From lintheads to high tech: the Sun Belt, and why America continues to head south

Who would live in a town like this? Phoenix, Arizona. Image: Getty.

The United States of America is often divided into different belts. The heavily religious South East holds the title of the “Bible Belt,” while the de-industrialising North East and Midwest, once known as the “Steel Belt,” is now designated as the “Rust Belt”. Whether it’s reflective of social trends, common economic features or similarities in climate, nearly every state in the union is part of some sort of belt.

But of all the belts that criss-cross the United Sates, one in particular seems to be in the midst of a resurgence: the Sun Belt.

Referring to the collection of states that compose the lower third of the US, stretching from North Carolina to southern California, the Sun Belt has seen some of the strongest population growth in the union. Between 2014 and 2015, the Sun Belt as a whole saw over 500,000 new residents arrive – most of its attributable to domestic migration. Of the ten fastest growing metro areas over the same period, all but two were located in the Sun Belt.

And so, many commentators have heralded the return of the Sun Belt. “With the economy healing,” notes Slate magazine, “Americans have started settling back into their old habits, moving off to warm suburbs in states like Florida and Texas.” CityLab has dubbed the Sun Belt 2015’s “population winner,” while the Brookings Institute has noted a “noticeable expansion of Sun Belt migration”.

AirCon and the Cold War

The idea that the Sun Belt composed a distinct region emerged initially in the late 1960s, courtesy of Republican Party strategist Kevin Phillips who, in The Emerging Republican Majority, noted the region’s growing electoral importance to his party. (Ironically, Republican strength in many Sun Belt states - North Carolina, New Mexico, Texas and Georgia -- is now weakening due to the population growth and demographic change, set-off by the Sun Belt’s boom.)

Between 1940 and 1980, the Sun Belt saw its population grow by just over 112 percent; by way of comparison the combined North East and Mid West saw their population grow by just 41 percent. The US’ economic and demographic centre of gravity has gradually shifted south.

A number of factors drew Americans to the Sun Belt region. First, the creation of the interstate highway system under President Eisenhower opened up once isolated southern regions, particularly in the South West. At the same time, the invention of air conditioning made both the arid desert climate of the South West and humid heat of the South East more tolerable.

Related to this was the defence boom, as the Cold War resulted in a flurry of federal spending on the defence and technology industries. Writing in the 1980s, the political consultant and writer Richard S. Morris noted that states in the North East, with 45 percent of the US population, received 28 percent of national defence spending; the Sun Belt, at the time holding 38 percent of the nation’s population received almost half. The Pentagon, he quipped, was “a five-sided building that faces south”. The clustering of highly skilled and educated personal in the defence sector – as well as the large grants given to research universities – also boosted the civilian sector, leading to growth in areas like the Dallas-Fort Worth “Silicon Prairie”.

While the South West has been viewed as an ideal destinations for Americans to migrate to, the South East, at least since the end of Civil War, has been a place from which people escaped. From African-Americans moving to Chicago and Detroit, to white inhabitants of Appalachia crossing north of the Ohio River, the South East has been a place of outward migration.

Yet the Sun Belt’s post-war rise has seen this trend starting to reverse: for the first time in roughly a century, a combination of federal defence spending and business friendly policies meant that many south eastern states have shared in the inward migration.

What’s in a name

The name itself may have helped: rebranding the southern third of the US as the Sun Belt, Bruce J. Schulman notes in From Cotton Belt to Sunbelt, “offered the land of Dixie a fresh identity”.

Bradley R. Rice expanded on this theme in the 1990s. ”The South was known to be hot and muggy,” he wrote in his contribution to Raymond A. Mohl’s Searching for the Sunbelt: Historical Perspectives on a Region. “The Sun Belt was portrayed as sunny, mild and mechanically cool. The South was unsophisticated and backward; the Sun Belt was seen as cosmopolitan and forward looking.”

