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The Chicken, the Egg, and the Dining Car

February 2, 2010

My most recent train trip yielded this view of the Dolomiti. Now, tell me trains aren't the end-all be-all.

Think of the last time you took a train.

Maybe it was during that fluke business trip leg from D.C. to New York a while back, or when you back-packed around Europe in college, or during that family vacation to Durango when you were nine.

No matter when it was, my guess is that you remember the trip fondly. You probably recall a sense of efficiency, an absence for urgency, and plenty of leg room. Perhaps, you had feelings of nostalgia for the olden days of steam engines and red cabooses or feelings of romance for all those movie scenes with train-platform reunions.

Here’s my question: If you liked taking the train so much, why haven’t you done it since?

In my opinion, train travel is glorious. You don’t have to pedal, you don’t have to steer, and you don’t have to arrive at the station two hours early to be strip-searched. The views from train windows can lend real truth to the expression “It’s not the destination but the journey that’s important,” and, pardon my quaintness, but the dining car—a mini-restaurant-in-motion with booths and table cloths and everything—just gives me the warm and cozies all over.

The problem, as you’ve probably already concluded, is that trains don’t go a lot of places in the U.S.

You can get around quite well on the East Coast with Amtrak. If you have a spare 48 hours, you can take one heck of a scenic trip from Chicago to San Francisco on the California Zephyr (which I did once and would love to do again). But, aside from that, the railway network in our country is fairly sparse.

So, what are you going to do about it?

You could opt for the more readily available (and increasingly more expensive) car and airplane options. Or you could put in a little extra planning and legwork to make sure to take the train. Maybe you could check the Amtrak options before calling Hertz right away. Maybe you could accept the extra hour or so an interregional train would add to your business trip (more reading time!). Maybe you could purposefully choose a trainable destination for your next vacation.

Maybe you’re thinking, “Why bother?” BECAUSE WE LOVE TRAINS, REMEMBER?

Trains are an energy-efficient, environmentally-sustainable, convenient, and comfortable alternative to cars. But it’s the chicken-or-the-egg question. What comes first: the trains or the passengers?

Do we need to start taking the train more frequently to create the demand that will give rise to supply or does the train market need to supply us with the proper options for us to climb aboard? Do we need to speak with our wallets, with our votes, with letters to the DOT? Do we need to ask Europe for advice?

What course of action will give rise to a national network of efficient, useful, romantic, and beautiful railways?


5 Comments leave one →
  1. February 2, 2010 3:47 pm

    I know you are in Italy but last week there was a big news article about a “fast train” service from Chicago to St Louis. President Obama is in favor of the idea. Let’s see how far the idea & promotion goes. They need people like you & your readers to support it.

  2. Wendy permalink
    February 2, 2010 4:12 pm

    I always wonder how environmentally sustainable trains really are. The ones here (Germany) have electric lines above the track but they also put out big puffs of black smoke. I suppose I need to do some research and figure how these big red Deutsche Bahns are powered. What about the trains in the US, what powers Amtrak?

  3. pawl permalink
    February 2, 2010 11:59 pm

    Trains are pretty fun, but I would recommend only going short distances. I recently went to Vancouver BC on the Cascade line.
    It was a 9 hour trek… roughly the same amount of time it takes to fly from Minneapolis to Amsterdam.
    Luckily, I had ridden the train to Tacoma and Seattle enough to know to bring my own food & beverages. The dining car is over priced and the food is microwaved. The seating is okay, but after 8 or 9 hours on a full train, everyone thinks hanging out in the dining car is a good idea when their butts get sore or they get bored.
    My housemate went to Minnesota and back to Oregon on the train (30 hours one way!). I would not have managed that.

    I wouldn’t say the train is my preferred mode of transportation. In fact, what I would normally do under those circumstances is rent a car and post a few vacancies on Craigslist ride share and ask for compensation toward the rental. That trip to VBC was about 3/4 that of a plane ticket, more than twice as long and we had to go through customs twice, each way.
    But the train does have its charm.

    I much preferred the commuter trains in Spain.

    Conceptually, the train is great. Practically speaking is another story.

    I don’t think the trains over here run on steam. Not sure if it’s a lighter carbon footprint to train it or rent & carpool.

  4. avaerewyck permalink
    February 4, 2010 2:20 pm

    Thanks for the tip, Mom! Do you know which paper the article was in?

    Wendy, I think Amtrak runs on diesel, but I’m not certain. I’ll have to look into that and the other efficiency questions here and hopefully include the info in a future post!

    I feel you on the extra hours needed for train travel, Pawl. That’s why I wish we had a more extensive network. As for the paucity of healthy snack options on trains, maybe that’s a market you should tap into – “Smoothies en Route?”

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