The view, where I sit writing this, is of frozen Klamath Lake, a sweep of bluish white, and the dawn-bright mountains above it – a picture postcard of Oregon winter. Ten minutes from now my view will be of fences zigzagging past farms among the snowy hills, a whole new postcard. And soon after that it will be great, solemn, snow-hung firs and the peaks and chasms of the Cascades. Because I’m sitting in Room 9, Car 1430, of the Coast Starlight, coming north to Portland. And the whole trip is beautiful.
President Reagan has decided he can do without Amtrak and has left it out of his budget. I suppose the last time Mr. Reagan rode a train was before I was born, and by now he probably doesn’t know anybody who ever travels by train. He only knows Important People, people whose time is money. Only unimportant people take trains. People to whom time isn’t money, but life, their life lived and to be lived.
The administration’s dislike of Amtrak may be rooted in a perception of the system as vaguely socialistic. It is supported by the government, to be sure. So are the auto and plane industries, of course, but they can’t be called public transportation, and therefore they escape suspicion.
The usual justification, however, for killing the passenger trains is that train travel is ‘outmoded’. The private car for short trips, the airplane for long trips – that’s Progress, the Future.
(Hold on for just a moment, please, while I watch the big engine up there kicking out a spray of shining snow like a skier on a graceful turn…)
It can be seen just the other way round. Commuting by car is increasingly difficult; in the big Eastern cities it is simply impossible – a thing of the past. As for the airplane, it’s beautiful, useful, and wasteful. It has one and only one advantage as a passenger carrier: speed. If speed really matters, if you have to be at a funeral in Kansas tomorrow or if you only get two weeks off a year and want to spend them in Hawaii or Mexico, then it is good to be able to fly there. If speed is not essential, then it is good to have the option of not flying. Why should we be forced to undergo the incredible and increasing discomfort, danger, and indignity that the airlines inflict on their passengers?
Trains are not deliberately overbooked.
Train stations are downtown – not in some dreary boondock twenty-five dollars away from where you want to be.
Train seats in coaches are deep, wide, and comfortable.
Train rooms in the sleepers are genuinely luxurious.
Train food isn’t much good any more, since Amtrak’s budget has been cut and cut and cut, but at least you can eat when and how you choose. Instead of being strapped into a seat with a plastic platter of stuff slapped down in front of you, like a kid in highchair, you can get up and walk to the diner (they still use linen tablecloths) or the snack bar or the lounge, and eat and drink like a grownup. Or you can bring a sack and have a moveable feast. A croissant and a tangerine just out of Klamath Falls (the car porter brought me coffee), a cheese-and-tomato sandwich as we cross the Cascades…
The airplane does not represent the future of passenger transportation. This country’s days of blind wastefulness are past and gone; any attempt to continue them is not progressive but deeply reactionary. The plane, with its tremendous inefficiency as a passenger vehicle, is the anachronism. It is out of date. An administration seeking a sound economy would (like Japan and most European countries) be refunding its passenger train system, enlarging and improving it. Not wrecking it through underfunding and then, like a spoiled kid with a toy he doesn’t understand, trashing it.
Let’s save our trains for human beings, unimportant as they may be – people who know that how you go matters just as much as where you get. Roll on, Coast Starlight! Take us to those far places your lonesome whistle tells about, and bring us back home! – Room 9, car 1430 (1985) in Dancing at the Edge of the World, Ursula K. Le Guin