A Platform for Speculation on American Urbanization in the Age of High Speed Rail

by Melissa Alexander

Table of Contents


Emeryville, California
Summer, 2014

I’m waiting on a train.

It’s a clear morning and surprisingly cool. My backpack is heavy on my shoulders. The difficulty of packing for a train trip around the world bewildered me for weeks, but I managed to trim my belongings down to a single bag. The station in Emeryville is a modest brick structure, set back from the street by a handful of parking spaces and a porte cochère. The building is really just a large waiting room with a ticket counter, although inside the combination of tall ceilings, polished laminate flooring, and crisp California sunshine are welcoming enough. While not exactly crowded, the room is bright and buzzing with excitement. I stand off to the side, leaning my shoulder against the wall near the large windows so I can keep an eye on the platform and also watch life play itself out between the rows of seats in front of me. From my spot I can see men and women traveling for business, and families wrangling young children while also trying to fold up strollers and check luggage. Behind me a cyclist in full road gear argues with an attendant about the cost of bicycle carriage. Outside, on the platform, large cameras dangle from the necks of tourists as they pace around, anxious for the train to arrive.

[[slider id="1"]]

Despite it’s small size, Emeryville station is host to four of California’s eight Amtrak routes: the Coast Starlight to Seattle, the San Joaquin central valley route, the Capital Corridor to San Jose and Sacramento, and the route for which I have a ticket: the California Zephyr to Chicago. In theory, the Zephyr would take me across the country, a distance of just under 2500 miles, in approximately fifty hours. (When the train debuted in 1949, the trip duration was two hours shorter.) The time of departure printed on the front of my ticket has now come and gone without acknowledgement from the desk staff. Either they are too busy to notice, they don’t care, or they don’t consider a delayed train unusual enough to mention.

Either they are too busy to notice, they don’t care, or they don’t consider a delayed train unusual enough to mention.

I wander out to the platform just in time to catch the big stainless steel locomotive of the Zephyr rumble passed, smelling of diesel and halting all conversations. All of a sudden, everyone is in the way of everyone else. Cameras flash away at the double decker train as passengers scurry about the platform, anxiously searching their pockets for tickets or posing for photos. I splurged on a passage in a superliner roomette, Amtrak’s economy sleeper cabin, and my own ticket indicates I am in car 0630, cabin 07. My anticipation for a private room grows in direct proportion to the increasing cacophony of rolling luggage all around me. I scan the train as it slowly comes to a halt and try to locate my car along the sun-washed platform.

As I walk, I see conductors checking tickets at each entrance. But when I reach my designated car, I find an elderly couple standing awkwardly outside a train car door that isn’t thrown open like the others. Our conductor isn’t anywhere in sight, and the couple is hesitant to enter the train without a ticket check. We wait another few moments, joined by four Chinese tourists and a woman on crutches with a cast. We decide as a group, mostly through shrugs and hand gestures, to open the door and board the train without the approval of a conductor.

[[slider id="2"]]

Even though the Zephyr arrives late and I am welcomed on board by no one, cabin 07 on the upper level delights me. From the narrow interior corridor, I slide the pocket door aside to find two cushy reclining seats facing each other in front of a big picture window. The door is flanked by an eight-inch-deep shelf stuffed full of clean towels and a tiny closet with two clothes hangers. I look up to see a bunk bed, complete with sheets and blankets, that is folded away for the day. A bottle of water and a clean pillow wait near my seat, and a small pamphlet informs me that showers are located on the car’s lower level. Overall, the entire roomette measures just 42" x 78". The petite size is efficient; the privacy is luxurious. Combined with the latent romance of train travel, the quiet calm of the roomette makes my familiar country seem new and exciting.

[[slider id="3"]]

The act of riding a train in the United States is an act of nostalgia. It’s a look to the past. It’s a choice to dine with strangers, to travel slowly, a counter-choice to a global culture that promotes speed and efficiency above most other qualities.

