Thursday, January 28, 2010

Public transportation - 19th century - 1; 21st century - 0

A couple of days ago it was raining and over 40 degrees (Fahrenheit), and tonight it's about 8 degrees, with windchills of about -8. Such is winter in New England.

I met with an old friend and co-worker a couple of days ago - he's come back to the historical archive where I work (and he used to work) to do some research on 19th century railroads in Massachusetts, specifically the railroad that runs east-west across the state between Boston and Albany, N.Y. One interesting bit of information he provided was that according to the oldest schedules that he found, the trains in the 1850s could travel between Boston and Worcester in slightly less time than the commuter rail trains that follow the same route today. This is especially interesting (and depressing) to me because I used to travel on those commuter trains when I worked in the Boston area. It's interesting (and slightly depressing) to learn that a traveller in the pre-Civil War period could get a faster trip than present-day commuters! Granted, the seating on those early trains probably made even the most cramped old commuter rail cars today seem like luxury hotels on wheels - I think that the early seats were usually plain and rickety wood, on cars that had very limited shock absorbing capabilities.

This kind of ties in with the fact that the USA once had one of the world's best passenger rail networks, and then we basically dismantled most of it in the mid-to-late 20th century because interstate highways and automobiles seemed like a superior method of travel at the time. You could once travel to almost any small city and many decent-sized towns in the USA by rail. Even the electric streetcar networks were pretty comprehensive - I heard somewhere that in the early 20th century one could travel all the way from Boston to Chicago using only electric streetcars, although nobody would actually travel that way because you would probably have to change streetcar lines 30 times or something. I'm not sure if that is actually true or not!

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