I love riding trains. On my business trips between Washington and New York, the train is always my preferred mode of transportation. So I’m glad to see the pundits like Neal Peirce commenting on the train ride that Obama and Biden are taking to Washington for the Inauguration as a positive metaphor for passenger rail.
Rail enthusiasts, for decades spurned by presidents of both parties, were elated by the news that Barack Obama will travel to Washington for his inauguration by train from Philadelphia.
“The symbolism is magnificent and the message very positive for all of us who for so many years have labored to create a more balanced American transportation system,” said James RePass, president-founder of the National Corridors Initiative that’s pressed since 1989 for upgraded rail passenger service in America.
Rail service is wonderful. Compared to air travel, getting on a train is about a simple as stepping in your car. On a train you can plug in a laptop and work uninterrupted and with sufficient space. From the first second to the last you can wander the aisles, stretch, or spend the entire trip in the cafe car. If you want to be quiet you go to the quiet car. You can look out the window at the right time and you’re likely to see the sunrise or sunset over a river or bay. And different trains have different personalities. The Acela is the business persons’ train. Men and women in suits, lots of corporate conversation, and fast, with only a little bit of difference in time door-to-door when compared with the airline shuttles. The Metroliner, on the other hand, is slower, sleepier, and more democratic. I still remember a ride earlier this year when I watched four older African American women, decked out in their Sunday finest including their big hats, having a delightful ride to Philadelphia. The way they talked and showed affection for one another reminded me of my Grandmother and an earlier era.
Passenger service in this country is in poor shape, however, due to a half-century of disinvestment and outright hostility on the part of policy makers. I still remember a train ride to Chicago in the 1980s that forced us to endure the summer heat for over 24 hours without air conditioning. It was hell. But the return ride, when a local historian joined the train in West Virginia and narrated a fascinating trip through the wild and beautiful New River Valley, was magical and heavenly.
Today’s airline travel is antiseptic at best and de-humanizing at worst. I can think of one, maybe two, great memories on a plane. But my first long train trip included a stunning sunset on Lake Ponchartrain, and I have had dozens of wonderful experiences in the 30 years since then. I hope we are beginning to see a renaissance in train travel in the U.S. It is about time we became more civilized.
More to come…