Monday, April 20, 2009

More High-Speed Rail: Was 'Supertrain' Just Ahead of Schedule?

Trains for America's Pat Lynch posted a nice link to my CQ column on high-speed rail. However, Pat was not amused by my impertinent references to NBC's failed 1979 TV series "Supertrain." "Come on, Mark," he wrote, "give us a break over here!"

Apologies, Pat. Readers of this blog probably are used to my interest in finding links between technology policy and pop culture. In this case, I had a hunch: Most of the folks who even remember "Supertrain" are probably the same people who -- like me, to be honest -- always had a certain fascination with the concept of high-speed rail. The show in fact refers directly to this kind of person in its two-hour debut.

In the opening scene, a blustery, gray-bearded executive -- played by character actor Keenan Wynn -- explains that he has the backing of the federal Transportation Department to quickly build a new "atom-powered, steam-turbine" train "capable of crossing this country in 36 hours."

The executive's cigar-chomping board of directors is skeptical, if not hostile. "I think you are letting your psychotic fascination with railroads lead you into a suicidal gamble with the future of this company," one board member says.

Funny enough, this opening exchange pretty well sums up most of the public policy arguments about high-speed rail in this country, both before and since Supertrain's short, nine-episode run on network TV.

Trains for America -- a terrific resource for anyone following this subject seriously -- just as succinctly captures the real-world version of this debate on the bloggers' "about" page, where they explain their intentions:

"Much of the public policy discussion centers on the emotions of hard-core 'raifans' and greedy corporate interests. The great trains of the 1940s are dead and gone forever, but America still needs passenger trains for business and personal travel. So far, airlines, highways, and trucking special interests have monopolized the debate. Interstate highways are an essential part of our transportation system, but that's obvious. Air travel is convenient and cheap. Reliable trains ought to be an option for intermediate length trips and under-served rural areas. Americans should enjoy the same travel options others nations take for granted"

So how does the fictional version of the debate between the "hard-core 'raifans'" and the "greedy corporate interests" play out? The first 10 minutes of the "Supertrain" pilot are posted on YouTube (and embedded below), just in case you want to see that scene for yourself -- or get a quick sense of how cheesy the rest of the series turns out to be alas. Despite all that, I'll confess: I was a fan (and even enjoyed double-checking my memories of the show against this tribute site).

1 comment:

Pat Lynch said...

I am astounded by your perceptive critique of Trains for America. I will write more later and I thank you for the compliment.
Pat Lynch
Trains for America