Choo choo chaboogie

Train: detail from a train car. Photo: Sorensiim, via Creative Commons, some rights reserved.

Train: detail from a train car. Photo: Sorensiim, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

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.

Photo: erjkprunczyk, via Creative Commons, some rights reserved.

Photo: erjkprunczyk, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

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.

This is the kind of train that provides service to remote Japanese towns. Photo: Koji Haruna, via Creative Commons, some restrictions.

This is the kind of train that provides service to remote Japanese towns. Photo: Koji Haruna, via Creative Commons, some rights reserved

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.

This is the medium size train, providing commuter and regional service. Photo: Koji Haruna, via Creative Commons, some restrictions.

This is the medium size train, providing commuter and regional service. Photo: Koji Haruna, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

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.

Ah, the king of the Japanese rail service: the bullet train. Photo: Miki Yoshihito, via Creative Commons, some restrictions.

Ah, the king of the Japanese rail service: the bullet train. Photo: Miki Yoshihito, via Creative Commons, rights reserved

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.


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8 Comments on “Choo choo chaboogie”

  1. Michael Greer says:

    We took the train from Syracuse to Chicago, and then to New Orleans several years ago…there is no finer way to travel. The only thing that would have made that trip better would have been a train from Potsdam to Syracuse.
    Locally we’ve heard much talk over the last couple of years about a “rooftop highway” versus an improved Rt. 11, and my reply is, Why would I EVER want to drive to Syracuse, no matter what kind of road, if I could take a train? Local rail service could easily connect us to a very nice system only 30 miles away in Canada, and then we could be a part of a world class transit system with access to both coasts.

  2. Leslie Anne King says:

    Hear! Hear! Preach it, Ellen. I, too, love trains. We travel from Syracuse to the Central Valley in California and to Houston to visit our daughters every year on Amtrak. Visiting with fellow travelers, seeing the country go by at a speed that makes it understandable, and being treated like guests rather than potential criminals are the big selling points for us.

  3. Ellen Rocco says:

    When I moved to the North Country in 1971, my old neighbors talked about the train service that used to run from Syracuse, up through Watertown, Gouverneur and across to Plattsburgh. I assumed this had been pre-World War II, but it turns out the service had been eliminated less than 10 years before I arrived. Geez.

  4. Mike Ludovici says:

    My son has fond memories of his combination Bicycle/Train trip from San Fransisco back home to upstate New York.

  5. Pete Klein says:

    Best train ride I ever had was from Detroit to Columbus, Ohio, on a Pullman in the early 50’s. It included a connection to Newark, Ohio on an old steam engine.
    Longest train rides were from Albany to Chicago and Detroit to Providence, RI.
    I love the NYC subways but hate the Metro card. Bring back the tokens.
    Also liked the street cars in Detroit back in the 40’s and 50’s.
    And of course I owned I Lionel train set.
    You know who killed trains and street cars? It was the Detroit automakers. They made trucks and buses. They saw trains as competition and helped with their destruction.

  6. Ellen Rocco says:

    I had a call from listener Carl Mogerman over in Norfolk. Turns out he’s a lifelong “railroader” (his term) and had a lot to share. Most importantly, he wanted people to know about the book he’s considers the greatest ever written about railroads: “The Mohawk That Refused to Abdicate,” by David P. Morgan and photographer Phil Hastings. It’s about a cross-continent train trip undertaken with a steam powered engine during the last days of the steam engine’s use in the train system. Carl pitched the book pretty passionately, so I plan to check it out. Anyone else familiar with this book? Do you agree with Carl?

  7. Mark, Saranac Lake says:

    The federal government didn’t put hardly a nickel into the rail system in the 50s and 60s – it was all going into interstates and airports…that was “the future”! Of course, the future brought…well, I don’t need to go into detail as to what interstate and air travel is like today. In the meantime, Europe, Japan and other industrial countries continued to invest in their rail infrastructure…and left the US in the dust.

    Just a little over a half a century ago one could take a train from just about any tiny, backwater community to any other tiny, backwater community in the country. In that relatively short period of time since we threw away an extensive, in-place, efficient transportation system. We now have an extensive but terribly inefficient and very expensive transportation system in place. The cost to shift back to rail would be very high and there doesn’t seem to be any interest in large pubic works these days…it would take a bold commitment that doesn’t seem to exist in this country anymore. As long as gas is cheap ($4 a gallon gas is very cheap relative to the rest of the world) there will be no incentive to change to a more efficient system.

    Critics of rail point out the cost and subsidies that go into rail but those critics conveniently forget to mention the costs and subsidies for public highways. Yes, gasoline taxes (paid by those that actually use the roads) do cover some of the costs of highways but that isn’t the only source of income for highway maintenance – highways are heavily subsidized. If those that say either let the passenger rail system (Amtrak) pay for itself or shut it down, perhaps they would also agree that we should set up tolls on all of our highways and let that and the gas taxes pay for the roads and go without subsidies.

    Freight: A lot of rail freight is coal, which is the single, most moved commodity.

  8. Sally Lynch says:

    Two years ago we lived in Trento, northern Italy for 9 months, and did not have a car. My husband took a bus to work, we walked to the market, stores, library, downtown, cafes, train stations, language classes. When we did not walk we took trains and buses everywhere, and even a cable car up the mountain across from our apartment. We took trains into neighboring Austria. A friend had a bike and he was able to put the bike on the Italian trains. I had a tote bag with wheels for groceries, it worked fine, and I carried an umbrella. Twice we took taxis for medical emergencies, that was it for cars.
    We did not miss our car at all. Gas is expensive and traffic fearsome in Italy.
    Italy is much more compact than the US, but still it would be wonderful to take trains instead of driving.
    I was friends with Margaret Regan, a Winthrop native who remembered taking a bus to Watertown, and taking the Norwood train right into Grand Central Station, New York City.

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