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Jewish World Review Nov. 5, 2001 / 19 Mar-Cheshvan, 5762

Bob Greene

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Consumer Reports

Will the mail go the way of the railroads? -- THE unprecedented headlines about the U.S. Postal Service are being connected, in the public mind, with one word: anthrax.

But in the long run, there is another word that may have more significance for the post office: Amtrak.

Because a possible result of the bioterrorism threat is something that is not being discussed much, but that has profound and historic implications for the United States. It is something that has been on the horizon for a number of years; the events since Sept. 11 have the potential to push it toward eventual reality.

It's this:

Postal service -- the U.S. mail -- may go the way of the railroads. Postal service -- long the workhorse of the nation's written-word communications system -- may become a second (or third or fourth) option when people desire to write to each other.

A ridiculous notion? That's what the railroad companies thought, when airplanes first took to the skies.

A ridiculous notion, fueled by panic over the anthrax news? You could make that case -- except that this has been coming for some time.

E-mail, in terms of volume, has already overtaken traditional mail. The U.S. Postal Service delivers 200 billion pieces of mail every year, which seems like an enormous figure. But the number of e-mails sent per year in North America, according to IDC, a Massachusetts-based company that tracks such things, is 2.6 trillion. And growing.

I asked an IDC official to repeat that for me twice, so I could be certain I wasn't mishearing. He said it is accurate: approximately 2.6 trillion person-to-person e-mails a year, 9.8 billion every day. And this was before people became nervous about opening envelopes delivered by mail carriers (and before mail carriers became nervous about touching those envelopes).

So this was already well on its way to happening. What only recently seemed unthinkable -- the U.S. mail as an afterthought -- has now become at least plausible. If the mail were to become to communications what the railroads have become to city-to-city travel, it would represent a huge metamorphosis in the social history of the United States. But it wouldn't be the first.

Right before the commercial-jet age, railroad travel was as ubiquitous and taken-on-faith as . . . well, as mail delivery. According to railroad historian George H. Douglas, as recently as 1948 the New York Central Railroad and the Pennsylvania Railroad each had 15 trains a day traveling between Chicago and New York. Thirty trains a day -- take your pick.

But within a decade those trains began to disappear because the public was beginning to prefer air transportation. According to Douglas -- and this is the statistic that should be kept in mind when thinking about the postal service in the era of e-mail -- the railroads' share of public carriage (not including commuter trains) went from 72.4 percent in 1944 to 15.2 percent in 1966.

And this was when the railroads were competing with airlines that -- of course -- charged money for tickets. The post office charges money for stamps -- prices always go up -- while e-mail is essentially free. Add the public's skittishness because of the anthrax scare, and you don't have to be some dreamy futurist to realize this country may be in for a real transformation.

The impact would be almost too big to comprehend -- the impact on the men and women who make their livings by sorting and delivering the mail, the impact on the magazine and catalog publishers who depend on the postal service to carry their products, the impact on everyday Americans who love -- or loved -- the routine of, the personal touch of, the very feel of the U.S. mail.

There will always be mail. Just as there will always be railroads, there will never be a United States in which mail service does not exist. The change will be in how people think of the mail, and how much they use it. Some Americans enjoy riding trains when they have to get from city to city -- but when was the last time that you, who are reading these words, did it? Now think of that in terms of the U.S. mail.

All of this might seem preposterous, except it had already begun before Sept. 11. The odd thing, in thinking about the parallels between the post office and the old railroads, is that today there would seem to be an opening for rail travel to make a prodigious comeback. With people afraid of air travel after Sept. 11 -- or reluctant to deal with the inconvenience of the new security measures -- the passenger railroads would seem to have a bright opportunity for a revival. Except there are no passenger railroads, plural -- there is only Amtrak.

But that should be the subject of a future discussion. For now, the postal service, through no fault of its own, is in the spotlight. The romance of the rails, the romance of the mail -- both part of an America fading fast.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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