This image revamp boosted the region’s appeal as a place for both people and business to relocate. Whereas the old South East was seen as a place of “sharecroppers and lintheads”, the new name made it sound dynamic and high tech. “Yankee executives might balk at moving to the South, but they might seek to locate in the Sun Belt”.

This renewed image is still drawing people in today. While jokes may persist about the backwardness of the Southern US, and images of the racial horrors of its past still linger in the popular imagination, in the past 60 years the demographic and economic weight of the US has steadily continued to shift south. From North Carolina’s “Research Triangle” to the sprawling cities of Texas’ or the population magnet that is Atlanta, Americans are flocking to the Sun Belt in search of more affordable living and better job prospects.

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Here’s why the Class 43 High-Speed Train is literally the best train ever

A BR Class 43. Image: Geof Shepphad/Wikimedia Commons.

The Class 43, or the  High-Speed Train (HST) as it is more commonly known, has been a ubiquitous sight on Britain's railways for over 40 years. All good things must come to an end however, and the HST is about to retire from the East Coast Main Line (although they will be staying for a little while longer on the Midland Mainline, in Scotland and on routes to Cornwall).

The HST also happens to still hold the record for the world’s fastest diesel train – a record unbeaten since 1987. But any train can be fast. What makes this one so special I felt the need to write a whole article about it?

Well, aside from being called Britain’s favourite locomotive, it’s also my favourite train. Here’s why.

It looks fantastic

Sleek, aerodynamic, instantly recognisable. Ask anyone to draw a picture of a train and chances are, it’s going to look vaguely identifiable as an HST.

The man responsible, Sir Kenneth Grange, was given a brief to design the livery of the new train. Not one to miss an opportunity however, Grange decided to redesign the whole power car and successfully persuaded British Rail to adopt the now iconic design.

It literally changed rail travel in Britain

The HST was initially intended as a stop-gap solution (just like the distinctly non-highs-speed Pacers that dominate the north). However, it instantly proved a hit with passengers

The last serious attempt at developing a high-speed intercity train had resulted in frequent breakdowns and passengers complaining of nausea – so by the 1970s, British Rail was almost universally hated and facing serious financial trouble.

From 1976, the HSTs began running on the Western Region routes from London Paddington. Towns such as Swindon and Didcot began to transform into commuter towns, as job opportunities in London became far more accessible.

Business travellers could now easily hop between cities in a single day in comfort. Plug sockets and large, armchair like seats turned the train into a comfortable office, travelling at 125mph. Former British Rail chairman Peter Parker proclaimed: “Within ten years, the number of passenger journeys on the Inter-City routes had increased by 30 per cent, proving that people react dramatically and positively to faster, more comfortable services.”

Train nerd tip: most train operators reconfigured the internal layout over the years to squeeze in more passengers. East Midlands Railway still operate HSTs with the original generous legroom (and the British Rail logo etched into the bathroom mirrors, which I have definitely not taken a selfie in).


It has distinctive branding

There’s no use having a great product if no-one knows about it. Thankfully, British Rail ran an extensive marketing campaign to promote “The Age of the Train”. Unfortunately, one particular strand happened to be fronted by Jimmy Saville, so it’s probably best we just say it was effective at the time and leave it there.

What is worth watching however, is a fantastic video featuring an HST, a “police train” and a scantily clad woman (yes, really). Slightly bizarre for sure, but definitely memorable.

Of course, the launch of the HST was also promoted with a series of eye-catching posters featuring bright colours and simple text. One such example heralded the arrival of “The Journey Shrinker”, now running between London and Edinburgh, which cut journey times by a full hour.

Now you may think I’m being nostalgic (I admit it, I am). But there is no sight quite as distinctive, nor sound quite as pleasing as the roar of a Valenta engine HST. Maybe it’s because I binge-watched Thomas the Tank Engine every day as a child, but I can’t help but feeling the modern Pendolinos, Azumas and Aventras lack personality.  

Of course, I hope to be proven wrong that there will be another train which is equally revolutionary as the HST. For now though, I’ll be making some more trips to the National Railway Museum in York to see the HST in all its glory.