In praise of trains

I love me some trains.

What does any of this have to do with minimalism? Well, a train is often just the right form of transportation with just the right amount of infrastructure — no more and no less. It’s able to carry more people than the wasteful, sprawl-inducing car trip for a single driver, but doesn’t require the large terminals and gates, the major security infrastructure or the emissions of travel by air.

Part of my fondness for trains is nostalgic.

I’m a commuter rail rider, so I pass through Daniel Burnham’s magnificent Union Station every day on the way to work. I took the train almost every day to high school too, on the fabled South Shore interurban line. And the rolling stock is even similar. Imagine conductors in uniform and tickets that get punched, and that’s your daily commute as a 13 to 17-year-old? How cool!

South Shore train (Wikimedia Commons)
South Shore train (Wikimedia Commons)
MARC Brunswick train (Phil Hollenback on Flickr)
MARC Brunswick train (Phil Hollenback on Flickr)

Years later, Lindy and I relied on Amtrak for a little while during the early days of our relationship. While I was in Springfield, Ill. and she was wrapping up her degree in Chicago, we rode the trains back and forth on the weekends to see each other. With a student discount and the state subsidy that’s common everywhere except the Northeast, we’d spend all of $30 on the 3-1/2 hour trip. It was a comfortable ride, rarely crowded, and leaps and bounds better than the mind-numbing hours of corn and soybean fields to pass along Interstate 55.

Another part of my fondness for trains is practical.

On a series of business trips with a few colleagues recently, I found myself riding up and down the Northeast Corridor to New Jersey and back. Whether Acela or Regional, Amtrak was incredibly roomy and comfortable for my 6’4″ self. I’ve never said that about a flight unless I paid extra for more legroom. There’s free Wi-Fi, a Cafe Car with decent vegan options, and it’s way faster than driving. We were able to get from DC to Newark and do business there within blocks of the aging but still grand Newark Penn Station. No need for a car.

Even though I take the train for ordinary days at work, I’d love to use it more often for travel. What if a 6-hour drive or a 90-minute flight were served by a reasonable train ride? That would be amazing. I’d pay good money to avoid rest-area bathrooms and 3-ounce toiletries.

Here are a few of my other favorite trains around the region and around the world.

Favorite Trains: Western Maryland Scenic Railroad

Western Maryland Scenic Railroad (YouTube)
Western Maryland Scenic Railroad (YouTube)

This is a train you take for the experience of taking a train, not because you’re looking to get from one point to another. I’d never heard of the WMSR before a colleague very kindly got tickets for my family and me as a holiday present. You leave from a 1913 railroad station in Cumberland, Md. and go on a slow and scenic round trip to Frostburg — a total of 16 miles. You get to watch the locomotive turn around in a circle before heading back. It’s a throwback to the heyday of rail travel, and a peek at the glory days of cities like Cumberland that used to be major transportation hubs. There are vintage cars and mountain tunnels, steam and diesel locomotives and even a Santa train during the holidays.

Favorite Trains: Carmelit (Haifa, Israel)

Carmelit (Duke World)
Carmelit (Duke World)

The Carmelit is a funicular, which means it runs on a cable and up a slope. (I just like to say “funicular.”) It’s only a couple of cars long and barrels all the way through and up a mountain — all of an 8-minute ride. I’ve ridden this one to visit my grandmother at the top while staying in a hotel at the bottom. It’s a novel way to get around town in a country that doesn’t do much underground rail. The system is almost 60 years old, but it runs well and is much faster than a car or a bus.

Favorite Trains: Airport Express (Hong Kong)

Airport Express (Wikimedia Commons)
Airport Express (Wikimedia Commons)

For years, I’ve felt that transportation options overseas often put our own to shame in the United States. A prime example: the fact that a rail link between our nation’s capital and its international airport is still years away. Enter the Airport Express in Hong Kong. At a faster clip and a lower price than a taxi, you’ll get to the airport from downtown in style. The system is multilingual and easy to navigate. But that’s not the best part of this train ride.

At the Hong Kong or Kowloon station, all of the major airlines serving the airport maintain ticket counters. So you can check in for your flight and check your bag all the way to your final destination before you get on the train. Imagine a stress-free and comfortable 24-minute ride and only having to wrangle your carry-on. The difference between this and trying to figure out transit while visiting a different city in the United States is remarkable. And trying to finagle checked luggage on a Metro train in DC or a New York subway makes me wonder why we can’t have nice things.

What’s next?

My in-laws have really enjoyed their cross-country train trips, with overnight accommodations and stops in different cities. I’d like to do that someday. Also someday, I’m hopeful that rail transit gets the respect and attention it deserves from those who make national policy. The recent investment in new Acela cars, and the plans for expanding Union Station are a great start. (Having a vice president who was a rail commuter didn’t hurt either.) But we need to go further.


Also published on Medium.

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