I love trains.
I love the sound of a train going by, the rhythm of the wheels on track through an open window on a mid-summer night.
I love trains that are really going somewhere: from Miami to Chicago, from San Francisco to San Diego, from NYC to New Orleans.
I love children’s books about trains. Toy trains–wooden “starter” engines, and full-blown model sets complete with track and bridges, depots, hills and watering stations.
I love music about trains.
And, now, I love trains for being environmentally p.c.
I take trains whenever possible–and even when it’s barely possible.
Which brings me to our current dilemma. So much of the track and the land originally used for track has been sold for alternative uses. Much of our passenger train service now runs on track owned by freight companies, which means passenger trains must give right of way to freight trains, often the source of delays and frustration for riders. Don’t get me wrong, I love the fact that so much freight is moved along rail lines–far more efficient and cleaner than truck delivery. I just wish we had enough track for people and stuff.
Important disclaimer here: I am not addressing the recreational train industry springing up in communities within the region and elsewhere in the country. In the Adirondacks, at least, this is a very contentious issue. I’m also not talking about urban train service: subways, light rail, elevated trains. I love ‘em all, but those are short distance solutions.
I’m interested in seeing long distance rail service restored. Like all “green” technology and innovation, trains have their detractors–the naysayers who insist it is too expensive and will never happen. I don’t have the numbers, but the savings in fossil fuel extraction and processing when masses of people travel via train vs. private automobile, should be factored into those numbers and never are.
My husband, who hates the explosion of automobile travel during the last century–because of the congestion, pollution, and long-term impact on our planet–once observed, as we drove along a four-lane interstate, that the land between the lanes is already publicly owned. Track could be laid for long-distance travel on those medians, even widening them and absorbing one lane from each direction because there wouldn’t be a need for so many private cars if we had a robust interstate train system.
When we visited my son during the three years he lived in Japan, we were thrilled by that nation’s commitment to rail travel (and, to buses, by the way). The Japanese have established conditions within which train travel can thrive. My informal observations of those conditions included:
1. Maintaining a wide variety of trains which are used in appropriate settings. Small trains–as few as one or two cars long–reach into remote rural villages (and buses bring people to those rural depots from other nearby communities); medium trains are used for commuters and regional travel; and, high-speed, large trains are operated between major cities.
2. Discouraging long-distance automobile travel by building few–if any–four-lane highways, maintaining 50-mph as the top permissible highway speed, providing easy access to connecting buses, rewarding the buyers of cars with engines below the 600 cc size so that vehicles are smaller, more efficient, and less attractive for long-distance travel.
3. Making train stations pleasant, clean and relatively easy to get around in. We arrived in Japan at night and had to travel by three different trains to reach our destination about 100 miles away in the mountains north of Tokyo. We passed through some vast stations and pretty much without asking directions were able to find our way to Chichibu. And we didn’t speak a word of Japanese.
4. Putting public dollars into deep subsidies for public transportation vs. private transportation.
5. Keeping trains to a precise schedule that passengers can count on. Trains ALWAYS arrived and departed on time.
We traveled across about a third of Japan on the high-speed train. But whether we were on the shinkansen (“bullet” train) or a one-car train up in the rural hills, the service was reliable and pleasant.
People think that train travel only works for short distances and in countries that are smaller than the U.S. or Canada. Our shinkansen trip covered almost a thousand miles…quickly and efficiently. Think of it: no airport misery. It requires strong infrastructure, but then so does air travel and interstate road travel.
Pardon me, boys, is this the Chattanooga choo choo…?
Tell me about your favorite rail trip, or train song, or toy.