May 11, 2009

Imagine That

"Imagine whisking through towns at speeds over 100 miles an hour, walking only a few steps to public transportation, and ending up just blocks from your destination," Mr. Obama said. "It is happening right now, it’s been happening for decades. The problem is, it’s been happening elsewhere, not here." (Quoted in a recent NYT news article).

A long time ago (the late 1980's or early 1990's), while working as a recently-transplanted Londoner in Silicon Valley, I remember seeing a poster near the front door of the company I worked at that compared Old Tech very smugly and unfavorably to New Tech by comparing railway (railroad, I guess, this being the US) technology and companies to the then-nascent PC and workstation companies (like the place I was working at then). One had a Future, the other only a Past; QED, I guess. The poster had whole diagrams and columns devoted to explaining why train technology died out in the twentieth century (and why PC technology had a glorious future). Those lumbering old trains, heavily-engineered steel dinosaurs in the last gasp of extinction, roadkill on the way to the future…. Good riddance.

Two worlds, for sure — but not the two the poster writers (and the company's founders) probably had in mind, I'll bet. The world I'd just come from had fast, convenient, and relatively-cheap train travel (in fact until I moved to California I'd never really owned a car because public transport was so much cheaper and more convenient); trains in that world didn't just have a future, they were (and still are) the future (or a part of it, at any rate). From my point of view back then, it was cars that looked like a long-term dead end, at least in their current guise.

The world I'd just moved to, though, seemed completely oblivious to the reality elsewhere: didn't they know trains worked? Didn't they know that modern trains were marvels of hi-tech engineering and efficient use of resources? No, they basically didn't. Trains were these slow old things that almost no one used; I didn't know anyone in The Valley who took trains anywhere (there weren't any trains to take, in any case). Trains were The Past. I remember a front-page article in a local newspaper (the old SF Examiner, I think) that patiently explained to its readership train basics (such as how to get on and off trains) in preparation for some trek or other in an antique train up the coast. I used to joke that when cars became less desirable in the future, at least in California there'd be enough space to use the freeways as train right-of-ways. And now California's starting to pitch itself as ground zero for new (green) railway technology, which can't be a bad thing, for sure. Get that hi-tech on the rails again….

The US's transport infrastructure: so well-prepared for the twentieth century. And that's just the way so many Americans like it….

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