ROLL, YOU OLD BLUE NORTHERN
by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Maybe I waited too long to write this column, but I never thought the bastards would actually shut Amtrak down.
Now that my beloved orphan train system has - at this writing - gotten a week-long reprieve, it's hard to know where to start writing about how many ways I love trains.
I could write about the romanticism, freedom and lyricism of rail travel, about what trains mean to the culture of America.
I can write about the old bluesmen who were always broke, brokenhearted and bereft when they left on that midnight train, or about the convicts hearing that lonesome whistle of "The Midnight Special" calling from their jail cells, or about Woody Guthrie and the Great Depression hobos riding the rails, always on watch for those frightening "railroad bulls," or about Count Basie, who got his amazing hard-swinging beat from the sound of trains traveling over rails and set America to dancing to it, or about the hundreds of folk songs about trains, like "The Rock Island Line," which started the skiffle craze in England that led to the Beatles.
I can write about my own first trip across Canada by rail in the 1960s, watching the majestic Rockies, ice-blue glacial lakes and blazing sunsets from the glass-domed roof of the club car, or about singing "...riding on the City of New Orleans" with Arlo Guthrie about a million times while imagining I was doing just that, or about dancing so hard every time Fred Eaglesmith sings "I wish I was a freight train baby..." that my body becomes the speeding train.
But the truth is that as much as I love trains, I also need them.
In my New York City days, I was an intrepid driver. I could out-taxi a cab on any corner any day, and nothing frightened me, not even driving around in a white tin can of a convertible VW. But once I moved to Vermont, where more than four cars constitute a traffic jam, my driving abilities changed.
About 10 years I had to drive to New York for a family funeral. I found myself in an unfamiliar place - Long Island - and unsure of my directions. With a million confusing signs, narrow four-lane roads, drivers going way too fast, honking, giving me the finger and passing me on the right, and a roadbed that looked like something out of Afghanistan, I made it to the funeral home with my nerves shattered. It took too much energy out of me. I decided to stop driving to the city.
So like many other people who don't want to drive, I depend on Amtrak. But not the Vermonter, because it has to detour an hour through Amherst and Palmer, Mass., instead of going straight down the Connecticut River Valley, as it did for decades. Why the detour? Because the company that owned these particular tracks refused to upgrade the roadbed and make it suitable for passenger trains.
Instead, I drive to Springfield, Mass., park in a lot near the station, and take the train from there. Only one train a day runs between New York City and Vermont, but I have many more departure choices in both directions if I leave from Springfield.
On the train, where I usually have two seats to myself, I can stretch out, nap, read, eat lunch, think and watch the Northeast corridor flying by. The conductors are funny and friendly. I walk back and forth when I get restless, which I can't do on a bus. The bathrooms are far better than on a bus, too, and trains don't get caught up in the commuter traffic that makes approaching New Haven a literal hell on wheels.
When I arrive in the middle of the city - Pennsylvania Station - I am full of energy. If they close down Amtrak, I may never see my beautiful city again.
I'm not saying there aren't problems with Amtrak. Our whole national rail system only carries 65,000 people a day, and 35,000 of them are in the northeast.
In Europe, national train service relies on government subsidies. A year ago, I took the TGV (Tres grande vitesse, or very, very fast) from the south of France to Paris, and the five-hour first-class ride through a patchworked landscape of vineyards dotted with an occasional nuclear power plant was comfortable and luxurious. Many people in our car were traveling with their dogs, and one woman had a gray cat stretched across her lap. It seemed like the height of civilization..
People here who call these kinds of subsidies "socialism" are demented. We have lots of socialism, or subsidized travel, in the United States. According to The Boston Globe, the nation's highways get $32 billion a year in subsidies. The air travel industry gets $13 billion (and that's without the $15 billion bailout from Sept. 11).
Amtrak has gotten - since it began 31 years ago -- $30 billion, total.
The major American airlines lost a combined $7 billion last year, and $2.4 billion in the first quarter of this year. That means that in 15 months, the airlines have lost nearly half of what Amtrak has lost in 31 years - $20.4 billion since 1971.
According to the Government Accounting Office, the cost of modernizing our passenger rail system would be $30 billion over the next 20 years. In other words, it would be less than the cost of one year's worth of subsidies for the highways.
The White House wants to privatize Amtrak. The flaw in this idiotic plan is that none of the railroads want any part of passenger service. That's why they were happy to unload it all on Amtrak to begin with. And dumping part of the cost of Amtrak on the states - another dumb Bush idea - well, that's just another mandate without the funding, and the states are already swamped with those.
No, the answer is a revitalized, government-subsidized national rail service that connects the country again.
Imagine, no two-hour drive at dawn to an airport where you are subjected to the indignity of having your shoes searched and your nail clippers confiscated, where you have to wait for hours before being crowded into a seat designed for a sardine, then flying bored with a bag of peanuts thrown at you for lunch to a hub city in a completely different direction from where you want to go, then waiting for another plane, then waiting with your fingers crossed for your baggage, and then driving another hour or two to your real destination. And they say air travel is fast and convenient!
No. Instead, drive to a station in the middle of your town, buy a ticket, board a train, have a comfortable ride, and get off in the middle of the town you want to go to. All aboard?
>i>Joyce Marcel is a freelance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.