The idea that America already had an extensive high speed rail system may surprise you. But we had a massive system 100 years ago.
The lines were called “Interurbans” – a term popularized by Charles Henry from my hometown of Anderson, Indiana – and existed in almost every corner of the US, from Texas and California to South Carolina and Maine. The densest network of lines was in Indiana and Ohio. If you were willing to change lines, you could travel all the way from Chicago well into New York and Pennsylvania.
The busiest hub was the “Traction” terminal at Indianapolis, designed by my favorite architect, Chicago’s Daniel Burnham. Hundreds of single-car and multiple-car electric trains ran in and out of this terminal every day. These were essentially streetcars or trams – what today might be called “light rail” – which did not stop at the edge of the city, but continued to run cross-country at 60 miles per hour or faster to the next city.
They were extremely convenient, since they ran onto city streetcar tracks once they were in town, and therefore could stop at any block, and ran from downtown to downtown. They even carried light freight and package express. The Interurbans ran on dedicated rights-of-way, not shared with the regular railroads (then called the “steam” railroads) but often alongside the railroad tracks. My parents used to date using the Interurban in the 1930s, since the lines ran near both of their homes, one rural and one urban.
Our national system of Interurbans is now lost to the memory of hobbyists and enthusiasts. There is one great history book which tells the full story: The Electric Interurban Railways in America by George W. Hilton and John F. Due (Stanford University Press paperback, 2000; from original hardcover published in 1960). This definitive and comprehensive book tells of the invention and rise of the Interurbans in the 1890s, their peak mileage at 15,580 in 1916, and their decline in the depression – to only 1000 miles in 1952. The book also tells the story of each line, with maps and histories, including the last interurban, the “South Shore” which ran from Chicago to South Bend and whose tracks are still in use.
The story of the Interurbans is a story of technology and entrepreneurs, the story of the coming of a new and better way of doing things, and its decline. Like all history, I am sure it has lessons that we can learn and apply today. One of the major reasons for the Interurbans’ decline was the rise of the concrete highway and the Model T, which gave everyone in America more freedom. People could truly travel door-to-door, no matter whether they lived on an interurban line or not. For affordable and flexible travel without a car, the US developed an enormous and pervasive intercity bus system, led by Greyhound and the much smaller Trailways. In time, this system in turn was largely supplanted by cheap, deregulated airfares. Will these cycles continue? If so, what might be next? Back to high speed intercity rail?