21st Century Rail: The Reuniting of the Oceans

21st Century Rail: The
Reuniting of the Oceans
Blake Hughes 6.13.14


Remember that TIME is Money. Waste neither Time nor Money, but make the best Use of both. - Benjamin Franklin, 1748, Advice to a Young Tradesman, Written by an Old One

In the early afternoon on May 10, 1869 the final golden spike of the transcontinental railroad was driven into the earth in Promontory Summit, Utah. With the final blow of the ceremonial silver mallet came the rapid expansion and development of the US economy, culture, and influence in the world. Subsistence farmers, caught in a nasty, brutish, and short life, could now acquire the machinery necessary to improve their crop yields, and allow them to sell their goods to far-off markets. New York to San Francisco was no longer a lifetime away, but a week.

Celebrating the completion of the Transcontinental Railway.

The New York Sun heralded the completion of the transcontinental as The Marriage of Oceans, The Nation Ablaze with Unfeigned Enthusiasm. The Charleston Daily News reminded its readers of how quickly advancement can come to a nation:

Any man who had predicted fifty years ago that by science...the Atlantic would be brought nearer in this year to the Pacific than New York then was to Boston, would have exposed himself to strong doubts of his sanity.

The maximum speed of an early locomotive was 35 – 85 mph. By the early 20th century, Germany had done a short-run test of an electric train capable of reaching 128.4 miles per hour. By 1964, Japan had unveiled the Tokaido Shinkansen. Laying 318 miles of commercial high-speed rail from Tokyo to Osaka, the high-speed train reached speeds of 130 mph.

Celebrating the completion of the High-Speed Tokaido Shinkansen rail line. Photo by Japan Times

Today the Shinkansen has since expanded to multiple rail lines across the entire island of Japan, with top speeds of over 180 mph. To date, the Shinkansen has transported some 5.3 billion people, at a current rate of roughly 380,000 passengers per day, at four-minute intervals.

In 2002, China's Shanghai Transrapid Maglev Line made its debut, reaching speeds of 267 mph. Echoing the Charleston Daily News of over a century ago, Chancellor Gerhard Schroder of Germany remarked that two and a half years ago, this revolutionary project was just a “vague illusion.” China has since gone on to build nearly 6,000 miles of modern high-tech rail within its own borders and plans on more than doubling that number by 2020. To-date, China has over 60,000 miles of rail line.

In 2012 China opened its high-speed Bullet trains from Beijing to Guangzhou. The train tops out at 186mph. Photo by Mr Thinktank

China recently signed an agreement with Africa to develop modern rail from Mombasa to Nairobi with plans to eventually extend to Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and South Sudan. Within a relatively short timeframe (October of 2014 to early 2018) roughly 380 miles of track are expected to be laid in Africa. The cost of shipping freight is expected to fall from the current rate of 20 cents a tonne per km to 8 cents. Upon signing the Chinese/African rail agreement, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta noted that

The costs of moving our people and our goods...across our borders will fall sharply.

Today both magnetic levitation rail (MAGLEV) and high-speed rail (HSR) are well developed on a large scale in Italy, Spain, France, Germany, China, Russia, Japan, Turkey, Taiwan, Uzbekistan, and South Korea. The US falls far down the list of countries which make significant use of modern rail systems. And despite this dismal reality, there remains little political will to reunite America's oceans. What little momentum there has been is routinely undercut by misguided notions of budget austerity and the juvenile slogan “America's broke!” With a ready and willing workforce, no nation is broke, it's idle.

Modern Rail Infrastructure as Job Creators

Infrastructure improvements are more than just fancy toys for the population to play with. The next generation of rail can be used for passengers as well as freight. This means an increase in shipping and travel time for business and industry. Today, the economic effects of a transcontinental MAGLEV/HSR in the US would be immeasurable. Some agencies estimate the increase in economic activity to amount to billions per year.

Twenty-first century rail expansion would drive up productivity and wealth for, not only those in extreme poverty, but also for business leaders, manufacturers, industrialists, skilled laborers, and farmers: essentially the entire middle class. One modern rail plan (California-Nevada Interstate Maglev Project), connecting Anaheim, California to Las Vegas, Nevada is estimated to employ 90,000 workers for construction alone. Long-term benefits see an increase in household income by $99.6 million per year, increased tourism, as well as job creation opportunities for U.S. Manufacturers such as steel, concrete, and energy, all of which are large-scale employers.

Real-World Connections

The internet is often touted as a technology which "connects" and increases trade. In many ways this is true. However, there must also be a real-world connection which allows for, and facilitates, these transactions. Rail can quickly transport, not only heavy raw materials, but consumer goods. In other words, physical high-speed rail connections are just as necessary as our high-speed virtual internet connections.

Twenty-first century rail would bring distant families closer together. A trip halfway across the country as a weekend vacation would be a real possibility. Busy families with only a day to spare for family time, or even a family that cannot afford a car, would be able to make a round trip of several hundred miles in a very short time, for less money.

The Automobile Question

Personal vehicles are, of course, great fun and deeply ingrained into the American way of life. But en masse, the daily commute can be frustrating, slow, a waste of time, and dangerous. Commuting on 21st century rail would shorten the workday allowing for more free time and efficiency for both individuals and businesses. Low-income areas would see an increase in their job-search radius and in savings on gasoline and car maintenance.

Highways must be continually rebuilt to accommodate extreme wear and tear. The investment in fast rail would be minimal compared to the billions thrown at our rickety and crumbling highway system and airports.

Modern rail would reduce the roughly 30,000 Americans killed per year in automobile accidents by effectively taking millions of cars off the road. And of course, with such a drop in cars, comes a drop in emissions, translating to cleaner air for all life on Earth.

With Advancements to Civilization, Comes Civility

The reuniting of the oceans means much more than simply decreasing travel time between the Pacific and Atlantic. Within our increasingly divided culture, the social effects of fast rail could hardly be negative. The American public would again have a stake in the outcome of their country, as their daily lives would be unmistakably tied to the nation itself. The implementation of fast, modern, competitive rail would turn the heads of not only other advancing nations, but of our own increasingly disillusioned population.

As the very physical exsistence of the US crumbles before our eyes, the public has begun to look into some very dark corners for answers. The rise of political extremism, left and right-wing anarchism, and general public apathy are a direct result of a declining civilization.

Gambling in the Background

As the rest of the world pushes forward to unite its own oceans, the US establishment and its Wall Street-oriented media have become selectively pessimistic about the prospects of upgrading infrastructure. Western media reports, regarding infrastructure agreements in developing countries such as Africa and China, typically end on a sour note. The secret of this pessimism lies in the fact that infrastructure makes the public uppity, demanding, upwardly mobile and, ultimately, a challenge to the unearned and pernicious place that Wall Street currently holds. Large-scale infrastructure, particularly the building of railroads, represents a long-term investment which uplifts the standard of living for the majority of Americans. This is a concept that short-sighted Wall Street speculators cannot comprehend.

Scene from Milwaukee's Menomonee Valley, 2014. The once thriving industrial hub is now home to Potawatomi Casino (seen in background), an ever-expanding gambling den. Photo by Blake Hughes

While mansion-dwelling financiers are allowed to speculate on what little is left of our physical, productive economy, the US public is forced to trek across 3rd-world-style roads and bridges, attend poorly-funded schools, deal with shoddy electricity grids, and ride on an archaic rail system. The public now needs two spikes; one golden spike to redraw the US map with modern rail and one silver spike to extinguish parasitical financial institutions that gamble in the background as the lifeblood of our civilization rusts away.

Cover photo by Kazunori Hisada