Log Cabin Chronicles

Riding the rails again


To: Senator John McCain
United States Senate
Washington, DC

Dear Senator McCain:

Over the last couple of years I have come to respect your integrity and intelligence. I heard you speak in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, and I actually voted for you in the Republican presidential primary.

Not long ago I saw a television news clip of you expressing skepticism that AMTRAK could meet a mandated 2003 deadline which requires it to achieve unsubsidized self-sufficiency. In May, I took the opportunity to ride the AMTRAK system from Rutland, Vermont, to South Bend, Indiana, on the occasion of my daughter's college graduation. It occurred to me that the story of my experience might be useful to you in your deliberations on the fate of AMTRAK.

The price was right and I had the time. I hadn't ridden a real train since I was a kid, an adventure. It was a long ride, although no worse than driving, and considerably more interesting and restful.

The downtown Rutland, Vermont, station is new brick and glass, of some architectural merit, comfortably appointed, and appropriately small. The train departed on time, Rutland being the originating point of this run to New York City.

Barely a dozen people climbed on. No one yelled "all aboard." The engine and four cars crawled slowly out of town and barely moved faster for the entire time I was on board. The roadbed on this section apparently cannot support much speed. Although the nearly empty car seemed strange the experience evoked the best of the historical train ride.

There was no click-clacking, just the smooth glide and sway and heavy rumble of a huge iron beast. We rolled into and out of several stations, some of them architectural jewels of nineteenth century rail stations. Almost no one got on.

I got off in Schenectady, New York, where I had an eight-hour wait before catching the westbound train. The Schenectady station is utilitarian and adequate, located near downtown and the city's historic district. It was enough to keep me from getting too bored.

The westbound from New York to Chicago was late. After dark I boarded a half-full train of many cars; coaches, club car, dining car, sleeping cars. I had two seats to myself and, compared to aircraft seating, an enormous amount of leg room. Two people could actually pass each other in the aisle. There were two rest rooms in every car. I settled down to experience life on a long haul train.

The engine blasted through the night at interstate highway speeds along the ancient corridor between the northeast and the Midwest, for thousands of years a path for tribal migrants and warriors, the route of the Erie Canal, the roadbed of the old New York Central, America's first rail link between New York and Chicago. Utica, Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, Erie, Pennsylvania flowed by in the darkness. Daylight returned near Cleveland.

Sleeping is difficult but not impossible. Bodies are sprawled at all angles across their seats. Little children curl up like cats. But there remains throughout the night a lively dynamic of people moving up and down the aisles. The club car and smoking cage remain brightly lighted and crowded with an ever shifting diversity of humanity.

The people who ride AMTRAK seem to form a remarkable subculture all of their own, unique in my experience. Mostly I observed, but I could also comfortably fit into that subculture, as could just about anybody.

Of course, there are no rich or important people but you can find just about any other sort of American and lots of different kinds of foreigners. Europeans, Africans, Latin Americans, and Asians are all generously represented. Perhaps that's because rail transportation remains more the common currency in those lands than here. American ethnic diversity is likewise the rule, with perhaps a somewhat higher than average representation of African-Americans but not by much.

Train people are old and young and everywhere in between, about evenly split in gender. Some sit in solitary silence, gazing out the window (me usually) but others love to babble and bounce from one new acquaintance to another. Some people ride the train for mundane business. Some do it purely for pleasure but I suspect that nearly everyone takes the train because they like it better than the alternatives.

Suddenly, in the early daylight hours some way out of Cleveland, the train ground to a halt off in the middle of nowhere. Minutes ticked away. Nothing happened. People paid little attention. The normal train dynamic continued.

After a while, I realized we were on a siding when a freight train rocketed by on the main line in a dizzy blur of sound and motion close enough outside my window to touch. It was long, endless, inscrutable. After it passed we waited some more. Over the next hour and a half no less that four long, long freights flew past us.

Somehow I always had the impression that express passenger trains commanded the right of way over slow freights. I guess I was wrong. The train is now several hours late and I know my old father is going to have to hang out at the South Bend station for an obnoxiously long time. At least the weather is nice.

The South Bend AMTRAK station is not nice. Of all the ratty, run-down train stops we had passed through on this trip South Band is by far the worst.

Stuck in an incoherent corner of some remote industrial wasteland far from downtown, the South Bend station is a very depressing place. Ironically, later, rolling around this small Midwestern city not far from Chicago, my eye caught what must have been the old rail passenger station quite close to downtown. It's a big old brick building with a barrel vault roof, a long fat structure that looks something like a dirigible, huge gothic windows boarded up, derelict looking but maybe used as a warehouse.

The return trip to Vermont was essentially the same but with some interesting differences.

The train out of Chicago was right on time and pretty densely populated, not quite crowded but almost. I had to share a seat set so sleeping was a lot more difficult. I prowled the cars throughout the night, chatting with more people, watching more human drama, getting a lot more tired. There were no delays and the train actually ended up in Schenectady well ahead of schedule. After the interminable wait in Schenectady, the old Ethan Allen finally rumbled back into the Green Mountains emptier than ever. Home at last and beat, not sure I ever wanted to ride the rails again. I wouldn't object to changing my mind.

You are perfectly justified, Senator McCain, in being skeptical regarding AMTRAK officials who assure you the system will be self supporting by 2003. It'll never happen. It can't happen and, moreover, it shouldn't happen. The idea is absurd. I don't know how anyone could believe it or demand it.

Take the Vermont train for example; it's as slow as a glacier and nobody rides it. Make money? Break even? Ridiculous.

The spur into Vermont exists I think only because we enjoy a rather influential congressional delegation considerably more powerful than our small size might warrant. We Vermonters like the idea of rail passenger service but I wonder if Patrick Leahy, Jim Jeffords, Bernie Sanders, or Howard Dean have ever actually ridden the AMTRAK rails.

I am sure you have access to fat briefing books detailing AMTRAK's inadequacies and what they might want or need to improve the system but let me share a few observations.

I get the impression that basic operating methods haven't changed in a hundred years. The trains are overstaffed and poorly designed. I didn't get a look inside a sleeping car but the distinction between sleeper and coach seems inefficient and wasteful.

The dining car is a joke. I wouldn't eat there on a bet. Much of that luxurious leg room in a coach seat goes to waste due to seats that seem to have been designed by professional sadists. There is enough space, I think, to design a comfortable seat that could become an almost comfortable bed. Many, many other small design improvements are possible.

Passenger rail advocates make much of the efficiency of the European system and Japanese bullet trains, high speed, comfortable mass transportation platforms. We ought to do that here, they say. Well and good, but the task is daunting.

AMTRAK now has such a high-speed corridor between Washington and New York, I understand. About the only thing I know about that train is that it cost a fortune to build just about from scratch and I doubt those sleek new cars wait on sidings while freight trains trundle by. To criss-cross America with such a high-speed system would obviously require an enormous public commitment. The existing main lines run through too many backyards and corn fields.

I think the cost and time required to upgrade or build new corridors would rival or exceed that of the interstate highway system.

I think the Congress needs to stop temporizing on this issue. Will the United States have a passenger rail system or not? This question clearly ought to be decided in straightforward, honest fashion by the people's representatives and not passed off as some kind of phony free market inevitability.

No transportation system exists without massive, collective public subsidy. You ought to either kill AMTRAK with a quick bullet or make it work.

Respectfully yours,

Michael J. Badamo
Montpelier, Vermont

Michael J. Badamo edits THE WATCHMAN in Montpelier, Vermont.

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