementioned Montreal Limited, for example, circa 1942, would pull out of New York’s Grand Central Station at 11:15 p.m., arriving at Montreal’s (now defunct) Windsor Station at 8:25 a.m., a little more than nine hours later. To make that journey today, from New York’s Penn Station on the Adirondack, requires a nearly 12-hour ride. The trip from Chicago to Minneapolis via the Olympian Hiawatha in the 1950s took about four and a half hours; today, via Amtrak’s Empire Builder, the journey is more than eight hours. Going from Brattleboro, Vt., to New York City on the Boston and Maine Railroad’s Washingtonian took less than five hours in 1938; today, Amtrak’s Vermonter (the only option) takes six hours—if it’s on time, which it isn’t, nearly 75 percent of the time.
… 220 mph would be phenomenal, but we would also do well to simply get trains back up to the speeds they traveled at during the Harding administration. Consider, for example, the Burlington Zephyr, …which barreled from Chicago to Denver in 1934 in a little more than 13 hours. (It would take more than 18 today.) An article later that year, by which time the Zephyr had put on the “harness of a regular railroad schedule,” quoted a conductor complaining the train was “loafing” along at only 85 mph. But it was not uncommon for the Zephyr or other trains to hit speeds of more than 100 mph in the 1930s. Today’s “high-speed” Acela service on Amtrak has an average speed of 87 mph and a rarely hit peak speed of 150 mph. (The engine itself could top 200 mph.)
…Less rail capacity (and rail quality) has coincided with a dramatic rise in freight traffic in recent years, owing in part to a buoyant economy and in part to trains’ improving (and now superior) fuel efficiency to trucks—particularly as diesel fuel prices have risen. Despite recent infrastructure spending, bottlenecks are routine, as passenger trains typically yield to passing freight trains.
…As it turns out, there are actually plenty of examples of “technological regress” throughout history. As this fascinating paper notes, the process of building with cement had reached a high point during the Roman Empire, only to be “lost” until its reinvention in the early 13th century. The United States has lost not so much the technology of rail speed as the public will, the cultural memory; this may have made sense for a historical period, but now, weighed in terms of the congestion, carbon emissions, and comfort of other travel modes, it seems time to reach for the way-back machine. As journalist Philip Longman has pointed out, where “fast mail trains” once “ensured next-day delivery on a letter mailed with a standard two-cent stamp in New York to points as far west as Chicago,” today, “that same letter is likely to travel by air first to FedEx’s Memphis hub, then be unloaded, sorted, and reloaded onto another plane, a process that demands far greater expenditures of money, carbon, fuel, and, in many instances, time than the one used eighty years ago.” In building our “bridge to the 21st Century” we might remember the Roman god Janus, patron of, among other things, bridges: He looked backward as well as forward.