High speed rail throwback: From 1934, the Burlington Zephyr arriving in Chicago

October 11, 2012

Check out the above clip of the streamlined and backswept Burlington Zephyr as it rockets across the countryside on its way from Denver to Chicago in 1934.

The trip was a technological breakthrough in transportation and design; a promotional effort to showcase the speed and engineering behind the newly-developed stainless steel beauty. The Zephyr made the trip non-stop in a hair over 13 hours with an average speed of 77 mph. At one point, the mighty diesel-electric engines pushed the train passed 112 mph.

Today, the same trip would be almost 19 hours — although the comparison isn't completely fair because Amtrak trains, unlike the Zephyr on this run, would have to stop to pick up passengers. But many of today's trains don't roll much faster than the Zephyr due to safety regulations that limit the speed to 79 mph in much of the country.

Still the video is a reminder of what rail travel in this country once aspired. Yet today's successor to the Zephyr is in Europe or Asia:

Building a network of 220 mph Amtrak bullet trains crisscrossing America will likely not happen, short of a public private partnership. The Democrat presidential platform says the party does "support long-term investments in our infrastructure. Roads, bridges, rail and public transit systems, airports, ports and sewers are all critical to economic growth, as they enable businesses to grow." But it doesn't call out Amtrak by name. The GOP platform calls Amtrak "an extremely expensive railroad ...[it] is long past time for the federal government to get out of way and allow private ventures to provide passenger service to the northeast corridor. The same holds true with regard to high-speed and intercity rail across the country."

Meanwhile "higher speed" service of 110 mph trains could happen in corridors across the country, using current new diesel engines and upgraded track. It's no bullet train, but it's no slouch either:

But a real network is decades off. Gov. Pat Quinn's office earlier this week said a 110mph test run from Joliet to Normal is scheduled for October 19. But the trip is about 100 miles and currently takes only between 75 and 90 minutes, assuming no delays.

The discussion is good and timely. The spike in rail passengers — Amtrak ridership jumped 5.5 percent in Illinois in the last year and gained 1.6 million riders nationwide from 2010 to 2011 — shows the need for fast, reliable rail. The question is will we ending up going to our nearest train depot, or a museum, to experience it?