My birthday gift: On the Rails and about the Rails

March 2011 – Rector’s Ruminations

As we depart the Sacramento station on the Coast Starlight, we pass a deserted Southern Pacific warehouse and a small wave of bittersweet nostalgia washes over me.  Bitter owing to my love of train travel and the demise of a system that once served as the main artery in connecting our nation. Abandoned roadbeds, abbreviated schedules, aging equipment provide ample evidence of defeat or at least a concession to the triumph of the automobile, the Interstate Highway system and air travel.

Economically bitter in that passenger rail operates in the red while freight rail and the new equipment to route container cars, e.g. PAC-STACKRACK, turns a steady profit, as it should given the fact that it is more economical, efficient and environmentally friendly to employ rail transport rather than tractor trailer rigs for long distance hauling.

Experientially bitter in the loss of a connection with the land.  We miss the landscape as we fly over our country confined in a small, cramped, claustrophobic metal tube that promises to carry us swiftly to our destination in the “friendly skies.”  Friendly skies?  Or the now deteriorating interstate highways that separate us from the unique communities and topography we encounter as we travel; a system replete with “road services” that are indistinguishable and predictable in providing convenience and a quick “on and off” the concrete ribbon.  Standardization blurring the distinctiveness of regional uniqueness.  Standardization and convenience discouraging exploration of regional cultures, architecture and local color.  The abandoned and dying towns “missed” by the interstate system serve as a sad footnote.

As we arrive at Davis, the bitter gives way to the sweet. The depot – clean and architecturally appealing – conjures up memories of the old Union Station in Los Angeles and trips with my mother from Los Angeles to Minneapolis via Kansas City at the beginning of each summer in my childhood.  A three and a half day trek beginning with the Southern Pacific R.R. across the vast expanse of the West and Mid-west.  The excitement of journey, the changing scenery and the elegance of the travel.  Being “adopted” by the porter and dining car staff and being in awe of the conductor.  Listening to the rhythmic clack of the rails while falling asleep on the freshly made bed in the “sleeper.”  Stealing glances at the night darkness punctuated by stars and the intermittent lights of approaching and passing towns.  Being lulled by the comforting wail of the train whistle.  Exploring the coaches, occasionally meeting a new friend in the dining car, playing card games with my mother, alternating between reading a book and simply relishing the vastness of the plains and prairie.  All the while anticipating upcoming summer adventures:  summer league baseball, hiking in “the bottoms” of the Minnesota River, visiting the farms with my grandfather, swimming in the old quarry holes with cousins and friends, the aroma of my grandmother’s freshly baked bread on Monday mornings, feeding the chickens, digging up carrots in the garden, picking green apples and putting pennies on the railroad tracks with my cousin Dick before running to avoid “The Flyer” traveling west from Minneapolis.

Nostalgia gives way to the reality of the present.  Although renovated, the old coaches from the 1950’s lack the comfort and elegance they once offered.  However, most employees of Amtrak try hard to recapture the hospitality of years gone by.

I asked Lisa, our porter, about occupancy on this trip and she estimated that it’s about 60% – typical for this time of year.  She went on to note that the effort to reduce fares, improve service have helped but “we’re still not competitive and most people don’t take or have the time for train travel.  It’s a shame because this is the way to see parts of the country you can’t see any other way,” she laughs, “The beauty and the rust-out.”

Despite indulging in a bit of nostalgia, I’m not a romantic.  Passenger rail travel will not replace air and automobile travel.  Having traveled Europe, Scandinavia, China and Russia by rail, our schedules, service, equipment and rail infrastructure suffer, for the most part, by comparison.  Perhaps the new budget initiative to rebuild passenger rail service and establish a high-speed rail system in the United States will put us on track (pun intended).  I hope so, not because of a nostalgic desire to return to the past but in hopes that such a rehabilitation and improvement of the “Iron Horse” will provide us with a more affordable, environmentally sensitive and enjoyable way to travel and rediscover the beauty of our land and recapture a sense of place and space.

Lisa, our porter, is less optimistic.  Asked about the President’s plan for renewing and improving the rail system in our country, she looks wistful, “My dad was a conductor.  He loved train travel and so do I. But the task is so overwhelming.  I don’t think we’ll see it in our lifetime…perhaps in the Northeast corridor, but not here in the West. I hope I’m wrong, but it’s going to take a lot of time and money.”  And resolve.

As we make our way through the Santa Clara Valley, I gaze out my window and behold the beauty of this part of my native state.  Perhaps in a few years, I’ll be able to take a trip on the Coast Starlight with my granddaughter, Bernice…

All aboard!


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