Train travel is a smarter way to get aroundPublished 9:10am Friday, April 12, 2013
Column: Notes from Home, by David Behling
The sound of the horn drifts down from the bluffs to the platform where I am standing. Not exactly piercing, but more low and throbbing, it sounds almost like a moan, with the pitch increasing as the sound gets closer. Soon I can hear — almost feel — the hum from the tracks.
That sound gets me every time. On this particular day, I am standing on a platform at the Amtrak station in Winona, but whenever I’m on one of those platforms, my neck twists and cranes as I peer into the distance, eager for my first sight of the train. I’m like a child, waiting for the next grand adventure. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s the Empire Builder on its way to either Seattle or Chicago or a light-rail trolley on the Hiawatha Line up in the Twin Cities.
Preferring to travel by train marks me as different from other, more ordinary adults in the United States (at least in the parts of the country where I have lived my adult life).
For many Americans, perhaps most, taking a train anywhere, for any reason, doesn’t even feel normal. Persuaded by the marketing departments of automobile manufacturers, on one side, and the airlines, on the other, we think of trains as strange or stupid.
The thing is, and you can check the numbers on this yourself, train travel is also the most efficient way to move large numbers of people from city center to city center. In fact, it’s the most efficient way to move people (and freight) from just about any place to just about any other place.
Of course, in order to make that case, you have to include a lot of factors we don’t normally include when we compute the costs of transportation. Politicians, especially rural conservatives, raise a great hue and cry when it comes to taxpayer support for passenger rail, whether we are talking about intercity travel or metro transit.
But what those kinds of people forget (or perhaps intentionally overlook) is that there’s a huge subsidy paid out by the government for the infrastructure designed for airplanes and cars.
How many billions have we invested in those massive urban and suburban interstate highways? How about the billions in airports and air traffic control, or all the security required now that civilian airplanes have been turned into flying bombs? And then there are all those subsidies for oil companies exploring or extracting oil. Trains run on diesel fuel, but they use that fuel more efficiently; airplanes and cars use quite a bit more fuel for the distances covered and the number of people moved.
We also don’t include personal costs, created by our dependence on personal, private transportation. Cars require constant maintenance (avoided only at great peril and, eventually, great cost). Gas prices are not going down again. Cars themselves continue to get more expensive.
If I had driven to Chicago last week instead of taken the Empire Builder, I would have experienced the stress and costs of driving and parking in downtown Chicago. If I actually lived and worked in Chicago, those stresses and costs would be there every week, not just during a working visit.
Those subsidies and costs often get overlooked when those who believe in the efficiency of train travel bring up public support for Amtrak and commuter rail lines. Perhaps they prefer to think that cars and airplanes are free of infrastructure costs.
All this talk about efficiency is beside the point, however, because the reason I take the train isn’t because of the efficiency; it’s because I simply love trains. There’s something about a train that I can’t quite explain; it’s one of those moments when, even as an experienced writer, words fail me. On a train, I don’t have to worry about traffic. I can take a nap. I can eat a meal in the dining car as I watch the landscape roll by. I can have conversations with interesting people (like the young German man on a train tour of the United States during the most recent trip).
When it comes to traveling by train, I’m accidentally and unintentionally more efficient. My Prussian grandparents, who also loved traveling by train, might have understood and approved.
David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea.