From the latter part of the 19th century through almost the middle of the 20th century, railroads were king.
If a traveler wanted to go someplace — just about anyplace — quickly and safely, the railroad was the answer.
It surely beat the stagecoach, and it was easier and more comfortable than driving.
Soon, automobiles began streamlining the trip, and air travel certainly made it faster.
Then, Sept. 11, 2001, happened, and air travel, while still the answer to most long-distance travel needs, became more complicated. Hours were added to each trip in pre-flight frisking and security requirements.
Meanwhile, trains chugged along pretty much in the same vein as they had always been. There were pockets of ultra-speedy transit, but the revenue just wasn’t there to revamp engines entirely and to upgrade rail beds and tracks to accommodate truly fast travel.
Rail travel has gone largely unattended to by just about everybody. Instead, all eyes are on the airplanes — what they will do, where they will go and how security threats can be headed off.
As a matter of fact, rail schedules have generated more discussion than anything else in the assessment of train travel. Passengers and would-be passengers complain that estimated arrival times are unreliable. Rail schedules don’t seem to take delays into account, thus making travelers wary of buying tickets.
Then, disaster hit the railroad industry.
On Dec. 1, a Metro-North Hudson Line train left Poughkeepsie and derailed in the Bronx, killing four people and injuring more than 60 others. It had gone around a sharp curve designated as a 30 mph zone at 82 mph. The investigation into the cause is focusing on whether the engineer was exhausted and inattentive, as initial reports indicated.
Sens. Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) have asked for an increase of $15 million in funding for the Federal Railroad Administration for added inspections over this year’s sequestered budget, bringing the total in the Obama administration’s request to $185 million for safety and operations.
The additional money would fund 45 more inspectors.
The lawmakers said the Railroad Administration does not seek to inspect 100 percent of the nation’s rails each year, a task shared by states and the railroads themselves, but additional funding would allow them to “dramatically increase the percentage of spot safety checks.”
For rail traffic, if it weren’t for bad news, there would be no news at all.
We don’t know whether more inspectors would remedy overworked engineers. We do know that, if rail travel is to rise to a significant player on the national transportation stage, a lot has to happen to improve its image and offerings.
Addressing drivers who might be asleep at the switch would be a crucial first step.