"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 26 January 2001. Updated every WEEKDAY.

All Aboard


Distinctly out of step with typical social security number sets (by virtue of having predated them), railroad retirement numbers survive as one of the few concrete reminders of how much American life was once dominated by railroad culture. America's vastly dilapidated crisscross of tracks rest on its body like the faded tattoos from a rambunctious youth. Look closely and you can see the political deals that drove 19th Century domestic land policy, the power wielded by the vastly-underappreciated labor leader A. Philip Randolph and his Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the direct cause for victory in the last war fought on American soil, and a primary tool for managing resources in the wars that brought about the American century. Rail travel also has poetic range. Trains have served as visual shorthand for the raw sex act and as the platform-bound settings for chaste, romantic separation; in narrative form, riding the rails has communicated the leisure that comes with wealth, the monotony of the daily middle-class commute, and the restless freedom that once accompanied abject poverty.

Today, few would bother turning rail service into lyrical metaphor. In fact, the government-subsidized National Railroad Passenger Corporation — which you, thanks to some of the least-inspired branding in the history of American advertising, know as Amtrak — is currently operating under a Logan's Run-style ultimatum from Congress: Find sanctuary (profitability) or face dire consequences shortly after your birthday (a 1994 pledge to go cold turkey on subsidies by 2002 eventually became a legislated mandate to do so by 2003).

As anyone still trying to shake some hillbilly flu caught on an Orlando-bound auto train in 1978 can attest, it's hard to muster sympathy for Amtrak and its billions spent. Cars that combine the aesthetics of bus travel and furry-walled office cubicles; a workforce that seems to value angry middle-aged men armed with paper punchers and poor people skills; a dedication to timeliness that depends entirely too much on potential interference from cattle; these are just a few of the reasons trains suffer from the Not-My-Car/Can't-Fly realities of modern consumer preference. The cities that currently enjoy the most success as train destinations are those metropolitan areas that in their efforts to discourage you from bringing another car into city limits stop just short of hiring people to stand in parking garages and punch you in the face. And Amtrak is even cut out of some of that business, as evidenced by the spectacle of Central Pennsylvanians jumping from commuter service to commuter service like an army of Paul Therouxs, all in an attempt to shave vital spending dollars from their New York City travel budget. Not only is train travel a second or third preference to be maximized for savings, the occasional news report would have you believe it's the first preference for the traveler who makes plans according to the relative likelihood of seeing a metal detector.

But don't count on those new urban bike paths just yet. For the first time in recent memory, passenger rail in America can point to the tiniest bit of "I think I can" momentum in the court of public opinion. Amtrak's latest struggle for respectability smartly engages its coalition of train enthusiasts and legislators in an unrelenting push to make the traditional travel method seem like a smart alternative. Their mantra is "high speed rail," a strategy to identify busy corridors of train traffic, region by region, and service them with super-trains.

In mid-November Amtrak launched the first such effort, the Boston to D.C. Acela Express train, with a cheerfully shameless promotion. Newspaper reporters raced each other Nellie Bly-style via rail and air. Incessant comparisons of American rail service to that in Japan and Europe worked a vein of of subtle jingoism. Kids TV personality Dr. Ruth Wordheimer was trotted out to comment on the pinch-nosed engine's sleek, sexy appearance. Amtrak publicity has stressed the line's subsequent timeliness, cold-weather hardiness and incipient popularity, just as rail aficionados have steel-toe stomped incidents of anti-rail bias in media reports about the event, if only to their fellow National Railway Historical Society chapter newsletter recipients and similar friendly rooms.

High speed rail doesn't represent the entirety of Amtrak's efforts to reinvent itself — only its main thrust. For instance, Amtrak announced a "frequent user" plan in conjunction with the Acela launch. Alhough the program strangely emphasizes the ability to cash points in for use of other travel modes, it represents a welcome change from the days when the sole reward for getting on a passenger train was getting off it. Amtrak's newer coach-class cars feature the legroom and access to electrical outlets vital to the creation of scary commuter mini-offices. Shoring up one's customer base allows Amtrak to benefit from economic forces that kick the rest of us in the wallet. Rail travel went up with last summer's gas prices; frustration with airport access, flight delays and crammed overhead bins provides much of the publicity firepower for high speed rail, the same way commuter trains mock gridlocked highway travelers as they slink by.

This is an important comparison, because Amtrak's strategy depends on treating — or at least recognizing the realities of — regional travel as one long commute. Taking advantage of man's increasingly assumed right to live half a European country away from where he works and shops, regional rail initiatives across the nation are plotting high-speed rail corridors the way sizable cities plan bus stops: by potential economic impact and who will complain the most if left out. In making high-speed rail a part of their national winter meeting, the nation's mayors resemble a group of Chicago alderman making neighborhood-by-neighborhood political sense of the latest CTA budget. Amtrak and train enthusiasts are running the danger of reducing an agenda of national interest into a string of me-too rhetorical button-pushing, creating support based on a roll call of potential beneficiaries rather than a dispassionate look at national rewards and penalties. At their most flamboyantly manipulative, train enthusiasts note that it's not until billions are spent on high-speed regional rail that we can begin to measure its potential effectiveness — public policy by way of W.P. Kinsella. Since when did the train people get so smart?

The ratio of dubious benefits to obvious costs hasn't been lost on everyone; it's the shadow in the punch bowl that cost Amtrak passage of an ambitious bond plan that might have financed the corporation well into its heart-attack years. Senator John McCain embodies the legislative obstacles that await Amtrak financing in the new Congress, calling for public debate on national rail policy (and condemning the lack of same since Amtrak's formation as "detrimental and unfair" to the taxpayer).

Beyond legislative hurdles, there are physical plant issues. Two reasons passenger trains move more slowly than they did in their heyday are the condition of tracks after years of neglect and a kind of Darwinian principle that kept certain travel corridors alive based not on potential commuter needs but on which cities had industries actively doing rail business. What lines are left are susceptible to weather concerns in many places. Thomas the Tank Engine couldn't have kept many Midwest lines running on an ambitious schedule during this past December's cold snap.

And if some states let local politics dictate their involvement in rail planning, what does that mean for the regional plans? Indiana obliterated $10 million in railway funding on January 8, giving the planned Chicago-based hub one heck of a potential weak spoke. Two enthusiastic politicians waving at each other from different sides of the potential presidency escalator — Michael Dukakis and Tommy Thompson - may guarantee investment in lines from Boston to D.C. and Chicago to Madison, but how much the rest of the country benefits from national investment in regional rail improvement remains the formidable, looming question.

Some form of survival funding is expected to fall Amtrak's way. The corporation may even meet the requirements of its congressional edict. And while newly aggressive train schedules may not encourage a flying, driving nation anymore to climb aboard, they do allow for more revenue-generating U.S. Mail cars to be attached right behind the engine. High speed rail — or however you'd like to define trains running at impressive percentages of capacity on lousy or new track — has moved from whispered cure-all to absolute inevitability. And even rhetoric too broad for responsible public policy can be true: Airports and highways can be horribly unattractive options, and alternatives are appreciated if only to get the people who like that sort of thing out of our ticket lines and expressways. Besides, we like a good train ride. But in recreating the haze of nostalgia through which we look back at a comfortable and efficient nation of trains, is the whistle we hear old America setting things right or older America setting things back for more legroom and a return to full-service dining cars? If we like these things enough to stand by and watch this much money being spent on them, are we just being romantic or extra-cynical?

Next stop: magnetic rail!

Are you a gas-guzzling train hater?
A grinnin' loco loony nut in a conductor's cap?
Either way, hop on the magic choo-choo to today's Plastic discussion.