The Editor's Page

“The condition of our railroads . . . should interest all of us. . . . The cause to which may be traced their present languishing condition may be stated as follows: Financial mismanagement; imperfect construction; and want of individual responsibility in their operation.”

The realities that preoccupied Clarke in 1860— bankruptcies, decaying equipment, corroding roadbed, track, and bridges, financial shenanigans, incompetent or uncaring personnel—read like a litany of today’s railroad woes. Of course to those have been added the coming of air travel, the paving of America, and the growth of the long-haul trucking industry, plus the heavy, heavy hand of the railroad unions. How a people so addicted to getting themselves and things moved from one place to another could let their rail service fall into the decrepitude, sloppiness, and unreliability of today is a question for future historians to thrash out. Unless emergency programs now under way can turn the situation around, we will see the virtual end of the passenger train and a continued falling off of the cheapest, most power-efficient way of moving freight around the continent.

The nature of those programs, and in particular the federal government’s effort to save and revivify passenger train travel, is told, beginning on page 29, by a young (thirty) writer and train buff, Tracy Kidder. Harvard-educated and a veteran of Vietnam, Kidder has written before for The Atlantic (“The Juan Corona Trial” in July 1973 and “Sludge” in April 1975) and for other magazines. He is at work on a novel. The struggle to save the railroad train is an uphill run, enough to discourage even The Little Engine That Could, but he finds some hope and some bright spots (see Kidder’s handy guide to train rides). With persistence and luck, we might move toward a day when another Atlantic writer can tell a story that will allow Thomas Curtis Clarke to rest easy in his grave. Meanwhile, the traveling American had best keep his or her driver’s license and accident insurance in force and find a way to abide the growing indignities and expense of air travel.

Bringing a matter up to date: In the December 1971 issue of The Atlantic, editor and author Paul Brooks wrote in literate alarm about plans of the U. S. Forest Service to open the Tongass National Forest on Admiralty Island, off Alaska’s southern coast, to commercial logging. He bemoaned the destruction this would wreak on a pristine territory the size of New York’s Long Island, a place noted for its profusion of bears and one of the last refuges of the national bird, the bald eagle. In “Warning: The Chain Saw Cometh,” he promised that environmentalists would fight the loggers, but worried that “the saws are very close, ready to move in the moment legal roadblocks are removed.”

Well, it didn’t happen. The Wall Street Journal recently reported: “The U. S. Forest Service said Champion International Corp. has asked to cancel a 50-year-old contract to harvest 8.75 billion board feet of timber in Southeast Alaska because of a lengthy environmental suit brought by the Sierra Club. . .”Chalk up another one for Nature.