Part 1

The Birth of Restlessness

Implications of Rail on the Physical Development of the United States

Trains were invented in England, but it was in early 19th century America that the railroad had space to evolve and flourish. This section unveils how rail was a major contributor to the physical form of America at multiple scales, beginning with the scale of the station and ending with the scale of nation. (Because this history is so vast, I've focused the research around the architectural, urban, and territorial developments of the Illinois Central, the first railroad developed with the aid of a federal land grant.)


Conclusions from the Past, Perspectives on the Present

As we turn our attention from the past to the present it is worthwhile to draw some conclusions from the research presented in Part 1, and in doing so establish a perspective for the study into contemporary applications of high-speed rail in Part 2.

The importance of the railroad to the form and shape of early America (physically, economically, culturally, and socially) cannot be overstated. The train galvanized an American spirit of entrepreneurship, individualism, progress, and technological determinism towards an urbanism specific to the physical and temporal parameters of the railroad. The train and its station seeded an urbanism distinct from later modular pairs, such as the jet and the airport, or even a car and a highway. While these other mobility technologies would also come to inform American urbanism in the twentieth century, the implications of the train have been embedded in the physical, economic, social, and cultural DNA of the country well before the car and the plane and in ways that the collective American imagination has forgotten.

Sometimes it takes a fresh eyes to observe that which is most obvious. French philosopher John Paul Sartre’s travel essays, written during a trip to the US in the 1940s, document the importance of the railroad to the generation of form in American cities:

In order to learn to live in these cities and to like them as Americans do, I had to fly over the immense deserts of the west and south. Our European cities, submerged in human countrysides that have been worked over mile by mile, are continuous...We flew for hours between New Orleans and San Francisco, over an earth that was dry and red, clotted with verdigris bushes. Suddenly, a city, a little checkerboard flush with the ground, arose and then, again, the red earth, the Savannah, the twisted rocks of the Grand Canyon, and the snows of the Rocky Mountains.

After a few days of this diet, I came to understand that the American city was, originally, a camp in the desert. People from far away, attracted by a mine, a petroleum field or fertile land, arrived one fine day and settled as quickly as possible in a clearing, near a river. They built the vital parts of the town, the bank, the town hall, the church, and then hundreds of one-story frame houses. The road, if there was one, served as a kind of spinal column to the town, and then streets were marked out like vertebrae, perpendicular to the road. It would be hard to count the American cities that have that kind of parting in the middle.

Like the US, many countries in Europe and Asia have a deep spatial and economic history with the railroad. But unlike the US, nineteenth century Europe, and to a lesser extent Asia, were already significantly developed. There, hundreds or thousands of years of self-sufficiency informed the development of architecture, public spaces, urban morphologies, regional distributions of cities, and territorial relationships. Conversely, in post-frontier America, the hinterlands were immediately and fully plugged into a vast network of capitalist enterprise made possible by the railroad. Paris, London, Brussels, Madrid, Berlin, Tokyo, Beijing, and countless other cities were established as important urban centers before the American continent was even encountered by the rest of the world. As such, while in the US the conventional railroad produced new cities and patterns of urban development, in Europe and Asia the train acted as a disruptor, an agent of change and modernity within centuries-old cities. In the same travel essay, Sartre describes European cities to be “closed cities, full as eggs” while American cities are “formless and unfinished…haunted by the immense geographical space surrounding them.”

By the early twentieth century the golden age of the railroad in the United States had begun to wane. New trends in mobility, patterns of living, and national policies towards investment in highway building, aviation, and suburban homeownership aligned to hasten the demise of passenger rail in the US. Although the railroad network is still key for freight transportation, as many as 98% of Americans have never ridden an inter-city train. Those who have are using Amtrak, which struggles with the dominance of freight on shared tracks, systemic federal underfunding, and poor service frequency, among other issues that reinforce the notion of the train as a relic of the past, not a foundation for the future.

In most European and Asian countries, post-WWII investment in transportation included the railroad: subways, commuter rail, intercity rail, even national and international railroad networks. Beginning with Japan in the 1960s, carried on by France and Germany throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s, and implemented more recently by Spain, China, and South Korea, these investments were increasingly made towards new and upgraded networks for high-speed trains. In Part 2, we’ll examine high-speed rail in a variety of cultural contexts and from large scale to small scale. Of equal importance to the innovative methods deployed by designers to incorporate HSR into historic urban centers is the invention of rural and suburban HSR stations, and the new operative scales offered by the train’s high speeds. When distance is measured in minutes, not miles, the imperative of regional planning challenges the American tradition of planning (and governance) confined to city limits.

Perhaps most importantly, the case studies introduce an imaginary of the train as contemporary rather than nostalgic. In the US the train is a past. As Dana Frank writes: Trains tap into some deep American collective memory. Its relevance is tied to the gold rush, the settling of the West, or at best, the moan of a distant freight train at night. Or, in a more contemporary vision, of the inconstant silver Amtrak stranded on a side track waiting for freight trains to barrel passed. In Europe and Asia, the image of a sleek train zipping quietly through the city and country is cleaner, more progressive, and more hopeful than any other mode of transit—it is inextricably linked to a vision of the future.