Back on Track?

When it opened in 1914 in Kansas City, Missouri, Union Station was the country’s third largest train station, a vast, balustraded, pilastered Beaux Arts fantasy of civic uplift. The renowned Chicago architect Jarvis Hunt, challenged by the financier E. H. Harriman to build a monument, did just that: it was a self-contained metropolis, complete with its own jail, a dedicated floor for freight and mail handling, and the North Waiting Room—capacity 10,000 and the size of a football field. By 1917, it was handling a record 70,000 trains a year. During World War II, as the Harvard University landscape historian John Stilgoe wrote in his 2007 book Train Time, the “immense station throbbed with activity almost impossible to imagine today.” Nearly half of all soldiers going to war, Stilgoe noted, “walked through its Grand Hall.”

In the 1960s, in the wake of the interstate-highway system, Union Station was handling less than half of its World War II peak. Two decades later, a mere half-dozen passenger trains made a station stop in Kansas City. The ignominious coup de grâce came in 1985, when Amtrak moved its remaining operations to a smaller facility. Following a thorough renovation in the 1990s, Union Station again bustles with life, but today’s visitors mostly travel no farther than the museums, shops, and restaurants that are now the station’s stock-in-trade. Instead of catching a train, visitors pilot the vintage-train simulator at the KC Rail Experience.

Given that many Americans now see train travel in the dim light of nostalgia, something to be “experienced” in a museum, it is difficult to conjure the social palpitations induced by the emergence of train travel in the 1800s. The way artists first responded to the train is the subject of Art in the Age of Steam: Europe, America and the Railway, 1830–1960, a show at Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (not so far from Union Station), produced in conjunction with the Walker Art Gallery of the National Museums Liverpool. Something as seemingly innocent as the train compartment, the cultural historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch observes in The Railway Journey, broached a whole series of incipient social questions, ranging from class and gender mingling to the specter of crime and the question of whether passengers should speak to one another.

These discrete tensions—or what the show calls “the human drama of the railway”—are exemplified in First Class: The Meeting…and at First Meeting Loved, an 1854 work by the English painter Abraham Solomon. It depicts three people in an ornate first-class compartment: an elderly man sleeping, a woman playing with her necklace, and a young man dreamily gazing upon her, his hand propping up his chin. The painting was denounced as “vulgar”; Solomon, in response, produced a sequel in which the older man is awake and placed between the pair as chaperone—no hint of licentiousness here! “Victorians saw the railway compartment as a forum for social comment,” Ian Kennedy, a curator at the Nelson-Atkins, says, “[on] the dangers of traveling on the railway, what happens to pretty girls if they’re unsupervised, the hustle and bustle of modern life.” In America, Kennedy says, which “one hundred years ago had almost as much track as all the rest of the world combined,” the art was more about the “heroic scale of the enterprise” and the railroad’s mythic place in the course of westward expansion, as illustrated in paintings such as Albert Bierstadt’s 1873 Donner Lake from the Summit.

While all this might seem merely steam-­shrouded history, Kennedy, who describes himself as a train buff at heart (“one of these weird people who like walking along deserted railway lines”), points out a curious fact about Kansas City: “It’s still an important rail hub. It’s the second most important after Chicago.” But it is not passenger trains that are entering the city—it is huge freight trains, run by the likes of Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway. Far from being outmoded, freight trains are an increasingly viable business. Warren Buffett, famously, has been buying rail stock and now owns nearly one fifth of BNSFR. He has invested with good reason: trains are not only more efficient than trucks; they’re more efficient than they were even a few decades ago—by some 80 percent.

“A lot of the railroads are jammed up with freight,” says James McCommons, a nature ­writer and Eng­lish professor at Northern Michigan University, who is completing a book, called Waiting on a Train, about the future of the rail in the United States. “They’re moving low-sulfur coal out of Wyoming, grain shipments, containers of goods from Asia.” There’s just one problem: the trains are moving record amounts of freight—on fewer rails.

This is happening just as passenger rail, perpetually on the verge of extinction, is also beginning to seem more viable because of rising fuel prices and intractable congestion. Amtrak’s ridership, says David Johnson, assistant director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, is up nearly 11 percent this year—May saw the single largest ridership in its history—and is poised to break the 27 million mark for the fiscal year. “This would likely be higher,” he says, “if Amtrak had more equipment.” Small signs of rail resurgence are everywhere: on the New York–Philadelphia route, Amtrak earned record revenues in 2007; the segment of the Pacific Surfliner that runs from San Diego to Los Angeles often has as many as 100 passengers standing. Transportation departments, once focused on highways, are floating plans to connect places like Chicago and Iowa City, and Okla­homa City and Kansas City.

Problems remain. One of the reasons rail travel can feel outdated is that journey times are often of the last century—or worse. The Brattleboro Reformer notes that in 1938 one could travel the Connecticut Yankee (one of a number of options) from Brattleboro, Vermont, to New York in four hours and 42 minutes. Today, there’s only one train, and it takes around six hours—when it’s on schedule, which about 75 percent of the time it’s not.

McCommons points out that Amtrak has its own issues, among them aging equipment and mismanagement (not to mention underfunding). But, ironically, it’s also a victim of the success of freight rail. In North Texas, “one of the most congested freight areas in the country,” McCommons recently endured a not atypical eight-hour delay on the Texas Eagle. There were track issues; in summer, rails expand and rail beds buckle. But much of the problem was simply congestion. Near the town of Longview, six different rail lines coalesce into a massive bottleneck. The new intermodal trains, which carry containers directly off of cargo ships, are often too large for sidings—so when two trains are on the same track, “it’s Amtrak that has to get over,” McCommons says. Sometimes Amtrak trains have to go past stations and then back in, slowing things further.

But other trains, like the Hiawatha, which runs from Milwaukee to Chicago, or the Capitol Corridor route, from Sacramento to Oakland, California, have good on-time rates, he says, because the states “sat down with railroads. They’ve negotiated. They’ve invested money, along with railroads, to make infra­structure so trains can run.” Most ambitiously, a November 4 ballot looms in California to approve nearly $10 billion in financing for a dedicated high-speed line (backed by Governor Schwarzenegger) that would put Los Angeles within two and a half hours of San Francisco. The model would be something like Spain’s rapidly growing AVE network, which can blaze from Madrid to Barcelona in just over two and a half hours—and has been blamed for a recent decrease in domestic plane travel.

But, in his time riding the rails, McCommons says he has “learned that you don’t necessarily need high-speed lanes. You need trains that are frequent, that go faster than a car, or as fast as a car. That’s what people want. We don’t necessarily need 110-mile-an-hour trains if we could just get trains that are on time and go every hour.” The high-speed future may be coming—and with it, perhaps, a glimmer of the cultural excitement seen in Art in the Age of Steam—but in the meantime, McCommons argues, we will profit simply by getting back to the past. “What we have today is something that we already had decades ago. In fact, what we had decades ago was better.”

Art in the Age of Steam: Europe, America and the Railway, 1830 –1960 is on view at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, in Kansas City, Missouri, from September 13, 2008, through January 18, 2009; (816) 751-1278, www.nelson-atkins.org.

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