Over the next two days I encounter delight and frustration in equal measure. I meet and have conversations with interesting characters: I talk urban design with a community organizer from Nevada and debate the second amendment with a soft-spoken woman from Texas (whom I’m pretty sure had a handgun in her purse). There are more Amish people than I’ve ever seen in one place—word on the train is that they travel to Mexico for healthcare procedures that are too expensive in the States. The winding route of the train through the Rockies is truly breathtaking, and it is fun to ‘oooh’ and ‘aaah’ with the other passengers. Park rangers board the lounge car and recount the history of the California landscape as we roll through the state, highlighting events such as the Gold Rush, the pounding of the final golden spike of the transcontinental railroad at Promontory Point, and even cannibalism at Donner Pass. The presence of the park rangers makes one thing clear: the act of riding a train in the United States is an act of nostalgia. It’s a look to the past. It’s a choice to dine with strangers, to travel slowly, a counter-choice to a global culture that promotes speed and efficiency above most other qualities. This, ironically, is an attitude founded in large part by the then-revolutionary speed of the locomotive in the 19th century. In human experience, speed is relative.

Amtrak posters have always had a nostalgic "America the Beautiful" quality. They communicate a love of the past moreso than an embrace of the future. Top: 1970s, Middle: 2000s, Bottom: 2010s.

But the Zephyr also makes unexplained stops for long periods as freight trains roll by. Meals are a hectic affair involving reservations, and the dining car is mysteriously out of key food items even at the first meal. Coffee is supposed to be available all day in each sleeper car, yet in car 0630 the urn remains stubbornly unplugged and empty. The showers run out of water on morning two; the bathrooms are miserable by the end of the trip; we are five hours late to Chicago; no one seems to know why my car has no conductor (even though clearly the other staff are annoyed by this as well).

“Trains tap into some deep American collective memory.”

Dana Frank

It’s easy to love train travel: the stress of driving and navigating melts as the landscape stretches out beyond the window, sliding passed my idle gaze from left to right. Passed seasides, over mountains, and through farmlands and deserts, the train rumbles onward rocking gently from side to side. Time passes more slowly than usual. The seats are spacious and there are train cars dedicated to lounging, taking in the scenery, and dining. Children get discounted tickets, and there is ample barrier-free access. You can bring almost as much luggage as you want, and you don’t have to arrive two hours early or take your shoes off for a TSA pat-down. Trains offer unique and memorable spatial experiences and encourage travelers to interact. Nobody falls in love on a plane; there isn’t enough room. But mingling is a core activity of train travel: the space and social atmosphere provide ample opportunity for a chance encounter with a stranger.

[[slider id="4"]]

It’s harder to love Amtrak, which is the only means of medium and long distance train travel in America. Since 1970, when Amtrak was created by Congress to remove the burden of passenger travel from large freight operators, the company has been systemically underfunded, undervalued, and under-prioritized by Washington, DC. After traveling more than 10,000 miles on nearly all of Amtrak’s long distance service over the past three years, I truly believe it does the best it can with aging rolling stock, crumbling infrastructure, and meager operating budgets. Still, Amtrak is broken, and given the size of the country and the dominance of American auto and airline industries, it seems unlikely to be fixed without both political will and a grand national vision supported by the people. But since Amtrak is all most Americans know about train travel, garnering the needed support is challenging. Nobody supports a broken train system.

Shinkansen inaugural ceremony, 1964. Source: Library of Congress.

Unlike the United States, riding a train in most other countries is liberating. Travel is brisk, stations are attractive and clean, and trains are well attended and comfortable. Japan introduced the first high-speed train from Tokyo to Osaka in 1964, and since then speeds have increased and high-speed rail (HSR) technology has been adopted by industrialized countries throughout Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Train travel there is more environmentally friendly, more convenient, and more comfortable than budget air travel. Trains are the preferred mode of transit for distances between 75-500 miles in countries where it is available, because, at nearly 200mph, it is quicker than cars and more convenient than planes. Technology aside, trains shape the social space of cities. Whether historic, renovated, or brand new, train stations are the nexus of urban culture and commerce, the heartbeat generating and regenerating a vibrant urban community.

Despite the broken condition of Amtrak, train travel could make a comeback in the US. American highways are congested and crumbling, daily commute times are inhumane, and many airports are at maximum capacity. Citizens are ever more aware of the environmental damage caused by carbon emissions from cars and planes. And, in a migratory ‘about face,’ Americans are now moving into cities instead of out of them. As such, there is renewed interest in all forms of transit. In 2009, as a part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the Obama administration designated over $8 billion towards high-speed rail initiatives, and unveiled a ‘Vision for High-Speed Rail in America.’ Following the announcement, forty states and the District of Columbia requested over $100 billion for high-speed train projects. The demand, at least for studying high-speed rail, is there. In January of 2015, California broke ground on its own high-speed route, largely along the San Joaquin corridor through the valley, to connect San Francisco and Los Angeles. In Florida, a high-speed rail project connecting Tampa and Orlando started but was disappointingly shelved in 2014. And in Texas, a group of investors is making progress towards a privately funded route between Dallas and Houston. If, after fifty years of stalling, Americans are finally ready to address the problem of mobility in the US, we must look outside of our own the traditional transportation planning processes that are still dominated by the tools, methods and assumptions, political biases, procedural failures, and instilled human behaviors of our past and current planning processes

[[gallery id="5"]]

In order to accomplish this, designers need to reconnect with the rich spatial legacy of the train in nineteenth century America and understand the physical implications of 21st century high-speed trains. Using travel as a lens of inquiry, Riding the Rails explores the physical implications of the railroad in the past, present and future at several scales of intervention and in a variety of cultural contexts. Drawing from first-hand train passage throughout Europe and Asia, the resulting body of research establishes a platform from which to speculate on new models of American urbanization in the age of high-speed rail.

Part 1: The Birth of Restlessness explores the implications of the railroad on the physical development of a young and expansive United States from the early nineteenth century to World War II. During this period, the railroad galvanized an American spirit of entrepreneurship, progress, and technological determinism towards an urbanism specific to its own physical and temporal parameters. The train, its station, and its routes produced an urbanism distinct from that produced by a jet and an airport, or even by a car and a highway. While these other mobility technologies would inform American urbanism in the twentieth century, it was the train that ushered modernity into the physical, economic, social and cultural DNA of the country well before the car and the plane and in ways that the American collective memory has forgotten. As Tom Zoellner states, "Under the skin of modernity lies a skeleton of railroad tracks."

Part 2: Waiting on a Train focuses on the contemporary physical implications of high-speed Rail from World War II to the present day, using case studies from Europe and Asia to identify the new and exciting ways in which HSR invents new architectural and urban typologies, compresses space, and opens up new operative scales that supersede traditional scales of design and planning. Throughout history, transportation technologies don’t usually make a comeback and, in this way too, high-speed rail is unique. Beginning with Japan in the 1960s, carried on by France and Germany throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s, and implemented most recently by Spain, China, and South Korea, high-speed rail has had profound multi-scalar physical implications on both cities and suburbs. But this new technology has not simply reproduced the typological innovations of the past; it’s not as simple as replacing a slow train with a fast train. The unprecedented speed of these new trains compresses space in new and exciting ways. Distance is no longer measured in miles but in minutes, and in this way high-speed rail opens up new operative scales for design and planning. In addition to the effectiveness of high-speed technology is its affectiveness: trains offer an experience of travel that is distinct from, and arguably superior to, most other modes of travel.

Finally, Part 3: I Hear that Train A-comin’ speculates on the future of passenger rail in America, which, due to the dominance of the car, is a challenging environment for high-speed rail. The population density in all of the major cities is much lower than a typical European or Asian city. Diffusive urban organizations such as suburbs and edge cities are much more common than dense patterns of development, and driving into the city to catch a train is just as inconvenient as driving to the airport. Public transit is much less comprehensive, so getting around upon arrival by high speed train is a challenge. There is already evidence of general NIMBYism towards the existing HSR studies, a cultural tendency increasingly prevalent throughout the US. Then there are real and perceived cultural hurdles, specifically the notion that Americans are just too automobile-centric to take the train. This section focuses on Texas as a case study for speculation and provocation, with expanded lessons to be learned for other states.

Though the epilogue contains more detailed credits, I would here like to thank Mr. Ron Druker who supported this research through the Druker Travelling Fellowship at the Graduate School of Design, Harvard University.