The Train Wreck to Come

May 18, 2015

In response to last week’s derailment and the carnage it caused, Congress immediately (and predictably) engaged in partisan finger-pointing. The Republicans vociferously opposed any funding that might at some point require a raise in taxes which, to their minds, doesn’t make any sense unless it involves a further swelling of the military budget. The Democrats timidly called for an increase to fund repairs that might prevent another accident.

The problem is the Northeast rail corridor can no longer be nickeled and dimed. It’s beyond being repaired. It has to be entirely rebuilt, from the rail bed to the overhead signals, nuts, bolts, everything. At present, it is a broken-down, creaking, crawling, ramshackle, rickety relic of a time when the Washington-Baltimore-Philadelphia-New York-Boston corridor was one of the country’s–and the world’s–finest and efficient rail links.

Its crowning glory, marking the Pennsylvania R.R.’s successful tunneling under the Hudson and its access to New England via the Hell Gate Bridge, was the once-majestic Penn Station, which fell to the barbarian’s wrecking ball and is now a giant pissoir. (For a well written account of Penn Station’s construction, and the immense project of which it was only a part, see Jill Jonnes’s Conquering Gotham.)

If Joe Biden thinks LaGuardia seems worthy of a “Third World country,” he ought to take a stroll through the Fifth World stygian stink hole that stands where Sanford White’s masterpiece once did. To borrow Nietzsche’s judgment on Wagner, the current terminal is “the last mushroom on the dunghill” of the Northeast corridor.

Every other industrialized nation is building or planning to build high-speed rail links between their major cities. China’s vast network of high-speed trains represents one of the world’s largest infrastructure projects. Paris and London are connected by the Chunnel. Italy, France, and Germany (of course) are investing in building 21st century rail systems.

Meanwhile, Congress keeps funding a rubber band-and-glue approach that postpones until tomorrow a final descent into paralyzing decrepitude and irreparable obsolescence.

The endemic rock throwing and rampant vandalism that might (or might not) have caused last week’s derailment should come as no surprise to anyone who credits (as I do) the “broken window theory”—the assertion that a lack of minor repairs inevitably invites a rapid increase in lawless behavior.

The Northeast corridor isn’t a broken window. It’s a bloody shambles. The urban landscape it traverses, once a testament to America’s manufacturing might, resembles the Ruhr after the RAF and the Army Air Corps got done pounding it.

To credit rock-throwing vandalism as the cause of the problem is to imagine it was snowball-throwing passengers and not a ship-sized iceberg that sent the Titanic to the bottom.

The cost of a sweeping and head-to-toe reconstruction would be daunting. More daunting is the system’s continued decline that leaves it so hobbled it becomes irrelevant. Congress would have to fund a second (and third level) to the Interstate and five (or six) bridges across the Hudson. Instead of traffic problems in Fort Lee, there’d be region-wide gridlock.

Apropos of Fort Lee, Governor Christie’s decision to cancel building a third rail tunnel beneath the Hudson (80% funded by the Federal government) is an egregious example of the kind of craven political expediency that puts personal ambition ahead of the public good and ensures the decline and fall of the country’s infrastructure.

When amortized over years and decades, public investment in large-scale infrastructure projects is dwarfed by the long-term economic effects. Think of President Eisenhower’s decision—a far-seeing Republican– to build the interstate highway system, at the time the largest public-works project in history.

In contrast, Governor Christie’s decision to abandon the Hudson tunnel and use the bulk of the money to avoid raising the gasoline tax (and boost his fast-fading chances of winning the G.O.P. presidential nomination) is a profile in cowardice.

It’s time to stop substituting band aids for a heart transplant, and to replace a decrepit eyesore with a sleek, safe, state-of-the-art system worthy of the world’s premier industrial power. A good place to start is demolishing the vile version of Penn Station now in place (where is the RAF when you need it?) and erect a terminal that isn’t a national / international embarrassment.

The choice is clear: Either begin the process of a fundamental, ground-up rebuilding or continue the ruinous slide and allow the Northeast rail corridor to become the world’s largest train wreck.

One comment

  1. Very good. At a recent conference at the Regional Plan Association, participants were asked what would more likely happen first: One of the Amtrak tunnels into NYC would collapse or one of the tunnels would be fixed. The vote was unanimous for collapse.


Leave a Reply to omccluskey Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: