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It's Time to Rebuild Our Passenger Railroad System

Restoring the American railroad system is an excellent place to start recovering our sense of national purpose and faith in collective enterprise.

The following is from the foreword of Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service by James McCommons (Chelsea Green, 2009).

The world economic fiasco, which I call "The Long Emergency," may be speeding us into a future of permanent nostalgia in which anything that is not of the present time looks good.

I say this to avert any accusations that I am trafficking in sentimentality where the subject of railroads is concerned. For the moment, any suggestion that a railroad revival in America might be a good thing is generally greeted as laughable for reasons ranging from the incompetence of Amtrak, to the sprawling layout of our suburbs, to our immense investment in cars, trucks and highways -- motoring culture now overshadowing all other aspects of our national identity.

This said, I will hazard to engage in a personal sentimental journey to the memory bank of my many adventures on trains, starting with the best: my yearly journey from New York City to summer camp in New Hampshire, which I repeated for several years beginning in 1959.

Apart from my delirious joy at getting out of the city for two whole summer months, the trip itself was magical. The camp rented two Pullman sleeper cars. They smelled deliciously of machine oil and freshly washed linens and were air-conditioned to arctic levels of temperature. Whatever wasn't luxuriously plush was polished to a high sheen, including a lot of chrome and brass.

We departed from Pennsylvania Station about 9 p.m. for the overnight trip. Most of us stayed awake until the wee hours, terrorizing the porter with our water guns, visiting in each others' berths (sharing troves of Zagnut bars, Raisinets and sometimes even booze filched from our parents' liquor cabinets) and watching the cavalcade of the New England landscape scroll through the window in the moonlight, past the tobacco-growing sheds of the Connecticut River valley, the ghostly switching yards and the quiet streets of nameless small towns. Eventually, the rocking train lulled most of us to an hour of sleep.

We pulled into our destination, White River Junction, Vt., near the crack of dawn, and then we bleary little insomniacs were stuffed into an old U.S. Army-surplus troop truck for the last leg of the journey across the river to New Hampshire -- then a wonderfully backward corner of the country with no interstate highways and lots of men with beards.

The reverse trip home at the end of August was fun, too, in the same way, except for our tragic fate of having to return to the rigors of school.

I rode the Long Island Railroad commuter line a lot in the 1960s because I lived in Manhattan with my mom and stepfather and was exported on Saturdays twice a month to visit my father in the suburbs.

While it became routine, it was never dull watching the endless lumpenprole precincts of Queens County, with their unimaginably dreary asphalt-shingled shoebox houses, numberless auto scrapyards and chaotic shopping boulevards of colorful folks from foreign lands.

I often rode back Monday mornings with my father, along with a thousand other identical men in suits and hats. Up until 1963, the great old Pennsylvania Station still existed, and one rose out of the transportation bowels of the city with those ranks of suited and hat-wearing executives like a conquering legion through a set of triumphant vaults to the great global engine that was New York in the postwar decades.

Train service went straight to hell by the late '60s. In college, I took the old New York Central from Rochester to New York City a few times, but by then the rolling stock had developed the ambience of a lavatory, with trash everywhere and the upholstery rotting and odoriferous men snoring across the rows of seats.