Interstate High Speed Rail History

America’s steam-powered intercity passenger rail began in 1828 with the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Company. Many other privately-owned railroads quickly spread to southern plantations, northeast factories, and across Native American territory known as the Midwest today.

Over 1863-69, the transcontinental railroad expanded from Omaha, Nebraska to Sacramento, California. By taking Native American land and paying low wages to construction workers, railroad companies built many train lines and opulent train stations. Riders responded with patronage that made railroad barons rich, prompting further expansion.

In 1868, NYC built America’s first elevated urban train. That train was the predecessor of modern Metro Heavy Rail that uses a 3rd rail to receive electric power. By transporting more people to & from work, elevated urban trains enabled the development of high-rise buildings in NYC.

In 1888, electric streetcars were introduced by electric utility companies because they were less expensive to build than elevated urban trains and could operate at a profit. In the next 25 years, streetcars replaced horse-drawn carriages in cities.

For decades, railroad barons got away with anti-competitive trusts that reduced consumer choice and maximized their profits. Their good times ended with the Sherman Anti-Trust Act in 1890. From then on, railroad companies had compete like normal businesses.

In 1892, Chicago opened its first elevated urban train. But like NYC and other cities, Chicago predominantly relied on streetcars as mass transportation.

Between 1897-1906, Chicago, Boston, NYC and Philadelphia opened more subway & elevated urban train lines. Over 1904-25, Pittsburgh, Newark, San Francisco, Cleveland and Los Angeles opened subway tunnels for streetcars. In those cities, all mass transportation modes met at train stations.

Around 1900, train locomotives started a 30-year transition from steam-power to diesel-power for faster speeds.

Though the first American car for dependable driving was introduced in 1901, only rich people could afford them until the Ford Model T arrived in 1908. It cost only $825, which equated to $23,000 in 2020.

Though Detroit had streetcars, it bypassed opportunities to build subway & elevated urban train lines. Unlike Chicago, Detroit purchased more city buses. Though Detroit had one of the highest high average incomes of any city, without subway & elevated urban train lines, it developed at lower density than NYC, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston and San Francisco.

By 1920, 1 in every 10 adult citizens owned an automobile. With the growth of cheaper automobiles, American drivers wanted more dirt roads converted to paved avenues and boulevards. Automobile, tire and oil companies lobbied Congress, presidents and governors to create the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1921 to fund national highway construction. States joined in using taxpayer funds to build highways. Together, they accumulated 31,000 miles across America by 1924. Buses were also introduced as public transit.

Unlike intercity passenger trains that ran on cheap diesel fuel, streetcars, elevated & subway trains were electric-powered. Electricity was produced from coal, with oil and hydroelectric dams contributing smaller percentages. Excluding Niagara Falls and Buffalo, where streetcars accessed cheap hydroelectricity, its more costly to convert coal into electricity than refine oil into gasoline & diesel fuel. Consequently, utility companies charged customers slightly higher electric rates to subsidize the electricity cost of streetcars, elevated & subway urban trains.

In October 1929, the Stock Market Crash triggered the Great Depression. By 1931, up to 40% of Americans were unemployed. Relatively few people could afford cars, so they rode elevated & subway trains, streetcars and buses. Others walked further.

In 1932, the American Highway Users Alliance formed to influence the federal, state and county governments to increase highway and boulevard investment. today, we know this group as the Highway Lobby.

Operating on smaller profits during the Great Depression, the fortunes and lobbying of utility companies waned. They could not prevent the Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935, which made it illegal for a business to provide both transport and electricity to the public. Utility companies divested streetcar lines they could no longer subsidize.

From 1936-41, utility companies sold 100 streetcar lines in 45 cities to National City Lines, a mysterious company owned by a consortium of automotive, oil and tire companies. The consortium made streetcars less desirable by lowering streetcar frequency and maintenance. The consortium was a principle backer of the Highway Lobby convincing public transit agencies to purchase more buses. Elevated & subway trains, being faster and higher capacity than buses, become “Metro Rail” assets to a few transit agencies.

In 1939-41, limited access, non-stop highways such as Arroyo Seco Parkway in Los Angeles and the Pennsylvania Turnpike opened that gave drivers a taste of safe higher speed.

