Whenever I watch White Christmas, I am always entranced by the scenes that shows trains and train travel. One of my favorite E. B. White essays is “The Railroad,” published in 1960. Compared with air travel today, trains seem an ideal alternative. Of course, seeing trains in old movies and reading about them in essays from the 1960s is to view them through a lens of nostalgia. I’ve ridden on trains myself, however, and I those experiences have all been good ones. I hear people say “I’m taking the train,” but I prefer a different, older phrase. “I taking the railroad.”
I once took the railroad from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City, traveling with my grandparents. The train left L.A. in the late afternoon and arrived at Salt Lake early the following morning. We entered the desert in the evening, as the sun was setting, and the scenery, as I recall it was beautiful. I felt like I could reach out and touch the landscape. I never feel this way looking out of an airplane window. The experience stuck with me for a long time. Indeed, it led to my writing a poem for a creative writing class, which in turn resulted in the single worst criticism I ever received. But it was worth it to ride that train.
In 2003, I took the railroad from Oxnard, California to Seattle, Washington. We left Oxnard around noon and arrived in Seattle the following evening. The train made its way up the Pacific coast and watching out the window, I saw the scenery change from coastal views, to forests, and then mountains. There was something pleasant about the rumble the train made through the night, although in retrospect, I might have sprung for a private berth where I could stretch out a bit more.
I’ve taken the railroad from L.A. to San Diego, and from Washington, D.C. to New York, and Boston. I’ve ridden the rails from Grand Central Station to Albany, New York. I commuted on the Washington Metro system for six years, riding the railroad to and from work each day. I’ve navigated the New York Subway system countless times. I’ve ridden the L in Chicago, and the L.A. subway, such as it is. I’ve ridden the Tube in London, and the subway in Rome.
The railroad is more casual than the airlines. Where airline behave as severe grade-school teachers, the railroad acts more like the casual gym instructor. He wants you to make it to gym on time, but doesn’t mind getting started without you and letting you catch up. There is space to spread on a train that seems regal compared to the austere airlines. Unlike the rigid airplanes whose seats all face forward, the seating in trains varies, with some seats facing forward, some backwards, some to the side.
Getting somewhere on the railroad takes time, but they are prepare for that. Instead of a small wedge of plastic that folds over your lap, there are tables you can sit at and work, or converse. There is no need to stay in your seat while the train is moving. Indeed, the design of trains encourages movement. There is often a club car in which you can get food and drinks. On the longer train rides I’ve been on, there’s been dining cars in which you can eat in relative style. The restrooms are spacious. And if you prefer a quieter atmosphere, some trains have “quiet cars” for just this purpose.
I’d love for the railroads to be in the position of the passenger airlines today, and vice versa. The airlines wouldn’t be gone, but they would be used only where the railroads couldn’t reasonably reach. Maybe the travel by rail would help to slow down the pace of life in general.
Railroads have been in decline for more than half a century. They were in decline when E.B. White wrote his somber 1960 essay. It’s too bad. From descriptions I’ve read of the railroads, and from what I’ve heard from people who rode them in their heyday, it seems that the railroads were the best possible compromise for long-distance travel. I would love it if they were somehow resurrected. I suspect it was the car, and not air travel that did in the railroads–and specifically the Interstate highway system.
One of the saddest things to see is a long dead set of railroad tracks cutting through the landscape. There’s one near my in-laws in Florida, overgrown with weeds. Whenever we cross it, I look up and down the deserted tracks and always hope that maybe I’ll see the lights of a train in the distance. Maybe this time? I think as we bump over the tracks. It never fails to cross my mind. And yet I know these tracks are dead, buried beneath the growth of decades of disuse. In my mind, though, they are alive and I want to hop the next train and see where it will take me.