BADEN-BADEN, West Germany — The earliest railroad trains promptly found themselves on a collision course with medical science. Physicians warned that passengers hurtling at triple the speed of a horse-drawn buggy would certainly go mad.
Sure enough, 19th-Century society did go bonkers about those antique smoke-belching engines with the industrial revolution in tow. The railroading age highballed ahead for more than 100 years.
Everyone ignored somber admonitions like one from the Royal Bavarian Medical College in the 1830s that such "swift movement must evoke in the passenger a brain fever, a type of delirium furiosum."
The crowned heads of Europe soon took to junketing in luxuriously appointed railroad cars, the faster the better. Railroads integrated societies and tamed America's Wild West.
But after World War II, automobiles and airplanes made rail travel seem sluggish or old-fashioned, and many a famous train vanished.
But the old iron horse ain't quite ready for the last roundhouse. Some of the bygone romance and excitement recently has returned.
French Set Record
In 1981, for example, a standard French Tres Grande Vitesse electric train set a world speed record of 236 m.p.h. on the Paris-Lyon route. Fast trains have plied this 255-mile route at an average speed of 168 m.p.h. without an accident since regular service started in 1983.
Traffic on the two-hour commute about doubled in the first two years, with half the increase coming at the expense of car and plane traffic. Now France is building a second rapid rail link between Paris and Bordeaux.
Rolf Kracke, professor of railroad and transportation systems at Hanover University, described the past 15 years as a "renaissance of the railroad."
Kracke told an energy conference at Baden-Baden that the Japanese state railroad deserves credit for lifting the industry out of its mid-life doldrums with the Tokyo-Osaka high-speed line, built to handle traffic for the 1964 Olympics.
This 320-mile rail link where trains zoom along at 130 m.p.h. has been extended in the past two decades to 1,243 miles, with more connections on the drawing board. Despite the high speed, there hasn't been a crash in 21 years.
Undersea Rail Tunnel
Japan also is considering construction of an undersea railroad tunnel to the northern island of Hokkaido, a project to rival the recently approved "chunnel" rail link between Britain and France.
Globally, said Kracke, around 200 major new rail projects are under way, involving 100,000 miles of track in 70 countries.
Europe's rail net, from the Arctic to Sicily, is mostly electrified. The many new high-speed routes soon will slash travel times by a third for a relatively small outlay in track and equipment.
France and West Germany tentatively have selected two routes linking Paris with Brussels, Amsterdam and Cologne and with Metz, Saarbruecken and Mannheim as the nucleus of a high-speed rail system for western Europe.
The 1,988-mile Baikal-Amur-Magistrale project in Soviet eastern Siberia and China's mammoth railroad modernization drive also rank among the most ambitious undertakings of the railroading renaissance.
Las Vegas Interested
The mayor of Las Vegas, looking for a quicker, more comfortable way to move high-rollers between his desert resort and Los Angeles, last October visited West Germany's experimental electromagnetic cushion "rail" project where a prototype passenger train set a speed record of more than 220 m.p.h. on Dec. 12.
A Texas state delegation last month inspected West Germany's "Intercity Experimental" prototype as a potential contender for proposed fast rail service between Dallas and Houston.
The new trains are comfortable, safe, reliable, clean and economical. But they preserve the two essential characteristics of all railroads for the past 160 years: lineal movement along a track and the low roll resistance of steel wheels on steel rails.
The latest technological innovations merely have exploited the inherent advantages of both--high speed, low energy use and automation potential that would be unthinkable in cars and airplanes.
Kracke said railroad is "predestined for high speed." All sorts of power plants have been tried with mixed track records. For example:
- In 1903, a three-phase power electric locomotive built by Siemens and AEG was clocked at an unprecedented 130 m.p.h. on a Berlin line.
- A diesel locomotive pulled a train called the "Flying Hamburger" at an average speed of 77.7 m.p.h. on the 178-mile Hamburg-Berlin route on May 15, 1933, the year Adolf Hitler came to power.
- A strange looking "Zeppelin-on-rails" with an internal combustion engine spinning a rear-mounted propeller traveled at 143 m.p.h. in 1931.
- In 1936, a production locomotive captured the world speed record for steam engines--124.5 m.p.h.
The problem was finding the right little engine that could.