A Great Country Needs a Great Train System

 

Many years ago I took my kids on a cross-country train trip. Amtrak was offering a great deal: I paid full fare for myself, half fare for the first kid, and the second kid rode for free. We bought a pass that allowed us three stops and 45 days to complete the trip, though we did it within the month of July. We visited family in Maine and Minneapolis, and spent a couple of days in San Francisco before returning to San Diego.

My son and daughter were seven and five, small enough to sleep comfortably in their seats. I don’t sleep much when I travel, but I did doze off in the observation car as the train sped through Kansas in the dead of night. We bought a pack of Amtrak playing cards, which I still have. The kids walked up and down the train during the day and made friends. On the third evening of the trip we pulled into Boston and took the subway to Fenway Park, where the Red Sox, who had a lousy team that year, won in eleven innings. The next day we took a bus to Maine.

The trip was not glitch-free. On the way back west, we decided to use a 90-minute layover in Chicago to visit the nearby Sears Tower, then the tallest building in the world. I hadn’t realized that going to the top involved a lot of standing in line and waiting for elevators. We watched helplessly from above as our tiny train pulled out of the station without us. My sister met us the following morning at the Greyhound station in Minneapolis, after an overnight ride on a crowded bus. In San Francisco I dropped my acoustic guitar on the stone floor of a hotel lobby, breaking its neck.

But my kids remembered that trip so fondly that ten years later, when we were living in Maine and planning a spring break trip to California, they insisted we go by train.

The experience was exponentially more pleasant that getting onto an airplane. We saw parts of the country you can’t see from the air or the Interstate. There was room to move around and get away from one another. Yes, the trains were late, and yes, federal subsidies kept the fares affordable. Amtrak’s critics are quick to point out the system’s costs and shortcomings. But as an American taxpayer, I want the opportunity to see my country by train, even if I only take advantage of it once a decade or so.

When I moved to California in the 1980s, I became involved with a group of people promoting high-speed rail in the corridor between Los Angeles and San Diego. Jerry Brown had already served two terms as governor and made two unsuccessful bids for the presidency. He had already earned the nickname “Governor Moonbeam” for backing high-speed rail and other futuristic projects. Today he’s governor again, throwing his weight behind a high-speed line connecting the Los Angeles and San Francisco metropolitan areas, and he’s still being ridiculed for it. The governors of Florida and Wisconsin rejected federal funds for high-speed rail projects that would have created jobs and alleviated traffic in their states.

A great country needs a great train system. We have a mediocre one – which is still better than nothing. But why is it so hard to build and maintain modern, high-speed passenger train service in the United States? Why does it take so long? And why the unreasonable expectation of profitability, when we don’t apply the same standard to cars and trucks and airplanes?

In the years following World War II, while Europe and Japan were modernizing and developing their rail infrastructure, the United States built the Interstate Highway system, at a cost of more than $500 billion in 2008 dollars. The federal government subsidized 90% of this cost. Annual support of the Interstates costs more per passenger mile than keeping Amtrak running at its present, minimal level. And yet despite this massive government giveaway to the owners of cars and trucks, Amtrak continually faces threats of budget cuts or outright elimination.

It would be a shame if the federal government eliminated long-distance rail service and forced more people into cars and crowded airports. It would also go against the flow of history, at a time when Americans are waking up to the wastefulness of our car culture. I’m glad my kids got to see the country by train. I want tomorrow’s kids to have that same opportunity.


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