Janie B. Cheaney: From roads to rails | WORLD
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Janie B. Cheaney: From roads to rails


WORLD Radio - Janie B. Cheaney: From roads to rails

The leisurely pace of rail travel still appeals to some Americans

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NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Wednesday, November 29th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Nick Eicher.

PAUL BUTLER, HOST: And I’m Paul Butler. Up next, WORLD commentator Janie B. Cheaney on the long-standing American romance of life on the rails.

JANIE B. CHEANEY, COMMENTARY: “There Is No Good Way to Travel Anywhere in America.” That’s the title of an article on The Atlantic’s website. It displays a picture of railroad tracks fading into a shroud of fog, so I had to click on it. The author claims that “driving is dangerous, renting a car is a nightmare, and I don’t need to tell you about airplanes.” What’s left? A mode of transportation that still appeals, even if the great days of Pullman porters and dining-car china are not even a distant memory for most of us. That must be why Amtrak, created by Congress in 1971, keeps limping along despite losing buckets of money for decades.

I tell people Amtrak is a good option if you don’t care when you leave or when you arrive. Train delays are notorious because, after all, you can’t just go around mishaps on the track. That heart-sinking feeling you get on an interstate when you encounter an “Expect Delays” sign is almost certain on a train trip—without the benefit of a sign. I gave up on routing a trip from the Midwest to Pennsylvania because the system is divided into sections and you have to purchase a ticket for each one.

We should all probably just give up on Amtrak, as well as grandiose plans for high-speed rail, and let the market work. And yet something in the American heart still thrums with the rhythm of the rails. When Union Pacific’s Big Boy, the largest steam locomotive ever built, passed through a nearby town on one of its cross-country excursions, I was amazed at how many people turned out to see it go by. Some may remember that the 150th anniversary of the transcontinental railroad in 2019 was commemorated with stamps of golden spikes and two locomotives. (I still have some.) And of course, legendary passenger trains like the 20th Century Limited and the Super Chief roar through classic movies and collective memory.

My husband and I took our own transcontinental trip in 1975, from Denver to Trenton, New Jersey. Those were early days on Amtrak: the cars were new, the ride was incredibly smooth and fast, and the dining car sported silver flatware. I still remember some of the people we were seated with during meals: a young man who politely explained why he was a vegetarian, two overdressed women sharing details of the men they’d dated. The trip took about twenty hours including a twitchy night on seats that didn’t recline enough, and yes, there were unexplained delays of an hour or more. But we could move from car to car and talk to people without having to lean into their personal space. We could watch America roll by from the observation dome. We saw broad rivers and endless plains, suburban backyards and city dumps.

It's still true: train travel can let you get acquainted with your country, from the grand to the mundane. Taking your time is a feature not a bug. And that might be the real appeal, after all.

I’m Janie B. Cheaney.

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