Saturday, October 18, 2008

Ridin' the Rails, part 2

On a train you experience the contrasts between the grubby and the grand, the seamy and the sublime.

To ride the rails is to understand the meaning of “the other side of the tracks.” You see the backsides of houses and businesses: junked cars, dilapidated buildings, tarpaper shacks, debris-strewn yards. (The graffiti is outstanding, however). And in these post-modern railroading years, you pass railroad depots in all stages of disrepair. Even some of the stations where Amtrak stops look like sets for a Stephen King movie.

On the other hand, to take the train is also to see grandeur from vantage points the automobile cannot provide: the untamed woodlands and rapids-laced streams of West Virginia, the sprawling cornfields and wheatfields of the Midwest, the raw majesty of the towering Rockies. The surgical cut made by the railroad right-of-way inserts the traveler shoulder-to-shoulder with the surrounding landscape. You feel like you could almost reach your hand out the window and touch that scampering deer or shake hands with the farmer on his tractor.

The train itself is a study in contrasts. Amtrak uses the names of glorious streamliner routes of the past such as The Crescent, The Empire Builder, and The Hiawatha. In reality, Amtrak service is more freightliner than streamliner, a Greyhound with flanged wheels. The facilities are adequate, the food is mediocre, and the staff ranges from gracious to grouchy. All this is not surprising, given the paucity of federal support for passenger railroading.

On one leg of my trip, the snack bar menu posted on the wall had cancellations and price changes scribbled in ink. As I sat waiting for a breakfast table, I heard a woman behind me exclaiming to her traveling companions, “In the brochure it all looked so nice.”

In addition, trains run habitually behind schedule. My eagerly awaited visit to the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry is scuttled due to the hours we sit waiting behind a broken-down freight train on a single track main line in southern Indiana. Even without such mishaps, passenger trains often run infuriatingly late because of the heavy freight traffic on the lines Amtrak leases from railroads such as CSX and Union Pacific. It’s more cost effective, a conductor tells me, for those roads to keep their lucrative freight traffic on schedule and to pay Amtrak the contractual penalties for the delays.

Nevertheless, it’s still a lark to take the train. I love the size and power of those diesels. The rocking and lurching of the coaches. The excitement of racing past grade crossings with their flashing gates and lines of cars. The sights of wide-eyed children running toward the tracks and construction workers laying down their tools to wave.

All of this reminds me why a place like VMT is so important. The railroad is wound tightly into the strands of America’s DNA. At levels deeper perhaps than we sometimes understand, trains still lure us, charm us, and speak to our hearts. You cannot really understand this nation until you understand its history with trains.

In the last couple years, congressional funding for Amtrak has become more generous. Given the concerns about global warming and fossil fuels, perhaps some of the more fascinating chapters of America’s rail history have yet to be written—a dream both grand and sublime.

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At October 22, 2008 at 3:09 PM , Blogger Philosofik said...

There are some better than decent ads for some of the railroads, Norfolk Southern included, that talk about how "green" they are compared to tractor trailers that haul so much freight these days. I remember seeing one a few months ago comparing how much a semi could pull on a gallon of diesel, and how much a freight train could pull on the same gallon. No comparison.


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