This week was spring break in San Antonio and my family decided to go visit my parents up in Arlington. We do this every few months and now that we have two girls we usually just drive. Although navigating I–35 and all its associated joys may be the least expensive option it is by no means the most pleasant. Clara and I were less-than-enthusiastic about the possibility of spending five-or-so hours in a car with small children when some friends of ours mentioned they were taking the train to St. Louis.
The train: why hadn’t we thought of that sooner?
For those lucky enough to have access to private automobiles and commercial air travel, Amtrak exists somewhere between a quaint anachronism and a punch line. Although trains on the Northeast Corridor run often enough to be usable, those elsewhere on the network do not. Departure times are notoriously inconvenient in my hometown. For example the romantically named “Sunset Limited” that heads west towards Los Angeles departs San Antonio at the decidedly unromantic time of 2:45am.
I could spend this post talking about passenger rail transportation in America from a historical / political standpoint: how federal subsidies of first the highway system and later commercial air travel helped kill the passenger rail industry in the United States after the Second World War; how the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (better known as Amtrak) was formed in 1971 as a public/private entity to ensure the continuation of passenger rail service; how Amtrak never managed to turn a profit in the 45 years since it was created.
I could do that, but I won’t.
Instead I want to simply mention what a joy it is to travel by train. Even when traveling through familiar country, you see it from a completely different perspective. You enter towns not through a continuous loop of chain fast food restaurants and gas stations, but through their figurative and literal back yards. You see the mowed lawns of homes that back up to the tracks before seeing the grain elevators and warehouses of the towns themselves.
You see the landscape in between not through the the tiny window of a commercial airliner at 30,000 feet, but through a wide picture window bigger than those of many houses. Instead of being crammed inside an aluminum cylinder you have room to stretch out and the freedom to walk about. You get to experience the architecture of a train before experiencing the architecture of your destination.
Of course, our trip to Fort Worth and back again took over two hours longer than it would have had we driven and had all the inconveniencea of hauling luggage and arranging transportation to and from the the train station / airport. Still, the girls had fun and it was a memorable experience. It is an experience that will probably need to live in our memories as the current administration plans to defund Amtrak among other things it deems frivolous.
Maybe passenger rail travel is unnecessary in the grand scheme of things. Maybe trying to make a nineteenth century mode of transportation relevant in the twenty-first century is a fool's errand.
Or maybe that's what make it so wonderful.