Smokes on a Train

April 26, 2024

I am leery of writing on the differences between the United States and Europe. I often get negative feedback as people feel slighted that I have compared the two because apparently, it’s preposterous to compare advanced nations with robust economies. But who am I to listen to the complainers?

So what is prompting me to take this unnecessary risk and potentially drawing the ire of some feisty readers? The reason is that I am currently on the train from Pittsburgh to Washington DC, I am around 5 hours behind schedule, and we are cruising along the banks of the Monongahela river at a jolting 3mph.

But the delay isn’t the big issue, mechanical problems occur, and who knows what sort of events took place up the track from my departure. A few times a year I have a flight delayed as well. No, my problem isn’t that the train is running behind, or that it is exceedingly slow. My fussiness stems from the experience of using the train today and how it makes me feel.

Trash. My experience of using the train so far today has been one that makes me feel like garbage, like a second-class citizen, like I am being reprimanded by society for not having the money, decency, or wherewithal to get in my car and make the trip like a normal person.

I decided not to drive, because it is a pain, it is expensive, it is boring and we only have one car and Amber needed to use it. I did not wish to fly because DC is not far enough away to justify a flight. The train is actually a very reasonable means of travel between my town and the nation’s capital. At least it should be.

Here are two cities in the same region, both midsized, with populations exceeding 300,000 and less than 250 miles apart. Considering traffic in the DC region and the expense and hassle of flying, the train makes a great deal of sense.

My experience though has not been so great thus far. This morning as my Lyft driver was pulling up to the house, I received four text notifications, each one notifying me that my train was going to be a half hour late. So two hours late altogether. On one hand, I was pleased to find out before I left, on the other hand, I a skeptical that Amtrak only just found out the train was delayed and that I could have possibly saved the penalty fee assessed by Lyft. Still not the biggest issue.

I eventually made my way to the station and this is where I really take issue. The station was gross. Seriously deplorable conditions. The building had not been maintained, everything felt dirty, the lighting was depressing, and the mood in general inside was depressing, so we all felt depressed. We were being told by our surroundings that this was a third-rate form of travel by people who couldn’t afford better. You may be saying to yourself that it’s silly to place so much stock in something as frivolous as your surroundings, but you would be dead wrong and need to go back and rethink all of your life decisions.

But if you are new here, let me explain. Growing up in a country where aesthetics aren’t really valued or invested in or even discussed, they may seem unserious or inconsequential even, but this could not be further from the truth. Our surroundings have a profound impact on our lives, they affect us in a myriad of ways that change who we are, how we behave, how we feel, and our mental, emotional, and physical health. Every moment we are experiencing our habitat, we are being shaped by it.

Nice surroundings make us feel nice, dismal surroundings make us feel dismal. It matters because we are all better off when we feel better, as individuals and as a society. The Pittsburgh train station let me know that it didn’t care how I felt. Sort of like being inside Walmart or on a rundown block. The experience made one feel a bit seedy and that’s not how we should want people to feel.

It wasn’t just the surroundings, it was the whole experience. A lack of signage, little or no information on what was happening with the delay, questionable customer service, standing in lines for no apparent reason, and so on. It was just made obvious that this form of travel is an afterthought and that as a country, public transit does not matter. This is exceedingly sad, considering the extreme problems car ownership has wrought on America.

Trigger warning. Around this same time last year, Amber and I were on a train from Bologna to Milan. We each bought a small snack in the train station in Bologna before our departure, Amber purchased a can of Prosecco and I got myself a nice big delicious can of Peroni. We spent the time reading, scrolling, and staring out the window, enjoying food and drinks when I looked up to see the sign at the front of our car that registers our current speed, it said 300 KMH! We are traveling twice as fast as any car would legally be allowed while having drinks, eating snacks, and hanging out with one another in a clean, well-lit, and comfortable train. It was absolutely mind-blowing for me.

So call it apples to oranges if you want and dismiss the point, but it isn’t as if Italy has more means than the United States, it isn’t like they just have a love for public transportation in their DNA and I can promise you it has nothing to do with their love of cars or ability to make cars, they are some of the finest in the world, no it is the decision to prioritize the good of the people, to invest in the well-being of the public as a whole. This is the difference and it means everything.

It’s not just Italy, most every other developed country has invested more in public transportation than the US. We were just in the Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico where they are nearing completion of Tren Maya, a high-speed rail line that will circumnavigate the peninsula, completed in less than 10 years at the cost of around $23 billion. Quality public transportation is not a novelty, it is the norm in the rest of the developed world but sadly, we continue to consider it as an afterthought.

As we crawl towards Connellsville, Pennsylvania and the conductor is berating the guy in the back of my car who is literally smoking a cigarette, I think about how the State of Ohio and the City of Columbus have spent ten years and over 1.5 billion dollars reconstructing a highway interchange that won’t make it a nicer place to live, won’t improve anyone’s mental or physical health, won’t benefit the environment, won’t reduce car dependency, won’t enhance anyone’s quality of life and won’t make anyone want to move to central Ohio, I consider lighting a cigarette myself.

* I am writing this from my return trip and feel it necessary to say, the train is also amazing. Yes, the station in Pittsburgh was bad, the schedule was screwed up and the guy smoking was not great, but the ride itself, chef’s kiss. Union Station in Washington DC is stunning and is such an amazing reminder that we used to treat travel as a noble endeavor. To embark on a voyage was something special, something worth getting dressed up for, and an experience that should make people feel dignified. My train left the station on time this go-round and the ride itself was pure pleasure. Sitting on the upper deck, enjoying a drink and a snack, while I shift back and forth from my book to gazing out the window at the idyllic countryside and occasionally finding myself being rocked to sleep by the sound and motion, I am reminded of why trains are so incredible.

I love riding trains and even with the flaws of this trip, I still find it a superior way to travel. I did not have to drive to suburbia, to fly to some other suburbia to drive back to a city center while being stuffed like a sardine into my middle seat. I did not have to spend hours behind the wheel being mad at all the other drivers for trying to do the exact same thing I was trying to do. I got to sit on a train with lots of space, beautiful views, the ability to get up and move around, and room to nap or have a drink or read, and it took me from the center of one city to the center of another.

The experience of riding a train is a delight, which makes me sad we don’t invest more in it. We would be better off as a country and as individuals to shift some of our household budgets away from car ownership. We would save so much money as a country and as individuals and families. We would pollute so much less, we could protect so much more of our countryside and farmland. We could also save the lives of tens of thousands of people a year who die from auto-related accidents in this country. We could foster more density and improve walkability by investing in public transportation. And we could all be a little bit happier if instead of driving we could spend some of our precious time reading a book and occasionally staring out the window at some old farmer tending to his sheep on some old farm.

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