The Great American Railroad was already a museum piece when I was a kiddo. Thousands of miles of track had been decommissioned or lay fallow some with their rolling stock just left there to compost. So many rail lines went out of commission as a child as fast or faster than the factories were closing down. It was like growing up in some large ruined kingdom. No wonder I’m given to melancholy and collect rusty things.
Train stations were shut and falling apart or being torn limb from limb by vandals angry that a beautiful thing or strong building existed without their permission. To many no Victorian edifice was complete without “Sane Smith” sprawled across it in crayon or blood or silly string.
I remember taking the train as a young teen but I don’t think that other than being on some historic rail car at some history museum that we traveled by rail. My parent not being a social animal avoided as much human contact as possible and with no money, there is little opportunity to travel.
In time, I’ve managed to change that and have traveled on almost every major extant passenger line in much of the world. Certainly not all nor am I a “train buff” but in other continents but the Americas rail travel is effective and connects major areas. From the high speed train connecting London to Cambridge to a failing and decrepit spur – all that was left after a landslide took away the track further into the jungle – that connected Cuzco to Agua Callentes, home of Machu Pichu.
The trains of India were broken and battered sleepers left over from the Raj but otherwise cross crossed the nation and of course the Trans Siberian was a line of clunking Soviet era cars where the samovar was still heated with coal chunks from a burlap bag.
The old rail system of Morocco was even worse. Packed together in the night, large women and bags and everyone smoking and choking.
The Rumania I knew had seats so dirty they looked like leather but were indeed cloth. I was glad when I was in Sofia, Bulgaria, to hop a ride in the Orient Express and take it all the way to Paris in the last days where you had to still show a passport to cross the various frontiers. Most of the time I spent in the dinning car that still used linen on the tables and small vases of flowers strapped to each one to give some elegance even if this was but a shade of what opulence had once been.
The United States has a rail system too. And it is as ancient as those old systems I have used as a traveler in countries from 1-3rd world if not a little cleaner in the sense that the toilets don’t flush into the tracks and there is certainly no smoking… rail stops don’t involve feeding the monkeys or packs of stray dogs either but you cannot buy dried fish or garden vegetables.
The American System does, however, seem to move slower and slower each year as I assume funding is cut, legacy costs from ineffective unions rise, as does the demand for speed and more technology and a shrinking middle class.
Amtrak is a splendid beast of a company. Born from the same perverted parentage as Franie Mack and Mae, the mortgage behemoths that almost tanked the nation’s economy, Amtrak must rely on congress to guide it’s development, investment, and whether you get a pillow in coach or a flower on your table in the dining car. The same congress that couldn’t take a shit in a warm pool, as my grandmother would have said is in charge of our rolling stock and an option of travel touted by environmentalists and national security pundits alike.
However, Congressional members are convinced that rail travel will turn us into communists as I suppose car companies, tyre companies, insurance, asphalt, guardrail, yellow paint, sign and sign post, gas stations, car mechanics, DMV fee collectors, sales tax and gas tax collectors, gas pump manufacturers and convicts sent to pick up trash on the side if the road all have a special interest to ensure rail travel is not an option in this Great Nation.
We will never do anything truly efficient as ultimately it’s against our new and perverted form of capitalism where we subsidize gas and oil companies and then listen as the Freemarketeers yodel about open market forces and the withering away of antiquated systems.
And so it is no surprise then when my train is 40 minutes late on a 2 hour ride to go about 100 miles away from Gotham. I think it took me about 60 minutes from London to Cambridge and from London to Paris, maybe a little over 2 hours. I crossed Russia twice in a return trip from Moscow to Vladivostok and back via Beijing with 7 days out and 7 days back and that was using Soviet technology. Going up the California coast we were stranded in the middle of nowhere because of train traffic for 4 or more hours. Just a trainload of people stuck as if their toy had broken sweltering away in the heat.
It is also no surprise that our passenger and freight trains crash, explode, and derail in alarming numbers.
The Peoples Republic of China builds ever more and faster rails as do all the other countries. I can only imagine what the Trans Siberian rail looks like today XX years later (perhaps the same actually – the Russians can never get their shit together either). Yet we halt production and commerce and the development that rail travel could bring along with so many ancillary – and democratic – benefits.
I will continue to ride the rails when I can for business, personal commuting, and pleasure, but I don’t have much faith that our nation will be but left behind in this technology as we are today in so many others.