I recently had a chance to do something I hadn't done for ages: take a trip by train. I'd heard many stories over the years, some good and some bad, about our quasi-nationalized rail system, Amtrak.
--"Th' unions ruined th' railroads!"
--"Rail travel remains the best and safest way to travel, and will be moreso in the future."
--"The condition of the railroads is a perfect example of why socialism just won't work!"
--"There's something romantic about train travel." (And so on and so on....)
Ironically all the above statements have an element of truth to them. But the only way to know for sure what modern train travel is like is to travel by train yourself and check it out.
Last week I purchased a one-way ticket from Raleigh to Orlando. The trip would take a little longer by train than by car, 13 hours, leaving around 9:30 PM and arriving a little after 10 the next morning. You'd have to sleep sitting up....
The train was running late, giving me time to check out my fellow passengers. There was a huge family who appeared to be from India, sitting off by themselves. I chatted with an older lady, who said that this was also her first train trip in years. She decided it might be simpler to take the train rather than hassle the parking at the airports. She had rented a sleeping berth. There was a teenage girl and her boyfriend, also both first-timers, who were on their way to meet her family who were already at Disney World. The girl's mother, who was waiting with them, having taken the train before, made sure they were equipped with cell phones, their own pillows, and other necessary supplies.
When the train did show up at the platform about 15 minutes behind schedule, it seemed like the first few people coming off it were having trouble walking. “Sea legs?” I thought. “The train lurches around so much they have trouble navigating when they get off?” The conductors, most of whom were black women, gave everyone a seat number as they got on the train.
I sat next to a young Air Force dude. “Wow, I’m glad that guy that was sittin’ here got off the train. He was really drunk!” Well, that explained the “sea legs” of some of the disembarking passengers. “He had his own bottle with him. I didn’t think they allowed that.” The Air Force guy was a little hyper himself. He kept drinking these "energy drinks," so he wouldn't miss a stop where he could get off and smoke a cigarette. In between times he worked a PPS (portable play station), tried to trade games for it with other people on board, and organized card games in the "lounge." He was here, there, then everywhere. By the end of the trip I was thinking, how can this guy possibly be in the military. I didn't see any i.d. or uniform, but maybe he was....
Amanecer en la Florida. The hardest part was sleeping in the seats. And oh! The get-off-to-smoke deal was a little complicated. The train made about a dozen stops, but only a few were long enough for smokers to indulge their habit. One fellow didn't make it back on, somewhere in South Carolina in the middle of the night. "Hey!" says the Air Force guy. "That bald guy got left behind!"
Apparently this was not uncommon. "The train didn't leave him," said the conductor, breezing by. "He left the train."
Thirteen hours after leaving Raleigh the train rolled into Orlando. The fare was $49, about the same cost in gas if your car got 30 mpg. If the trains were cleaner and faster, it would be a pretty good deal, but I guess "path dependence" says we keep the cars for a while longer, anyway.
Jim Kunstler’s latest rant includes some comments on an article about California’s proposed high-speed rail project, which appeared recently in the New York Times. (See Kunstler’s link at right.) He quotes:
It might have been nice if, say, in the late 20th century, some far-seeing governor had noticed what was going on in France, Germany, and Spain but, alas.... It would have been nice, too, if ... George W. Bush, when addressing extreme airport congestion in 2003, had considered serious upgrades in normal train service between the many US cities 500 miles or so apart...
...The sad truth is it's too late now. But the additional sad truth, at this point, is that Californians (and US public in general) would benefit tremendously from normal rail service on a par with the standards of 1927, when speeds of 100 miles-per-hour were common and the trains ran absolutely on time (and frequently, too) without computers (imagine that !).
It should be noted, too, that Jeb Bush, when he was governor of Florida, vetoed a plan to develop a “bullet train” between major Florida cities. We’re sure it would have been prohibitively expensive, especially in light of the history of Miami-Dade’s Metrorail boondoggle.
Still, with the maxing out of regional airports and the increasing price of gasoline and crowding of interstate highways, it would be nice to think that safe and economical rail travel might once again play a part in the national scheme of things.
The younger people I met on board seemed uniformly enthusiastic about train travel. Maybe it was the ability to move around and talk to other people while traveling. There are already a great many “Amtrak” groups on Facebook for fans of train travel.
Would I do it again? Well, maybe. As soon as I recover.