It's Time to Rebuild Our Passenger Railroad System

The following is from the foreword of Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Serviceby 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.

There were mysterious delays all along the way. The old Beaux Arts train stations in Syracuse and Albany had not yet been turned into banks, but you could no longer buy so much as a stick of gum in them. The inducement to drive, instead, on the brand-spanking-new New York State Thruway, was huge.

By the mid-1970s, American passenger rail, in near total disarray, fell under the baleful sway of Conrail and Amtrak, both apparently created on a Soviet management model, with an extra overlay of Murphy's Law to insure maximum entropy of service.

In 1974, I took the San Francisco Zephyr from New York to Oakland, Calif. It was, of course, uncomfortable, filthy and cold, with worn-out rolling stock, iffy linens and onboard food consisting of mystery-meat sandwiches prepared solely in a "Radar Range."

The most remarkable thing about this journey was how we managed to avoid anything scenic. The initial run was overnight from New York to Chicago in the November darkness. In Chicago, we had such a long layover -- all day, really -- that I was able to tour the Art Institute, the Field Museum and even take in a movie before we resumed our journey on a different train.

We rolled through Iowa and Nebraska all night, and I woke up somewhere along the bleak prairie outside of Denver. In that city, we parked on a siding near a stockyard all day long for reasons never explained and departed at dusk for the leg through the Rockies.

Things finally got interesting the next morning in Sparks, Nev., when we entered the Sierra, but the Radar Range cuisine had introduced some malign flora into my guts, and I spent most of that final leg in the bathroom.

Since then, train travel in the United States has become a pretty bare-bones affair. Amtrak has become the laughingstock of the world. Most Americans now living have never even been passengers on a train -- for them it's as outmoded as the stagecoach.

The final three-decade blowout of the cheap fossil-fuel fiesta led to the supremacy of the automobile and the fabulous network of highways that provided so much employment and so many real-estate development opportunities. This is all rather unfortunate because we are on the verge of experiencing one of the sharpest discontinuities in human history.

We're heading into a permanent global oil crisis. It is going to change the terms of everyday life very starkly. We will be a far less affluent nation than we were in the 20th century. The automobile is now set to become a diminishing presence in our lives. We will not have the resources to maintain the highways that made Happy Motoring so normal and universal.

The sheer prospect of permanent energy-resource problems has, in my view, been the prime culprit behind the cratering of our financial system for the simple reason that reduced energy "inputs" lead inexorably to the broad loss of capacity to service debt at all levels: personal, corporate, government. It's quite a massive problem, and it's not going away anytime soon, which is why I call it "The Long Emergency."

There are many additional pieces to it, including very troubling prospects for agriculture, for commerce, manufacturing -- really for all the "normal" activities of daily life in an "advanced" civilization.

I think we're going to need trains again desperately. Among the systems in trouble (and headed for more, very soon) is commercial aviation. In my opinion, the airline industry as we know it will cease to exist in five years.

Combine this with the threats to our car culture -- including resumed high fuel costs and the equal probability of scarcities and shortages, along with falling incomes and lost access to credit -- and you have a continental-sized nation that nobody can travel around.

Rebuilding the nation's passenger railroad has got to be put at the top of our priority list. We had a system not so long ago that was the envy of the world; now we have service that the Bulgarians would be ashamed of.

The tracks are still lying out there rusting in the rain, waiting to be fixed. The job doesn't require the reinvention of anything -- we already know how to do it. Rebuilding the system would put scores of thousands of people to work at meaningful jobs at all levels. The fact that we're barely talking about it shows what an unserious people we have become.

Rebuilding the American passenger-railroad system has an additional urgent objective: We need a doable project that can build our confidence and sense of collective purpose in facing all the other extraordinary challenges posed by the long emergency -- especially rebuilding local networks of commerce and relocalizing agriculture.

There's been a lot of talk about "hope" in our politics lately. Real hope is generated among people who are confident in their abilities to contend with the circumstances that reality sends their way, proving to themselves that they are competent and able to respond intelligently to the imperatives of their time.

We are, in effect, our own generators of hope. Rebuilding the American railroad system is an excellent place to start recovering our sense of purpose.

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