A Lost Opportunity

Posted by John Hankey
on Friday, May 10, 2019

May 10 has come and gone. And I suggest that we blew it.

 Let me begin with a deeply held, seriously researched, professional opinion:

 The Pacific Railroad Project, generally understood as “the Transcontinental Railroad,” was a pivotal event in American History. The idea to connect the Atlantic with the Pacific by rail originated in the 1830s—at the dawn of America’s “Railway Age.”

 It ripened in the 1840s and 1850s and made possible the idea of a continental nation. Ever wonder why North America’s development wasn’t like that of South America? Ever wonder why the Union prevailed in the Civil War? Ever wonder why the United States became an industrial and commercial powerhouse in the second half of the 19th century, or was able to attain E Pluribus Unum—“Out of Many, One”?

 It was because of the railroad—or more generally, the kind of reliable, all-weather, effective, almost universal transportation railroading offered. That is why the modern United States developed as it did. Our Nation was possible because it quickly and effectively embraced the concept of “Railroad Mobility.” I have been making that argument for 40 years.

 It is the basis for understanding that railroad history and heritage are legitimate and important disciplines—and worthy of a seat at so many tables.

 Rarely do we have the opportunity to associate a single day with a long, difficult, momentous accomplishment. In a few weeks, we will celebrate the 75th Anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy, marking the beginning of the end of World War II. That Anniversary will grab much attention. It is another example of a significant day standing in for a world-changing project.

 Am I suggesting that connecting the East and West coasts of the United States with a rail line is in the same league as defeating the Nazis in Europe 75 years later?

 Absolutely. Railroad history has never been good at asserting how central it was to the successful creation of the United States as we know it today.

Without the United States that existed in the mid-20th century, Fascism in Europe would likely have prevailed. It is one of those “what if” arguments that historians try to avoid. But the development of the United States as a powerful, continental nation was never a given. It was, in fact, utterly unnatural—except that railroad transportation made it possible as an idea, and then as a reality.

 On May 10, 2019, we acknowledged the Sesquicentennial of the railroad connection across the vast North American continent. It was, in my opinion, the closing chapter of the War for Independence and the last act of the Civil War. At that point, for better or worse, the path of American History was pretty much determined. That is how important I think this day was.

 And hardly anyone noticed.

I spent much of the day flipping through the radio dial, reading newspapers, watching news programs, and generally trying to be media-aware. I am a historian, not a journalist, and I don’t pretend to be media savvy.

 But as expected, I was disappointed. I’m sure there were local news features in Utah (and other western states) mentioning the Anniversary and observances. The one reference I heard on the East Coast was to some activist group linking the Anniversary to the exploitation of Native Americans—hardly a balanced or informative approach.

 At least in the East, the Anniversary noted was the horrific derailment of an Amtrak train in Philadelphia, in which a young and confused engineer accelerated into a restricted curve, derailing the train and killing and injuring many. There were other stories about derailments, transit system problems, and corporate intrigue.

 Perhaps most humiliating (to me at least) was a segment on an otherwise respected half-hour NPR show called “Marketplace.” It is broadcast nationally and covers business and economic news of the day. I find it to be non-partisan, smart, and fact-based reporting.

 One of their main stories, broadcast to public radio stations throughout the country on May 10, had to do with the Mother of a Mississippi River barge company owner who was engaged in a project to document and present the lives and experiences of river folk. Almost everything she said equally applies to railroad folk.

 So why did a major public radio program feature a segment celebrating Mississippi River work culture on May 10, 2019—the 150th Anniversary of the Gold Spike?

 I suspect that they didn’t know any better. No one from Train World reached out to them to suggest this was a significant day. No one in Train World thought to take advantage of the opportunity. There was no coordination, no forward thinking, no understanding that there would be shared advantage to marking this ripe Anniversary.

 As for the Industry itself? Except for UP, there was seemingly no interest at all. It doesn’t fit anyone’s concept of PSR or the latest Wall Street Earnings report.

 A few thoughts come to mind.

 Asleep at the Switch. The railroad industry no longer cares about its shared heritage, or its role in creating Modern America. It is largely absent.

 Somehow, this got reduced to a UP corporate event, rather than a broader celebration of America’s railroad heritage (think of how Amtrak abandoned National Train Day).

 Train World is so narrow-minded and so stuck in its own silos that it couldn’t grasp an opportunity to collectively share a major Anniversary and reinforce the idea that railroading is an important aspect of American history, culture, and life.

 It doesn’t really matter at this point. The opportunity is lost.

 At some point, 2019 will be understood as a missed chance. With more astute leadership, this Anniversary might have represented an opportunity to describe a compelling narrative about the importance of railroading to the development of the modern United States and establish/strengthen/justify the field of Railway Heritage. That is important because it helps justify public and private funding.

 It isn’t anyone’s particular fault. But I do think it represents an inflection point, and the beginning of the end of traditional Train World as we know it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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