Monday, February 15, 2016

Making Tracks - Visions Cross-Country

For the second time in the course of twelve months, I find myself seated on a hulking mass of metal, setting a leisurely pace (of not more than 70 mph) across these here great United States of America. Without a thesis to write, and with no WiFi connection to do my online coursework, I have taken to gazing out the window as fields glide by, a landscape coated in a healthy layer of powdered sugar.

My infatuation with trains is no secret, and I've proven time and again that I'll opt for rail over other modes whenever possible. But the US rail system is a different beast entirely from its more sophisticated European cousins, and less well-travelled than the equivalents in Asia. With the American love affair with the automobile (thanks to the Interstate highway system and ridiculously low petrol prices) and predisposition toward air travel for any longer hauls, you might imagine that the experience of riding Amtrak contrasts with that of Eurail.
1. Pace - where US trains continue their sleepy stroll across vast stretches of country (yes, I just saw a car race past with ease), European trains have embraced the high speed efficiency of new technologies. One of the few reasons passenger even still exists in this country is thanks to the economy of shipping goods via freight. But that means passenger trains may be sidelined for extensive periods of time in deference to freight. Furthermore, the vehicles themselves seemed to have adopted the American reputation for super-sizing - looming two stories high and dwarfing the sleek speed demons that race fromLondon to Paris or across Japan. Yet no one can deny a transcontinental trip is a leisurely affair, enhanced by the reams of farmland loping past. Deer may appear foraging in a window pane, while wild turkeys scurry across.

2. Attitudes - distinctly American, there is a constant buzz of conversation during daytime travel, not always in the appropriate moderately hushed tones. Laughter may break on occasion like a wave against the shore, notes of rap music videos may filter through the car to the disgruntlement of some of the more particular passengers. Particularly in my experience as a UK rail rider, the atmosphere is much more subdued and austere; conversation above a whisper eliciting passive aggressive glares from neighbors sporting suits. Perhaps it's the more ubiquitous use among the well-to-do, or the US railcar history of communal seating and open cars. For those of us sleeping in coach, there is a pervasive sentiment that we're on this journey together.

3. Formality - I don't know how else to describe this aspect. While European train travel is very business-like, almost a machine operating in an automated fashion, the US retains some old-fashioned elements that set it apart from their more industrious relatives. For one, there are dinner seatings in the evenings. But there are also, airport-like queuing systems and checked baggage (thank god for that). Attendants roam each car, ensuring smooth operations, and some of the more scenic routes have volunteer docents describing tidbits of history and geography in the observation car. It's the experience being sold (much like Selfridges...), practicalities always trailing in second, and efficient people moving from point A to point B a convenient side effect. 

So there we are. The largest national rail system, a driver of progress and innovation during the 19th century rail revolution, now chugging along trying to prove its relevance in modern American society. Even with its shortcomings, it is a mode of transport that, perhaps unintentionally, works wonders in slowing our pace down and allowing us to revel in a distinctly alternative mode of mobility. It may not be for everyone, but an experience worth its while.

Further Rail Reading
Last May's Cross-Country Adventure:

The Economist's take:

Humorous Plug for Train Travel:

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