24 May 2006


One of the things that we (by “we,” I mean us Americans) made a mistake with after World War II ended was giving up trains.

I know folks on the East Coast still have trains in the cities and trains that run between cities. But out here in the West, passenger trains are few and far between.

The tracks, however, are everywhere. If they’re in use at all, it’s by freight trains. But mostly, the rails are just rattle-bumps running across the road, forcing you to slow down as you drive over them even though you’ve never, never seen a train on them.

Ghost trains, perhaps. Thundering by in another time, another dimension.

For some reason, today I’m remembering the trains I rode when I lived in Germany. And I’m remembering the first train I ever rode, which was an Amtrak passenger train way back in the mid-60s. It was a summer vacation, and my family took a cross-country trip by rail to visit relatives in Michigan and Massachusetts.

I was about 10, I think. Mostly I remember the trip as being both novel and boring, like most kids who find themselves confined for hours on end. But there was one magical moment that I will never forget about that journey.

We had a sleeping compartment. Something woke me in the middle of the night – and I opened my eyes to the most beautiful and eerie scene I’ve ever experienced.

The train was flying across an empty flatland, perhaps somewhere in the Midwest. My berth was just beneath a long window, so I could see the vast, dark landscape stretching out and out, almost nothing to distinguish between the land and the sky. There were no stars. Suddenly, the dark world outside lit up as bright as if a giant bank of stadium lights had been switched on. And then off again, just that fast. Startled and a little frightened, I turned on my side, gazed out the window and waited, wondering if it would happen again.

It did, and after a moment or two I realized what was happening. Outside the safe, clackety-clackety interior of the train, a lightning storm was taking place. For the first time in my life I saw heat lightning, sheet lightning, saw the low clouds lighting up from inside as if the gods were switching flashlights on and off, now here, now way over there. There was no thunder – or if there was, I couldn’t hear it because of the sound of the train’s wheels on the tracks.

I laid there for the longest time, watching nature’s light show in the middle of the night, feeling tiny, totally alone, absolutely awed by what I was seeing. It was a magnificent gift, that trip, that storm.

I’ve never seen anything even remotely like it since. But it woke in me a lifelong love of trains.

In Germany, the trains ran day and night through the small city where I lived. One of my favorite things was hearing the sound of the train’s whistle at night as it rolled slowly over its elevated tracks about a quarter mile away from my flat, on its way to the Bahnhof in the middle of town.

And without fail, every single time I heard it, I wanted to be on that train, going somewhere. Anywhere.

My first train ride in Germany was to Frankfurt for a conference at one of the big Army bases – an all-day trip with a couple of changes – and I’d never done it before. I got to Bremen just fine, but then I had to change trains. Somehow, I managed to get on the wrong one; not so mysterious, really, since I didn’t speak German yet and the schedules were nearly incomprehensible to me. Yes, I should have asked someone, but I was new enough to the country that I didn’t realize that most Germans could speak at least some English. And besides, I was desperately trying to be a competent, urbane, sophisticated American. Not one of those dumb ones who couldn’t manage anything by herself. There were several platforms, several trains, and so I got on the wrong one without realizing it until about 30 minutes into the journey, when the conductor came along to punch tickets.

Fortunately, the train was at least going in the right general direction – south – and so very kindly, he told me he’d come back and get me in a while. He’d put me off the train so I could wait for another – one that would take me to my destination.

An hour later I found myself waiting on a platform, outside, in front of a closed station all alone on the outskirts of some tiny burg. I had no idea where I was. It was dark and freezing cold, and I sat there with my suitcase, huddled against the wind, wondering what in the world I’d do if another train didn’t show up.
But one did, after a while. It came to a noisy halt at the platform. A conductor leaned out the door and said with a big grin, “Amerikaneren?”

“Ja,” I said, a bit stunned that he knew I was an American. Was it so obvious? I'd tried so hard to look like a native! I was wearing a calf-length, dark wool coat, a skirt, low heels, even a hat. Not a thing on me that said "USA."

The conductor hopped off, grabbed my suitcase for me, and said, “The other train, she radio so we stop and take you to Frankfurt, a little late, but you will be there.”

It was, for a young American woman who’d never experienced such a kindness from complete strangers in her own country, let alone a foreign one, a world-shaking, mind-opening moment.

After that, I took the train at every opportunity, and twice, even took it all the way to the Austrian Alps for skiing vacations – and back again, enjoying every minute.

We made a real mistake, abandoning trains in this country for a network of highways and cars. Perhaps, now that the long dream of cheap gas is ending, we’ll rebuild our rail system. I’m not holding my breath, but I can hope.


roxtar said...

Carl Sagan once observed that the train was the first significant advance in ground transportation since the Romans built their roads.

Prior to that, it was 4 miles an hour behind an ox or an ass. The railroad allowed us to travel in one day a distance that used to require a week's worth of time, meals, overnight accommodations, etc.

The automobile and the airplane offer us autonomy and speed, so a return to widespread rail transport would be a step backwards, but if/when it becomes apparent that we have to wean ourselves from our fossil fuel Jones, we might rediscover the efficiency (and the romance of the rails.

Blue Wren said...

A step back it would surely be. But I fear the times we have before us may find us taking several large, drastic and devastating steps backwards. Today only those who ride bicycles for fitness or sport even have those vehicles as an alternative to their cars, let alone oxen or burros. If we don't start working quickly toward alternatives to cars and air travel, the future is a frightening prospect.
Trains simply strike me as wise. The huge amounts of money we spend on consuming fossil fuel might better be spent on revitalizing our rail system.

roxtar said...

This ties in to a question I've been pondering. How much travel is really necessary? Consider the average airport; most of the folks there are traveling for business reasons. Is that much face-time really necessary? If I want to buy widgets, wouldn't it make more sense to order them online? If I want to sell widgets, wouldn't it make more sense to sell tham online?

I'm not in sales, so I don't know whether all the travel and client entertaining continues to be an effective expenditure of resources, but I think it's a question worth asking. I can project my image and my personality to Kathmandu on a moment's notice. Why would I want to make a 20 hour airplane trip in order to conduct the same business?

Kevin Wolf said...

I'm hoping along with you, Wren. I agree that our resources would be better utilized rebuilding our system of rails.

I'd love to cross the US by train. First class a'course.