Monday, August 18, 2008

America just needs some training....

Remember getting (or just longing for) your first toy train set? Remember your first ride on that magical mini-locomotive at the zoo? Or maybe you bought a child his or her first Thomas the Tank Engine toy, or sat in wonder as you watched The Polar Express roll through your local movie theater. Well, put on your engineer's caps and get out your dusty Lionel sets, kids; today we're gonna talk about the railroad!

With ridership at an all-time high, Amtrak has finally gotten the attention of Congress. And for the first time in decades, it's actually positive attention rather than the yearly "Let's just shut this money pit down" discussion from a group of people who've never been on a train, much less had to live near the railroad tracks (or on the "wrong side" of them).

Some of the routes seeing increased use, like the City of New Orleans run from the Windy City to the Big Easy, are legendary and even musical (Good morning, America, how are you? Don't you know me? I'm your native son....) Some, like the San Francisco to Sacramento and Boston to D.C. commuter lines, are so full that passengers stand in the accordion connectors between compartments. The trains could be even longer and fuller, except that Amtrak already has all 632 of its usable cars on the rails, and there are no more to add.

But while the U.S. government is finally coming to realize what the Am in Amtrak stands for, and is turning its attitude from hostility to support, imagine what kinds of shortage problems the railroad would be encountering if more Americans were to actually use a service that, according to the New York Times, would constitute the eighth largest domestic airline if it had wings.

Why don't we? When did we lose our childhood love of the mighty locomotives blasting those loud whistles into the night?

A lot has to do with misconceptions that are grounded in fact.

For example, factual misconception #1: The train cars are dirty and noisy. True — sort of. The cars themselves are surprisingly quiet, well-insulated, and comfortable, given that most of them are at least thirty years old, and we're talking about steel riding on steel. And when you board a train that's been freshly prepped and gone over, it's clean, too. (The narrow stairway up to the car is a bit grimy, but remember that this is a gigantic industrial machine you're boarding, and those steps are exposed to the elements at all times.)

It's not the passenger cars that are the problem; it's the passengers ourselves who are dirty and noisy. (WB pauses to put on its flame-retardant suit, even though the word our was carefully selected there.) In a car of fifty seats, nearly everyone eats and drinks and reads on board, but maybe three people will bother to walk to the front of the car and put their wrappers and bottles and magazines into the clearly marked, conveniently placed trash bins. The rest of the trash is jammed into the netting on seatbacks or kicked under seats. Why not, the maintenance guys will pick it up later.

Problem is, Amtrak is already running a skeleton crew due to underfunding, so the "guys" are usually just one guy waiting at the final station, and if you're riding a ten-stop train and unboard after the third stop, your trash is waiting for the people who board after you leave. Guess what they'll think about the condition of the train? But Amtrak has nothing to do with it.

As for noise: three words — cell phones, children. When half the adults on board think they need to call home at every stop and report their location at maximum volume — while ignoring the fact that their grade-schoolers are spinning around in circles in the aisle or playing marco/polo from opposite ends of the compartment — then sure, it can be noisy as hell. But Amtrak isn't in charge of common courtesy, common sense, or basic parenting. It runs a train. We run our mouths.

Factual misconception #2: The trains derail. Yep, once in a great while they do — or, in the case of the photo at left, sometimes the locomotives just get really horny and decide to mount a freight car. But here's the thing: First, the number of derailments for trains overall, not just passenger trains, has been steadily decreasing as rail use goes up. Second, Amtrak owns about three percent of the steel rail that it travels on. All the rest belongs to freight lines, and there isn't enough inspection of that track by the companies or a government that proudly records the day that the last spike was driven into the railbed connecting the original Colonies to the western frontier, but also walked away from train culture completely when the last of its soldiers had whistle-stopped home after World War II.

But even in that state of neglect, rail travel is a safe bet: 710 trains have derailed so far in 2008, 14 of them Amtraks, with zero passengers killed. (And 14 isn't the significant number it appears to be; there are 2,200 Amtrak trains per year whistling through WB's neighborhood alone. Multiply that times everywhere else and then do the long division.)

Meanwhile, on the highway, roughly 39,500 people will die this year in car crashes. Makes those iron horses of western lore look mighty attractive after all, doesn't it? Time to sweep the misinformation out of the way, re-find our childhood affections, and become part of a clean, civilized, safe railroad that can proudly be called Amtrak.

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