Sunday, October 21, 2007

Risk Averse Society Bad for Railroad Development

We have been reading Jill Jonnes' excellent history of the buiding of New York's Penn Station and its tunnels called Conquering Gotham. In its time, this project was compared to completing the first transcontinental railroad and to building of the great pyramid.

We have been trying to think of railroad projects of the past fifty or so years that could compare with it in sheer size, technical innovation, risk, and usefulness of the end result. Of course, if you go back to 1957, sixty percent of the time was one of decline for the railroads. Also of course, the railroads were disinclined to do anything comparable.

For size, the New York terminal project, begun principally (in planning) in 1902, also included the twin tunnels under the Hudson River (North River), the yards that were built where most of the Tenderloin once lay, the quad tunnels under the East River, the connection with the LIRR, and the Sunnyside Yard complex. For innovation, nobody had ever tunneled under glacial silt and a swift-flowing tidal riverbed, and the electrical motive power system for the traction-powered trains had to be built from scratch. For risk, not only did the PRR have to pay for all of this itself (with private investment), but it had to assume the risk of dangerous political upheaval from the then-entrenched Tammany Tiger of New York City politics. And for usefulness, the tunnels and much of the subterranean station are still in use by Amtrak and New York commuter rail systems. (The above-ground portion of the station was demolished before the historic preservation movement took hold - for the construction of a "modern" building.)

So we started trying to think of railroad projects for the future. Projects that could compare with Penn Station. None exist. Why?

It comes down to risk. As a people and as corporate stockholders, citizens of these United States are no longer willing to accept risk. We will not do great deeds because we cannot think great thoughts. We cannot think great thoughts because all great and grand designs for future enterprise are fraught with risk.

God forbid that a man die digging a tunnel today. The lawyers and the insurance companies will put the company for which that man worked out of business with their claims and lawsuits. Private capital wants and needs government support to take a risk. It wants and needs absolution for any sins before going in. Call before digging. Somebody else must pay if we are at fault.

And that costs money.

We have dragged the rest of the world up with us, and the United States has now gotten cold feet. We progress in ever more measured steps and become, like the Europe of old, more interested in furthering our political position with the world than in furthering the domestic progress of our citizens. And those at the back of the line being dragged, with the progress of the front of the line slowing noticeably, are more than happy to step all over us to get to the front. By any means possible. Even by taking RISKS!

How pathetic.

© 2007 - C. A. Turek -

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