Monday, March 12, 2007

View from the train through Baltimore, Maryland

Railroads in the United States usually formed the basis for a town or city, or at least were present early on in their development. The enormous economic growth railroads were part of caused a parallel growth of urban areas. In most cases, this growth encased the railroads as it was intricately tied to them as the major source of transportation. These original alignments - steep, curvy, and convoluted - were designed when freight trains were carrying several hundred of tons and might be a thousand feet long. At this point, freight trains are carrying from 5,000 to 20,000 tons, stretch between a mile and two in length, and use these routes in far greater numbers. On Amtrak's busiest route, the Northeast Corridor, passenger trains capable of 150 mph are rendered impotent at Baltimore, Wilmington, Philadelphia and New York, where the ancient infrastructure forces them to crawl at 30 mph.

That alone is an indictment of the present state of affairs in America, where no public effort or organization is possible to improve the efficiency of this major transportation corridor. Worse still are the social conditions of the area that it serves, the inner-city. Decades of industrial collapse and rising inequality have resulted in horrifying conditions of life for millions of people in these areas. Everyday, hundreds of thousands pass right through the thick of it on the train, some on the Acela Express. It's high-pricing and amenities - $199 to go from Washington to New York, a three hour trip - are meant to cultivate an elite market. The only way someone from the areas depicted could ride such an enormously expensive train is to work for Amtrak itself. Ironically, the decayed infrastructure of Amtrak prevents this elite express from ever going signifigantly faster than any other trains; it's 150 mph speed is possible in only a few areas between Washington and Boston.

All these pictures were taken as I rode on one of these segments, through Baltimore, Maryland. The view from the train shows an astonishing level of decay and misery in the city - hundreds upon hundreds of abandoned, trashed, and ruined houses and buildings crowd the landscape. In the midst of taking the pictures of the housing, I was told that it is illegal to take pictures from a train and that I needed to stop immediately. The conductor saying this was sympathetic, but forced to do so as an employee. Ultimately, the immense social inequality in the United States, as shown in these photos, is what provokes the ruling class to attack and abolish the most basic democratic and artistic freedoms. Every "suspicious" photo you see is here 100% illegal.

Recent comments have noted that the conductor was incorrect in stating this. This seems true, but it is what I encountered. Whatever the actual status of photography on or of trains, it should not be kept apart from the general roll-back of democratic rights, both in the United States and internationally (draconian anti-terror legislation has been legislation in Britain, Germany, Australia, Spain, Canada, Sri Lanka, France and elsewhere.)


Blogger Matt Povey said...

Great photos and a nice little essay. Even on recent journeys I've seen similar scenes (though perhaps not of similar scale) in the UK and certainly France.

I read an article in the Economist a few months ago regarding Amtrak which talked about that line. The impression I got was that it was heavily loss-making. Is that still the case?

Twisted I know but one of those photos is now my wallpaper :).

1:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i spent the past 10 minutes looking at all your posts. you have enjoyable pictures. perhaps enjoyable is the wrong word to use given the subject matter, but they are done nicely.

good luck in your future endeavors, sir.

4:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is illegal to take pictures from a train!?!?! Since when - the Patriot Act?

5:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah well - the greatest country on earth eh? Hard to tell this from the slums of Cairo.

6:18 PM  
Blogger Sanjay said...

I take the train to Baltimore regularly, I see this everyday. Sad does not even describe how I feel.

8:42 PM  
Blogger Sanjay said...

Scott, I am wondering if it would be ok for me to use a photo from your post for a post I want to do? I will attribute the pic to you and also link to your post.
Let me know if it is ok.


8:03 AM  
Blogger Scott said...

Sure, can you link me to the post when it's done?

10:47 AM  
Blogger Sanjay said...

Scott will do. Thanks

11:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

These aren't even BAD pictures of Baltimore. Get out in the city for a bit and you'll see much, much worse than this.

1:20 PM  
Blogger Jess said...

I read the article about the house fire in Petersburg that you gave me in another comment...

When I'm home, I'm going to have to meet you and give you a hug. It's rare to find someone from the area who see things the same way I do.

2:05 PM  
Blogger Cacophoenix said...

I hear and read aout these things every day in class. America hasn't invested in railroads and improvement of highways since the new deal when the highways were first put in place. Imagine the amount of energy we could save just rehauling these trains and having more of them. We give such a clean picture of economy to the world, that very few realise we have mind numbing poverty, illiteracy and infant mortality in the country. Despicable is not the word. Happy to find your place.

9:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Conductor who told you photography was illegal was on a power trip. It clearly is nowhere near illegal to take pictures from a train. Too bad you didn't report him to management as that kind of intimidating of passengers shouldn't be tolerated. Unfortunately Amtrak has too many "bad apple" employees like this.

Amtrak encourages photography from their trains and of their trains. Heck, they even have a photo contest for an annual calendar for people taking pictures of, or from, their trains! Especially for their long-distance trains, Amtrak actively promotes tourism and photography is an important part of tourism.


7:27 PM  
Blogger Shionge said...

Greetings from Singapore Scott. I came by after hearing this from Sanjay's, my blog pal.

Thank you for sharing this and although I have the privilege to visit most of the big cities in America, I do notice the inequality as you mentioned as well.

Especially during the Katrina Hurricane incident just arises a lot of questions & doubts left unanswer too.

I will be back Scott and you have a nice day :D

9:10 PM  
Blogger joenice said...

i completely agree with "ANONYMOUS".
This really hurts -- seeing my city in this fashion.

As much as i love "The Wire" and "Homicide"....i'd love to see Baltimore represented in a more positive light.

2:58 PM  

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