No matter where we are, we want to go someplace else. The urge to travel is a sickness from which we all suffer. Our airports and their runways are so crowded that flight is a nightmare. Our roads are often so jammed with cars and trucks that we inch our way along from home to work, or to what we know will be a vacation paradise - if we can ever get there.
In many parts of the country, crowded highways run parallel to deserted railroad tracks. Train travel is only a novelty to many Americans, something they've only seen in the movies. This is sad and impractical.
There's no question that the best way to move a heavy load a long distance cheaply and quickly is with steel wheels rolling on steel rails. Using railroads more would alleviate our oil shortage problem. An engine pulling a train of 10 passenger cars burns less fuel going from New York to Chicago than airplanes headed the same place, with a comparable number of people, burn on the runway before taking off.
What the railroads need is a public relations campaign to counter the lobbying efforts of businesses that prosper from travel on our roads or in the air. These include such diverse groups as the makers of cement, the manufacturers of trucks, the owners of trucks, the drivers of trucks, the giant corporations that sell the fuel to the drivers of every vehicle, the tire companies. They - and, of course, the airlines - all have a financial interest in discouraging travel or freight delivery by rail.
If you're old enough to have made a long-distance trip on a train that included the luxury of sleeping in a Pullman car and dinner and breakfast in a dining car, you know how comfortable and gracious travel by rail can be. Many years ago, we took the Super Chief from New York to California and it stopped several places along the route to pick up food specialties.
In my lifetime, I've made hundreds of train trips between New York City and Albany, a distance of 150 miles. The scenery is spectacular along the banks of the Hudson River and the clickity-clack of the railroad track is pleasantly hypnotic. However, if our railroads are going to attract large numbers of travelers, they must improve. They have not kept up with the progress made by other means of transportation.
The trip from New York to Albany today, optimistic railroad press releases to the contrary, often takes almost as long (about three hours) as it took 75 years ago. Door to door, however, it still beats flying and for one quarter the price. The trip from Washington to New York on the new and improved Metroliner is quite civilized, although our railroads have a lot of work to do on speed before they catch up with the Europeans. Not only do trains run on time there, but they're also faster and more dependable.
There's no reason why a train in the United States, with no traffic lights, no truck traffic, no problem with snow or rain, cannot travel at an average speed of 100 mph. Too often, when you're looking out the train window, the cars on the highway in areas that are not congested, are passing you by.
And there's one good thing about train travel I haven't mentioned.
When you get to your destination, you don't have to stand by the baggage carousel waiting for your suitcase.
(This classic column was originally published Feb. 17, 2001)
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