During America’s entry to World War II from December 1941-September 1945, the downward spiral of streetcars was delayed. The Department of Defense needed oil & natural gas companies to expand refinery capacity to fuel more trains, ships and planes. Oil, natural gas, coal and metals were rationed to the public. To maintain the economy and support the war effort, elevated & subway trains, streetcars and buses received subsidies and a healthy ration of electricity and diesel fuel.

After World War II, oil, natural gas, coal and metal rationing ended. Excess oil refinery capacity helped make gasoline and diesel fuel cheap. More coal was used in electric power plants. Unlike Europe, Russia, Japan and China, none of our factories, railroads, bridges and seaports were bombed. By retaining the best transportation infrastructure, cheap oil & natural gas, mining & forest reserves, factory innovations and regaining a large labor force, America’s economy boomed.

The G.I. Bill enabled returning veterans to buy their first home, mostly in new suburbs. They triggered longer drives to Central Business Districts, factories, hospitals and shipyards. Thus, veterans accelerated automobile, tire, oil and gasoline sales.

In 1946, a mysterious new company, National City Lines, bought out streetcars in 82 American cities. Transit agencies purchased more buses because they had the same speed, capacity and dependability as streetcars, but used cheap diesel fuel without the need to build track & electric infrastructure. The Highway Lobby also supported suburban politicians who favored converting streetcar rights-of-way into roadway.

New York City, Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia Metro Heavy Rail systems had speed, capacity and schedule dependability that streetcars and buses could never match. The Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Cleveland streetcar tunnels were never converted to roadway. Transit agencies saved them to become “Metro Light Rail.” Pittsburgh and Newark transit agencies initially converted their streetcar tunnels to busways, then later to Metro Light Rail.

Los Angeles is the ultimate example of corporate collusion and wide geography that prevented streetcar conversion to Metro Light Rail. After World War II, Los Angeles metro area expanded by dozens of cities. New suburban housing tracts spread 40 miles away from central Los Angeles and even further from beaches. Even the 400 miles of streetcar track were insufficient for daily commuters.

The Highway Lobby viewed LA streetcars as the big prize because City of the Angels had the nation’s largest streetcar rights-of-way. With Highway Lobby backing, auto-centric politicians rose to power over most transit agencies. By building ever larger avenues and boulevards in suburbs, they pressured the City of the Angels to widen avenues and boulevards for larger volume of cars, trucks and buses to pass through.

As Los Angeles streetcar lines disappeared, Hollywood movies showed more people driving cars. Those factors influenced Americans to purchase more cars. A merger of the two national streetcar companies in the consortium and rapidly declining streetcar service nationwide prompted congressional hearings in 1946.

Those hearings reviewed the intent of the consortium controlled by General Motors, Standard Oil, Firestone and Mack Trucks. After those powderpuff hearings, General Motors supplied even more buses to transit agencies.

Los Angeles officials filed a federal lawsuit they hoped would rescue streetcars. In 1947, the Federal District Court of Southern California indicted the consortium under Sherman Anti-Trust Law.

Long story short, the trial was switched to a Midwest federal court sympathetic to the Highway Lobby. The consortium was convicted, but got off with a wrist-slap in 1949. Legally unfettered, the consortium ripped out more streetcar tracks, then dismantled or burned streetcars nationwide.

In 1949, the Highway Lobby expanded membership to freight trucking, intercity bus lines, car renters, asphalt, concrete and infrastructure construction companies. It celebrated completion of the 4-Level Stack Interchange between Arroyo Seco and Hollywood Freeways that severed streetcar service to LA’s sole streetcar tunnel into Downtown.

The LA streetcar-death-spiral played out nationwide, though it would take a dozen years for the Highway Lobby to nail the coffins.

Federal & State Policy Helps Highway, Cripples Railway

In 1950, gasoline cost about 10 cents per gallon — equivalent to $1.10 in 2021. Driving at higher speeds was cheap fun, if you could find a good stretch of highway. Due to unbanked curves, insufficient guard rails, too many bumps, stop lights and stop signs, few national and state highways posted speed limits higher than 60 mph. The Highway Lobby knew that more & better highways were needed to convert America to an auto-centric lifestyle.

