I’m a big fan of trains. I ride them quite a bit when I’m in Poland. The experience varies from pretty good to miserable. “Miserable” usually means a train is oversold, and you end up standing (or squatting) in the corridors. If you’re lucky, it will be negative 20 outside and some sort of frozen precipitation will be seeping through the gaps in the windows. Not fun.
Still, they’re not all that bad. And there is something about riding the rails that is impossible to replicate in any other form of transportation. Perhaps it’s the feeling of open-country freedom, or the sheer might of the multi-ton machine, or the leaving-the-station romance that train travel conjures.
Trains seem to fit Europe. Roads are generally poorer, fuel more expensive, and population clustered dense in cities. European rail networks are extensive and heavily traveled.
America presents a different story. Amtrak was started in 1971 as the US intercity passenger train service. America was a “car nation” in the 70s, and still is today. American automobile ridership has long dwarfed that of trains.
The other issue is that Amtrak is heavily subsidized (in recent years between $1 and 2 billion annually). Going by passenger-miles traveled, government money for Amtrak is much higher than that devoted to highway infrastructure or the aviation industry. Amtrak critics have likewise sought defunding and privatization. Amtrak does have a few profitable and heavily-traveled routes, mainly in the northeast, but most simply aren’t.
I’ve only ridden Amtrak once. I went from Chicago to Kansas City about 10 years ago. It was a pleasant journey, though it felt a little surreal. This was probably because I was riding in a train in America. We, remember, do cars. All those beautiful, wide, well-maintained roads out there, and here I am on a train. The train was mostly empty, I recall. Still, it was hard to beat the feeling of barreling through the night past Iowa cornfields.
Amish, who use trains relatively frequently, are among those who benefit from keeping rail service running. For Amish and other Plain people, many of whom don’t fly, trains can be a good option when traveling long distances. In fact, the most conservative Amish do not permit the hiring of cars. Buses and trains are really the only way for them to travel far.
So you’ll often see Amish on trains or waiting in urban stations (at Greyhound stations too). If you’ve taken any longer rail trips, perhaps you’ve shared a car with Amish riders. Amish youth travel west on extended excursions. Some Amish go even further, to Mexico for cheap medical treatment.
Lancaster Amish have frequent occasions to ride the rails, as Amtrak runs right through the county. Market stand workers, for instance, may catch a train into Philadelphia, and get off about a dozen blocks from Reading Terminal Market. A friend’s brother used to ride from Lancaster City up to Elizabethtown to work as a hired hand at an organic farm.
I don’t expect Amish to radically change their transportation practices anytime soon. But what about the rest of us–will we always be a car nation?
I know I’ll continue to ride trains regularly when in Europe (which, it should be said, are also heavily subsidized). I don’t have a car there, and the convenience can’t be beat.
Part of this is due to the nature of cities and towns in Europe. Most decent-sized European towns have extensive public transportation. When I visit my grandmother in the Warsaw suburbs, I take the 3-hour train from Krakow. I get off at the central train station, then hop on the subway or the city bus, just a short walk away. 15 minutes later, I’m there. Most Polish cities and towns, even the smaller ones, are similarly convenient when it comes to public transport.
It would be hard to do the same in most sprawling American towns and cities, though, outside of the very large ones.
So while I continue to love trains in general, with the way things are in the US, I don’t see myself using Amtrak too much.
Some of us do use the service, of course. And trains form a historic part of the nation’s infrastructure. They also have great sentimental value, for myself included.
Amtrak may not be a very economically efficient means of transportation. Is there a way to make Amtrak profitable? And if there isn’t, is it worth keeping around anyway?
I wonder how Amish riders would feel.
Photo credits: train interior-Joshua W; Amish family-Dan Cipolla