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America’s Mid-20th-Century Infrastructure

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Reposted from The New York Times

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America’s Mid-20th-Century Infrastructure

Uwe E. Reinhardt | November 16, 2012 | NY Times

Europeans visiting the Northeastern United States – and many parts of the East Coast — can show their children what Europe’s infrastructure looked like during the 1960s.

In New York, they can take taxis bumping over streets marked by potholes. European children might find it funny. They can descend into a dingy and grimy underground world to ride New York City’s quaint and screeching subway system, if they can figure out where trains go.

They can take the children for a ride with Amtrak from New York to the nation’s capital, giggling as the train slowly heaves and rolls, often in fits and starts, along the rickety tracks. Passengers can be heard joking that the Navy trains its sailors on this railway system, because anyone who can make it through two or three cars without bumping into seated passengers or spilling food on them is fit to go to sea.

If they departed from Pennsylvania Station in New York, they would not have known until 5 to 10 minutes before departure from which track the train would leave. And it might not leave on time. In their home country, the children would have learned that the track from which a train departs is printed in the train schedule. It is the same every day.

At Pennsylvania Station, hundreds of passengers wait in suspense for the announcement of the track and dash to it in a mad rush, running along the train in a frantic search for a seat. In Europe, one would have booked a seat in a rail car that stops at a spot shown on a poster on the track.

Unlike Europe or Asia, where trains typically adhere to the minute to scheduled times, the departure times in Amtrak’s schedules merely represent a promise that the train will not leave before then. The actual getaway might be many minutes or even more than an hour after the scheduled departure time, with any of dozens of different excuses offered. Brakes on the train stuck. Signal switches malfunctioned. Electricity was not available to the train for some reason. A train ahead, on the same track, broke down. And so on.

Arriving at a destination on time, something Europeans take largely for granted, is relatively rare on Amtrak. Furthermore, the train in Europe or Asia is likely to have traveled at much higher speed. The tracks there are so smooth that one could easily carry an open cup of coffee along several cars or work on the computer.

Why and how Americans, who pride themselves on being fussy consumers, have put up with this mid-20th-century rail system is a mystery.

Even more wondrous than the archaic subway and rail system and the potholes in the streets is the system of distributing electric power to households and factories in large parts of the Northeastern United States. Power is often still carried on lines that hang in graceful catenaries of various depths from poles that lean left or right randomly but rarely stand straight. And which are vulnerable to powerful storms, like Hurricane Sandy.

When a German high-school classmate visited me, we came upon the intersection below, less than a mile from the center of Princeton, N.J. My friend burst out laughing at the abundance of wires in every direction, something he had seen only on his travels to the developing world.

Uwe E. Reinhardt

In my youth, electric power in Germany’s countryside, where I grew up, was carried on power lines strung from very tall and straight poles. But for decades now, power lines have been buried underground in Germany and most of the rest of Europe.

Malte Lehming, opinion-page editor of the Berlin newspaper Tagesspiegel, noted in his essay “Welcome to America. Take a Number” in The New York Times:

I spent half a day hunting for a store with flashlights in stock, because a storm had knocked out our power. In five decades in Germany I have never experienced a single power failure, because the power lines are usually underground and well maintained.

Imagine that – life without power failures! In much of the Northeastern United States – and perhaps in many other parts of the country as well – lengthy power disruptions are part of the American way of life. In Princeton, they occur somewhere in the township after almost every thunderstorm or snowstorm, as branches snap from trees and take down vulnerable power lines.

Last fall, for example, after a brief storm dumped wet snow on trees, many parts of New Jersey, Princeton included, were without power for about a week. Parts of Connecticut were without power for more than two weeks.

In 1958, the economist John Kenneth Galbraith drew attention to America’s neglect of its infrastructure in his famous book, “The Affluent Society.” Alas, his call for a better balance between private and public infrastructure has gone largely unheeded in this country in the ensuing half-century.

Our country reminds me of the old tale of a frog that allowed itself to be cooked to death after it was put in a pan of cold water that was very gradually heated to the boiling point. Although apparently there is no scientific basis for that tale — biologists say the frog would jump out — we do seem to act like that frog, as our infrastructure ever-so-gradually steadily decays around us.

Instead of setting about to bring our infrastructure up to 21st-century standards – which might, alas, involve more of the much detested public-sector investment — we angrily and yet meekly suffer for days or weeks without light, heat and transportation, verbally shaking our fists at the power companies but leaving it at that.

We are, at most, prepared to stock our households with flashlights and candles and, if we have the money, buy portable generators that can produce a modest amount of electricity, albeit at great expense. How can this be an efficient way of bringing electric power to households?

In so many ways the United States is a great country. The American people are innovative and hard-working, more so than most Europeans. It amazes me that they put up so fatalistically with this old-fashioned and decaying infrastructure.

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