To achieve that goal, automotive companies marketed cars as “personal freedom.” Oil companies expanded gas stations along boulevards and at highway exits. Tire companies marketed their road-hugging ability. In an era of only three TV networks and a few national radio programs, automotive, oil and tire companies became their biggest program sponsors. Their marketing pitch was to “demand more highways to increase your personal freedom” and “choose better gasoline and tires for higher performance.”

Knowing that an intercity network of limited access, non-stop highways with more gas stations at exits would jolt America into auto-centric lifestyle, the Highway Lobby went full throttle to get taxpayers to fund it. In 1951, the Highway Lobby convinced the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that a national network of limited access, non-stop highways with interchanges would boost economic productivity with faster product distribution.

They asked Congress and President Truman to fund an interstate system of limited access, non-stop highways that incorporated pre-existing freeways & tollways. They won many converts in Congress, but President Truman was pre-occupied funding the Korean War. He only authorized $50 million in the Federal Aid Highway Act that would take effect in 1952.

Then, something more sinister happened. The goal to interconnect cities with limited-access, non-stop highways added railroads to the Highway Lobby’s crosshairs.

America’s intercity passenger trains used to reach 100-110 mph top speed. In those times however, horrific train-ramming-train accidents occurred due to inadequate signaling and lack of parallel siding track for malfunctioning trains to pull aside. Such accidents were rare until growing cities and suburbs built more level crossings between railway & roadway.

More people took deadly risks and committed suicide at level railroad crossings. The Highway Lobby reminded news media of every accident to escalate public outcry to slow the trains.

The safest means to preserve train speed was to build more over/underpasses at railroad crossings, improve the train control system, and add more parallel tracks for slow freight trains to pull aside. Since railroad industry profits were thin, they could only afford to add siding track, and then not enough.

Given the sordid history of railroad anti-trust behavior, President Truman had no predisposition to fund railroad over/underpasses or a train control system. Instead, Truman’s Interstate Commerce Commission enacted regulation in 1952 that effectively limited trains to 80 mph to shorten stopping distances. NYC-Philadelphia Corridor was the only exception to maintain 100 mph because it had more over/underpasses at railroad crossings and more places with a siding track for freight trains.

Federal regulation also decreed that passenger trains sharing tracks with freight trains must use heavy locomotives like freight trains, for better safety when one train rams another. A consequence is that heavy locomotives accelerate slower & brake slower. Suburban growth outside cities also created more railroad crossings where trains had to slow down.

Slower acceleration, lower top speed, slower braking at more railroad crossings lenghtened ride times between cities. The results were predictable. Freight trains continued operating at 30-40 mph Average Speed, while intercity passenger trains fell to 40-60 mph Average Speed. Such low speeds made intercity passenger rail nakedly vulnerable to competition.

Eisenhower Administration Launches the Interstate Highway System

During World War II, 5-Star General Eisenhower admired how Germany built the Autobahn network of limited access, non-stop highways for faster movement of troops and supplies. In January 1953, General Eisenhower was sworn in as President. He named the former CEO of General Motors to be Secretary of Defense. DuPont Family was the largest shareholder of General Motors. Eisenhower named a DuPont Family member to head the Federal Highway Administration.

In July 1953, the Korean War ended, but income tax rates on the wealthy remained high, before generous tax deductions. President Eisenhower was anxious to use taxes on infrastructure projects that increase auto-related jobs and business productivity in general. Those conditions and a former general’s transportation perspective led President Eisenhower to go all in for limited access, non-stop highways. When the Highway Lobby and U.S. Chamber of Commerce called President Eisenhower about such highways, he added that they should be used for national defense and emergencies as well.

In that manner, President Eisenhower unified powerful allies (Department of Defense, Department of Transportation, Highway Lobby, U.S. Chamber of Commerce) in his funding proposal to Congress.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, GM and Ford produced films and reports that convinced Congress to plan an interstate network of freeways like Arroyo Seco Parkway and Hollywood Freeway, with few tollways like Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Oil companies assured President Eisenhower that America had enough oil to be self-sufficient deep into the 21st Century. The Highway Lobby said that faster autos driving more freeway miles would consume more gasoline, thereby producing more fuel tax to fund Interstate Highways. The construction industry said more construction jobs in every state would create a virtuous cycle of additional taxes to pay for highways.

