June 8, 2010



I just completed a trip on Amtrak's "all the rail you can stand for fifteen days" plan. Pretty hardcore - All the way from Baltimore to the San Fransisco Bay Area, down to LA and back. Six nights attempting to sleep in a coach seat. Nearly 7000 miles. About 160 scheduled train hours plus overtime. All for only $389 plus a small contribution from the American taxpayers payable in annual billion dollar chunks.

Riding Amtrak couldn't possibly be any more different from air travel. You must suspend all notions of time. There's no visible security whatsoever. Super spacious seats, but still quite cramped when you realize that this seat comprises your entire home for the interminable duration. It is an otherworldly experience just witnessing how people improvise with their seat to try to get some sleep. Some end up with their heads on the floor and feet in the air. Other contortions are even more indescribable. People elbowing and head-butting total strangers. John and Yoko's "sleep-ins" were never like this.

You could really wreak some privacy havoc by publishing pictures of these folks online. And to think I slept with all of them. Well, I didn't really sleep. I use that word loosely away from its carnal application. Come to think of it, I didn't sleep at all for six nights, but Amtrak is such an extra-dimensional experience of suspended animation that the whole concept of sleep eventually loses all meaning anyway.

But the big thing is the views of America. Though your domicile is but a single coach seat, your front yard is the entire country. You soon rediscover what a huge wonderful wondrous country this is. Purple mountain majesties and amber waves of grain indeed. Unlike through the windshield of a car, your view has no visible means of support. You don't see ribbons of highway. You can't even see the rails. There are no signs or billboards beckoning for you to do this or that. There is nothing between you and America. You're usually going slow enough to fixate on the smallest detail if you so wish - a single house or yard or crop or weed or riverbank or whatnot. Except that it all just floats by. You can't stop and interact. It's all just out there.


Amtrak has benefited greatly from the niche-ification of America. Airlines have become America's mass transit between places more than a couple hundred miles apart, where the human cattle queue-up at airport security gates and strap-in and do what they're told. But the lunatic fringe who don't care about actually getting from Point A to B in just a few hours is now large enough that Amtrak is setting ridership records even though it is as irrelevant as ever to moving the masses.

Yes, from a transportation system standpoint, Amtrak is mostly irrelevant. Amtrak is too labor intensive to enjoy any significant economies of scale, except in the dense northeast and perhaps a few other places. Amtrak's long-term wish list is essentially no more ambitious than to replace their aging fleet and fix some track bottlenecks that will allow it to go incrementally faster and have fewer conflicts with freight trains, and perhaps reinstate some marginal routes.

It is not Amtrak, but freight rail which has the big potential for growth as the world attempts to transition to efficient energy use. One of the few things that rouse Amtrak passengers is when their train is waylaid by an even slower 150 car freight train, but that freight train saves a whole lot more energy than Amtrak ever could. Amtrak only gets in the way.


It dawned on me that I was an eco-tourist, another product of the niche-ification of America. No, I'm not in the class of the world's #1 eco-tourist, Al Gore (sorry, Bono), who gallivants the globe collecting awards, racking frequent flier miles, holding big rock concerts and rousing the populace. But I did get that same kind of sanctimonious high from knowing that I traveled 7000 miles without a car or a plane ride, whatever the point.

So when I finally stopped over in various hotels in Chicago, San Fransisco, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and Albuquerque to get an actual night's sleep in an actual bed, and I read the hotel placards that said the fate of the world was in my hands, and that I had a choice to either re-use the towels and save the planet or cause its doom by using them only once, my eco-conscience was unmoved. In order to stay on my 15 day Amtrak regimen, I stayed in each hotel only one night, so my dirty linen was washed to the max, and the world will thus go to hell in a laundry cart because of me. But I slept well.

To each his own. The Baltimore Sun reported a month ago that the resort town of Ocean City, Maryland has suspended its recycling program to save money, which the Sun said will cause thousands of ecologically minded tourists to burn more gas driving hundred of miles farther to other resorts so they can spend their eco-dollars feeling good when they throw away their bottles and paper. Ocean City is not a last resort.


So now I've finally ridden on most of every long-distance route Amtrak offers. I understand viscerally why people love railroads and want to build rail mass transit even though it often makes little sense as a structural element of an actual transportation system. I hope I've demonstrated over the years in my blog how it actually could make sense, with a truly integrated hierarchical system instead of overhyped projects ranging from the overweight underpowered Amtrak Acela to the proposed streetcar-on-steroids Baltimore Red Line.

There is something about the rails that alters our perceptions of reality. But realizing our human condition is the first step toward a treatment and cure. The same kind of railroad mind blowing takes place when contemplating a short meandering 45 minute trip on the proposed Red Line from one side of Baltimore to the other. The Baltimore Red Line is just the quick-fix rail gateway drug toward the 7000 mile coast-to-coast Amtrak overdose.

1 comment:

  1. Amtrack is indeed nichification on rails. For the flight-o-phobe, the hobbyist, and the nostalgic. And for those with the time to let the engineer take the "wheel" and propel them over a unique landscape, the likes of which they will not experience elsewhere. In low-density USA, the passenger train largely does not make sense, except maybe along the northeastern area once called "megalopolis", and even though I have not had the pleasant experience of the day coach overnighter since college days, just as I have not ever seen a whale breach the surface of the ocean, I'd be quite sad if we lost either.