Tony Judt and Bringing Back the Rails, with Clark Gable thrown in

Tony Judt passed away far too young, and he was a remarkable prose stylist. The New York Review of Books has been running a series of his last writings, and his latest essay calls us to Bring Back the Rails!

The photo they use to accompany the story pretty much says it all: Judt is nostalgic for the days of intercity rail, with it’s romantic, slower pace and perceived comforts. As a result, he’s a bit overly romantic even while he’s right about the basic theme: with the pain of security at modern airports, it’s impossible for romantic scenes of a cupid-lipped girl to lean languidly out of the window to blow kisses to her trenchcoated man. Judt’s writing is good, his sentiment is valid.

But he’s romanticizing the wrong industry. US railroads, even when they did offer intercity services, hardly seem to be great conveyers of romance. Pulling away from the station is one thing, but we don’t see this young woman after she’s slept for three days upright because she wasn’t wealthy enough to able to afford a sleeper. Nor do we see the relatively high costs of food on the train for passengers who didn’t manage to bring enough money with them–money, of course, was no object for 007 on the Orient Express on his way from Istanbul to Paris in his luxurious car.

Nor were railroads the bastion of public space that Judt romanticizes them as being. There was a big difference between intercity rail companies and New York City subways, which are actually publicly owned. The intercity US railroads helped bring about “Separate But Equal” into US law in 1982: regulated under the Separate Car Act, train companies refused to honor Ida Wells’ first class ticket (she didn’t want to sit in the smoking car, where black passengers were required to sit) or Mr. Plessy’s first-class ticket because he was a “free person of color.” Private company, public regulation—neither good for an authentic public.

By the time intercity passenger service evaporated in the US, train companies had had to be forced to provide it—they made their money then, as they do now, shipping commodities. So when deregulation came about, companies dumped their passenger service as quickly as they could: why put your rolling stock into less profitable services?

So if we are going to insist on intercity rail, let’s not bring back what was. Let’s reinvent.

As to using movies to inform your idea of passenger transportation pre-Interstate, there is one movie that has always struck me as being informative: Billy Wilder’s It Happened One Night with Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable. They have to make their way from Florida to New York with no money–and they spend part of their time on an intercity bus. Watching that bus dive in and out of dirt-road, flooded potholes might help contemporary people understand that paved highways didn’t just help suburbanites or vacuous car-dependent auto owner of today, nor was paving just a sinister military defense strategy: it was an opportunity to substantially improve intercity goods and passenger movement for people too poor to ship their farm goods on monopoly railways or to buy a rail ticket. The main story is about two people from different worlds who fall in love, but Wilder uses transportation to help us understand what different worlds looked like.

Judt is simply wrong about a whole bunch of things that he asserts in the essay, as though he couldn’t be bothered to actually read up on his topic. Railways didn’t make cities any more than any other technologies did–even though he is right in that some train stations are breathtaking architecture. Plenty of cities had million+ populations centuries before the first omnibus even, let alone rail. Commerce makes cities; culture makes cities. Rail moves people around–let’s keep it factual; if anything, rail helped up make suburbs rather than cities.

Edited: Richard Green reminds me that It Happened One Night was a Frank Capra film, not a Billy Wilder film. For some reason, I have a brain problem with this fact because I went out to IMDB to look up the director this morning, saw that it was Frank Capra, and I STILL WROTE Wilder. Distractions, distractions.