The truth was actually opaque. No one wanted higher income taxes. A relatively low fuel tax was insufficient to build the Interstate Highway System. So the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Highway Lobby helped President Eisenhower convince Congress to transfer a portion of income taxes towards the Highway Trust Fund for the Interstate Highway System.

President Eisenhower could not have timed a better introduction for his National System of Interstate and Defense Highways Plan in 1955.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Highway Lobby marketed the proposal. The Department of Defense and Department of Transportation added backroom influence with Congressmen in states wanting larger military bases and states wanting big highway contracts.

In 1956, President Eisenhower and Congress sorted out the fuel and income taxes to underwrite the first $25 billion for 44,000 miles of the Eisenhower Interstate Highway & Defense System.” That investment has the same buying power as $239 billion in 2021. It was large enough for the federal government to pay for 90% of early Interstate Highway construction. States were happy to pay the balance.

With few exceptions, the federal government gifted states ownership of each Interstate Highway. Each state posts speed limits they judge safe for a given stretch of highway. The fastest legal speed, 85 mph, was posted in the straight and flat areas of western states and Maine. States took pride of ownership for Interstate Highways, not railroads by private companies.

Since most Interstate Highway was built as freeway, drivers perceived that they only paid for gasoline when in fact, they also paid a fuel tax. Every working person, whether they drove or not, paid income taxes to help build Interstate Highway. As a result, the public subsidized lower costs for freight truckers, intercity bus lines and car rental companies to enjoy.

In contrast, railroad companies had to pay for 100% of railway construction and maintenance.

One could win a debate that Interstate Highways and upgraded National Highways were best for America at that time. Oil was cheap and plentiful. People loved personal freedom to drive more places. Highway construction spurred growth in automobile, tire, oil, concrete, asphalt, construction, freight trucking, intercity bus lines, car rentals, hotel and tourism industries. Those jobs led Unemployment Rate to 4% or less during much of the Eisenhower Administration.

Funding International Airports Kills Intercity Passenger Rail

Even in long-distance routes where intercity passenger trains sustained 80 mph, business travelers wanted to reach destinations faster. Via federal policy and technological innovation, their wish came true. After several tragic plane-crashing-plane accidents caused public uproar, President Eisenhower begrudgingly inaugurated the Federal Aviation Administration in August 1958 to greatly reduce airplane accidents.

In October 1958, Boeing launched the Commercial Jet Age. Boeing 707 jets reached cruising speeds up to 525 mph, flew longer and were pressurized to exceed 25,000 feet altitude above most turbulence. Business travelers switched to flying as soon as airports & airlines offered more routes.

Wealthy leisure travelers loved flying 200-3500 miles across North America, Hawaii, the Caribbean and Europe in 1 to 9 hours.

Promising more aviation jobs, the Aviation Lobby (Boeing, Lockheed, airlines, U.S. Chamber of Commerce) influenced federal, state and local politicians to fund construction of international airports via land annexations, special tax district assessments and public infrastructure bonds. Airlines converted from propeller planes to jets. Upgraded airport amenities and safety from air traffic control converted most long-distance travelers from trains.

As railroad industry revenues further declined by 1961-62, they let larger chunks of track slip to 60 mph speed limit. They ceased over 90% of intercity passenger train service to focus on heavy cargo impractical for freight trucking.

With the railroad industry collapsing, many intercity passenger rail routes were sold to transit agencies in NYC, Newark, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, Baltimore, Cleveland, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Citizens assessed local & state taxes to partially subsidize their operation as commuter rail to/from Central Business Districts.

As the economy grew in 1963, trucking took a larger percentage of the freight business. America felt good about lower unemployment, lower taxes and President Kennedy avoiding nuclear war with Russia and Cuba.

A different story was emerging for big city mayors. They experienced the first wave of white middle-class flight to the suburbs that reduced city tax bases. White Flight would only get worse. Listening to the plight of mayors before his November 1963 assassination, Kennedy proposed new Rapid Transit funding, along with more Interstate Highway and Federal Aviation funding.

President Johnson followed through on Kennedy’s proposal by announcing that his Great Society Program would allocate Rapid Transit funding in the form of Metro Heavy Rail. In July 1964, President Johnson convinced Congress to start the Urban Mass Transit Administration (UMTA) with a $375 million federal funding allocation. He promised significantly more future UMTA funding to cover 50-80% of Rapid Transit projects. Lurking in the shadows was a small, but significant start to the Vietnam War in August 1964.

Embarrassed by Japan introducing a 130 mph high speed train the year before, Congress and President Johnson enacted the High Speed Ground Transportation Act of 1965. The act only granted $90 million to purchase high speed trains and less than 300 Northeast miles for intercity passenger rail. It did not grant enough funds modernize passenger rail infrastructure. New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland did however, built a few more railroad over/underpasses between NYC and Washington to reduce accidents.

Unfortunately in 1965, Vietnam War escalation began sucking away larger than expected federal funds. That meant a lower budget for the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT). The powerful Highway and Aviation lobbies convinced USDOT and Congress that Highway and Airport projects should continue receiving the lion’s share of a smaller transportation USDOT budget pie.

By 1966, large connecting chunks of the Interstate Highway System opened, enabling 65-70 mph Average Speed for 2 to 5 hours. That was 10 mph faster than Average Speed for most intercity passenger trains. Having lost most long-distance customers to jets, a few intercity passenger trains survived by selling slow-speed scenery and comfort over long journeys to retirees, writers and college students, like the California Zephyr service.

The High Speed Ground Transportation Act did manifest one good outcome. In 1969, Penn Central-owned electric-powered Metroliner trains inaugurated 125 mph top speed between NYC and Philadelphia and 100 mph Top Speed between Philadelphia and Washington. Unfortunately, poor rail infrastructure enabled more accidents in the corridor.

By 1970, the ride was so bumpy speed reduced to 110 mph. By 1971, safety and dependability issues forced Metroliner back to 100 mph.

The change in America’s transportation infrastructure was profound. In 1946, there were 9,000 trains carrying 50% of intercity passenger traffic and streetcar track went everywhere in American cities. By 1963, most streetcar tracks and their overhead electric wires were removed. By 1971, there were only 450 trains carrying 7% of intercity passenger traffic. Most train stations were closed, demolished or converted to non-transportation use.

Low passenger volume killed the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Once the largest union of black employees, they became the answer to a bad trivia question.

Conversely by 1971, Los Angeles developed a spiderweb of Interstate Highways interchanging with upgraded national and state highways. LA upgraded its municipal airport to a thriving world-class airport, LAX.

Hollywood showcased LA’s freeway and airport transportation model in movies and TV programs, as the unofficial version of America’s future transportation infrastructure. We had fully transitioned from a “Transit-Passenger Train-Auto Culture” to an “Auto-Jet Culture.”

Amtrak Becomes A Flicker Of Hope For Intercity Passenger Trains

America, once the passenger rail capital of the world, was perilously close to losing it all. To prevent that global embarrassment in 1971, Congress and President Nixon enacted legislation to consolidate and subsidize remaining intercity passenger train routes as one public entity called Amtrak. Metroliner was acquired for Amtrak.

As the Vietnam War wound down and the first OPEC Oil Embargo started in 1973, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce helped President Nixon understand that population expansion was increasing suburb-to-CBD drives. They in turn, were generating traffic congestion that constrained the flow of goods & services in big cities. They helped increase Nixon’s influence with Congress to renew Rapid Transit funding in a handful of cities.

Though Nixon wanted Amtrak survival and more Rapid Transit projects underway before the Watergate Hearings forced his resignation, Congress stipulating that the lion’s share of transportation grants go to Interstate Highways and Aviation. Without large federal grants for new infrastructure, Amtrak was like slow moving museums preserving American heritage.

In response to the 1973 Oil Embargo, in 1974, incoming President Ford signed an Executive Order to conserve gasoline by limiting all highways to 55 mph. In defiance, many people dodged patrolmen to drive 65-70 mph. Around this time, railroad and cargo ship companies introduced standardized container shipping, which helped saved the freight rail industry.

In 1976, Congress and President Ford authorized funding of more over/underpasses to eliminate railroad crossings and install a better train control system in NYC-Washington corridor by 1984.

