Few Memorials for Transportation Pipe Dreams

I spend a fair amount of time writing stories for this blog about pipe dreams. Many of these are proposals for new or additional rail passenger service, but some involve restoring to operating condition a piece of historic railroad equipment, often a steam locomotive.

By one definition, a pipe dream is an unattainable or fanciful hope or plan. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a pipe dream as an illusory or fantastic plan, hope or story.

By fantastic it doesn’t mean great or extraordinary but imaginative or fanciful yet remote from reality.

In short, a pipe dream is something unlikely to happen as described if it happens at all.

Some of these pipe dreams are flights of fancy even if on the surface they appear to be plausible ideas.

Most of the pipe dreams I’ve written about have been the subject of a formal study and/or pushed by an organized group with the ability to amplify its dream beyond a handful of its members.

For example, a downtown Cleveland advocacy group recently proposed reviving the idea of connecting the end of the Waterfront rail line on the Lake Erie shore with the Red Line to the south thus creating a rail loop around downtown Cleveland.

Somewhere in a filing cabinet in the offices of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority is a blueprint for doing just that.

It was proposed in 2000 but never advanced beyond being a plan on paper.

When asked about the idea recently, a Cleveland RTA official didn’t reject it outright but said the transit agency is more focused on replacing its aging rail car fleet, a task that will require millions of dollars that RTA has had to scrap and claw to find.

Lack of money and political support usually are the reasons why so many bold proposals fail to get very far.

A lot has to go right for any proposal to become reality and that involves forces beyond the control of the originator of the idea.

It is not difficult to find the money for a feasibility study. But virtually every one of those studies I’ve read had one thing in common. They lacked a viable funding source.

Sometimes pipe dreams do come true. There was a time when it seemed like a pipe dream that the moribund East Broad Top narrow gauge railroad and its fleet of steam locomotives would operate again.

Then seemingly out of nowhere funding materialized and the historic Pennsylvania-based railroad is coming back to life.

Similar stories have surrounded Norfolk & Western J Class No. 611, a Union Pacific Big Boy steam locomotive and Chesapeake & Ohio No. 1309.

At one time the idea that any of those locomotives would operate again under steam seemed like a pipe dream. And yet all of them have.

There are some success stories about intercity rail service restoration and development in Virginia, Maine, California and North Carolina.

But for every one of these stories there are many more pipe dreams that haven’t made it out of the talking and planning stages.

Reviving intercity rail passenger service between Cleveland and Cincinnati has been talked about and studied for five decades with little to no progress to show for it.

Various proposals to create a Midwest network of rail passenger corridors has met the same fate.

Even some projects on which substantial sums of money have been spent have yet to evolve as envisioned.

Amtrak and the State of Michigan have sunk millions of dollars into buying and rebuilding track between Chicago and Detroit.

Yet service between the two cities has yet to increase beyond the three daily roundtrips that became the norm in the mid 1970s because the State of Michigan has yet to fund that service expansion.

Likewise, some historical restoration efforts continue to lag for lack of money and it is far from clear when or if that funding will materialize.

While many pipe dreams eventually fade away others continue to persist even in the face of repeated failures and disappointments.

Pipe dreams are the glue that hold some organizations together, particularly rail passenger advocacy groups.

Keeping the dream going becomes as important as getting anything done about it because it keeps the organization in business.

For some people, pipe dreams are a form of identity, a way of showing the world this is what I believe in and I’ll fight for my dreams so long as I’m able.

There is a sport-oriented bromide that you will miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.

Success doesn’t come without trying and having the persistence to work to overcome failures.

True enough. Yet what do we say about those who miss 100 percent of the shots they take and/or make less than 10 percent of them?

There is some admiration for that type of persistence but few memorials to it. These efforts might have been more successful had they sought to achieve objectives that had a more realistic chance to be attained with the resources the pipe dreamers actually had.

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