mailto:email@example.comMore transportation articles by David S. Lawyer
This book, "Allies of the Earth, Railroads and the soul of preservation" is by Alfred Runte. It's published by Truman State University Press, 2006. It's another book promoting passenger rail and covering some of the history of passenger travel on main-line railroads (formerly called "the steam railroads) but neglecting the travel on the "electric railways" (interurbans and street cars). It seems to place special emphasis on rail travel to visit national parks and viewing natural scenery from trains.
Although the book doesn't say so, the electric railways in the 1920's carried about 25% more passenger miles than the steam railways so an important segment of rail travel has been neglected. It's OK to limit the scope like this but it should have been mentioned. See Bus Facts for 1935, p. 9 for the graph "Passenger Miles in United States" (1890-1935).
This book seems to be fairly accurate, but a major problem with it is what it leaves out, especially the pros of automobile and air travel. As compared to other books on this topic, it's likely better but it still is very much deficient and sometimes misleading.
I, like the author, strongly believe in preservation of the natural landscape and in environmentalism. For this, population needs to decline rather than increase and the author has sorely neglected this aspect of the problem. Also, there are some inconvenient facts about rail passenger travel that the author doesn't mention. If one is going to claim that railroads are "allies of the earth" then one needs to answer the question about how much damage railroads do to the environment. How much do they pollute, consume non-renewable energy resources, and how much do they cost to build and operate?
It turns out that the railroads of yore, with their noisy, smoke and steam belching locomotives used a few times more energy for each passenger-mile than the automobile of that era. See my website: Fuel Efficiency of Travel in 20th Century
Much of the book is about the use of rail to visit the national parks in the U.S., including during the rail steam era. No mention is made that these steam rail visitors were causing about 3 times as much impact on global warming and natural resource depletion as those who arrived by automobile. Even today "Transportation Energy Data Book" shows Amtrak using about as much energy per passenger-mile than the automobile, although during World-War-II with most trains full, almost 100 passenger-miles per gallon was obtained on diesel trains. In view of all this, are passenger trains any more "allies of the earth" than the automobile? On the contrary, it is more likely that the passenger railroad, motor vehicles (on highways) and airplanes are all "enemies of the earth". Perhaps a train running on hydro-electric power might be an exception provided we had a surplus of hydro power which we don"t.
At the start of chapter one with "As late as 1929" in bold face it says that "... we have forgotten that railroads once dominated the environment." But it was around 1921 when automobile travel started to exceed rail travel. For rail domination, one needs to go back to the teens. But if one goes even further back to 1900 when there were almost no automobiles, then it turns out that rail travel today is slightly higher (as measured in passenger-miles) than it was in 1900. But today it's mostly commuter rail travel. Travel on non-rail modes (auto and air) is now about 200 times what it was on the railroad monopoly in 1900 (including the electric railroads). Thus the problem we face today is more of a problem of an excessive amount of travel than the fact that only about 1/2% of it is by railroad. But this book utterly fails to present these statistics.
This chapter seems to ignore the fact that in Europe, railroad transportation has significantly declined in it's share of the transpiration market. See "The Future of Railway Transport in Europe" in "Social Change and Sustainable Transport" pp.241-7, Indiana University Press, 2002. In 1994 in the European Union, rail only had a 15% share of freight and a 6% share of passengers. And these figures have been on the decline since 1970 when the modal share of rail was about double for both passengers and freight.
Granted that there are many things wrong with U.S. rail freight, but it is doing a lot better than Europe. Reasons for the decline of rail freight in Europe include the shorter distances which tend to favor truck, and the failure of European railroads (except for countries which once were part of the Soviet Union) to install automatic couplers so as to facilitate fast transferring freight cars from one train to another.
The relative decline of passenger rail in Europe is much less than the decline in the U.S. See the Statistical Abstract of the U.S. for U.S. passenger-mile data. Today, Amtrak only has about a 0.2% share of the intercity passenger market with the auto and airplane (neglecting international travel) at about 80% and 20% respectively. Europe at 6% is about where the U.S. was in the late 1930's or the early 1950's.
For 2000 the rail share of the European (EU-15 excluding Eastern Europe) freight market has further declined to only 8%. See Nature Or Nurture: Why Do Railroads Carry Greater Freight Share In The United States Than In Europe? by Jose Manuel Vassallo http://www.ksg.harvard.edu/taubmancenter/pdfs/working_papers/fagan_vassallo_05_rail.pdf Note that in 2009, after Eastern European countries joined the European Union, rail's share in the EU-27 rose to about 16% (since the eastern counties as part of the Soviet block, relied more heavily on rail). See http://epp.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/statistics_explained/index.php/Freight_transport_statistics.
Thus In Europe, trucks haul (in ton-km) several times as much freight that trains do while in the U.S., trains haul significantly more intercity freight than trucks, and still do. This in spite of the fact that much of the rail freight is by European governments. In the U.S., rail freight is not subsidized and railroad companies pay taxes to the government.
p.32: "Nor would it [Europe] be grounded by a shortage of oil. Most of its railroads have been fully electrified; hydroelectric power abounds in the Alps and Pyrenees."
Per the Internet, only about 13% of France's electricity comes from such hydro and France is the only country that has both the Alps and Pyrenees within its border. With Europe so dependent on truck transportation, wouldn't an oil shortage ground much of the freight transportation there?
Henry David Thoreau, one of the first environmentalists, had mixed feeling about railroads and seems to be opposed to them. If he had known what we know today about fossil fuel depletion and global warming, he likely would have opposed them more strongly.
So I just can't agree with the title of the Epilogue: "The Land Would Ask for Trains". The land would no more ask for trains than it would for automobiles and airplanes. The final sentence, that we should "... go by train again" would require 200 times as much rail travel as was present in 1900 except that it couldn't replace international air travel across the ocean. Such a high level of rail travel would be an environmental disaster on par with the existing environmental disaster due to the automobile.
The book does point out how pleasant it was to ride the railroads. But for some, train trips were an ordeal. It fails to point out that with an automobile, one can stop and view the landscape and in some cases walk a little on sidewalks and trails to get a better sense of the environment, something one can't do on trains. With the automobile, one could take along camping equipment and drive right into various camping sites. So in some ways, the automobile put people closer to nature than the train did. As to airplanes, one can sometimes view huge wilderness areas from above, something one can't do on land transportation.
So reciting the beauties and feeling of place on trains doesn't do justice to the automobile and airplane which have their own advantages and disadvantages. But perhaps such a book's purpose is to just sings the glories of the rails and not to point out the advantages of the other modes of travel.