In 1978, President Carter proposed funding for modernization to form a complete Washington-NYC-Boston High Speed Rail Corridor. If funded, that Northeast Corridor would be similar to Japan’s high speed rail corridor reaching 155 mph by then. But Congress tabled his proposal, discarding opportunity for rail infrastructure that would have been 4 times less costly than today.

Instead, the Aviation Lobby convinced Congress and Carter to deregulate air travel. It sparked lower airfares, more regional flights and more taxpayer-funded airport expansion.

In 1979, another OPEC Oil Embargo hit America. Again, people wondered if there was enough oil to go around. Long lines formed to refill gasoline tanks. Gasoline prices jumped. To conserve oil, President Carter ordered enforcement of the 55 mph Highway Speed Limit and most people drive shorter distances. That crippled tourism in the Stagflation Era.

Gas station line in Maryland, June 1979

Line at a typical American gas station in 1979; credit United States Library of Congress

A slowing economic chastened President Carter to propose the Boston-NYC-Washington High Speed Rail project again. If funded, the Highway and Aviation lobbies knew it would spark expansion to a comprehensive Interstate High Speed Rail System. A serious competitor for federal and state transportation grants was anathema to the Highway Lobby and Aviation Lobby. They convinced Congress to ride out the storm with OPEC before voting on President Carter’s proposal.

Within months after the 1979 Oil Embargo, other nations sold America more oil that returned gasoline prices to a comfortable, yet higher level. Gasoline lines disappeared. Though the highway speed limit remained 55 mph, people commonly exceeded it by 10-15 mph. Congressional willpower to build a Interstate High Speed Rail System wilted.

In 1980, President Carter deregulated freight rail to restore some of its competitive edge versus freight trucking. A trivia note is that Budd Corporation of Philadelphia proved that they could make 165 mph electric trains. But without a commitment to Interstate High Speed Rail System, that company’s fortune wilted.

Congressmen outside the Northeast, Chicago and San Francisco Bay Area believed that Amtrak and UMTA funding did not resonate with their constituency. Once President Reagan arrived in 1981, those congressmen, aided by Highway and Aviation lobbies, started a false narrative that Amtrak and UMTA funding represent “Social Welfare for the Poor, while they hypocritically promoted rural Highways and Airports to be “Vital Public Utilities” deserving of taxpayer subsidy. Another false narrative was to portray public buses’ 10 mph Average Speed as a viable alternative to Rapid Transit’s 25-45 mph Average Speed.

Our Highway and Aviation infrastructure held up quite well to 1981, when population was smaller and a larger percentage of citizens lived in rural area. The Washington-NYC corridor eliminated all level railroad crossings by 1984 to resume 110 mph top speed. By the mid 1980s however, it became clear that our Highway and Aviation infrastructure was straining to keep up with population and tourism growth.

Data Sources: Congressional Budget Office and Office of Management & Budget

Sources: TheTransportPolitic, Congressional Budget Office, Office of Management & Budget

From January 1981-January 1993, Presidents Reagan and Bush I created a political climate that treated Amtrak and Rapid Transit as Social Welfare. The Highway and Aviation lobbies convinced a majority of Republicans and a minority of Democrats in Congress to cripple Amtrak funding and to subsidize buses as a substitute for Rapid Transit projects. Most of those Democrats were from auto-centric Michigan, Ohio and California.

In contrast, the USDOT under Reagan & Bush awarded princely federal grants to Interstate Highway and Airport expansion. For example, in 1989, they initiated federal funding to construct Denver International Airport whose cost eventually totaled as $4.8 billion. In 1990, the taxpayer-funded Big Dig in Boston was initiated at a projected cost of $3 billion. Today, we know the Big Dig bill ended close to $22 billion.

The moral of the story is, America finds a way to fund infrastructure that a majority of the public believes it needs. The Highway and Aviation lobbies convinced a majority of the public, news media and politicians that we needed to speed big on Highway and Aviation infrastructure.

For more insights about Interstate High Speed Rail from 1993 onwards, click the links below. It hasn’t improved much.

Return to Interstate High Speed Rail

Return to Interstate High Speed Rail – ACELA

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