Friday, August 21, 2009

The train was down, but I'm still not down on the train

It must have been a slow news day in Rochester on August 17 (a welcome thing, actually) because the "top stories" in several of our news outlets included the breakdown of a westbound Amtrak passenger train near Lyons, New York (about 40 miles east of Rochester).

Click here and here again to see a couple of the local news stories on the breakdown. (Warning: these stories are not very interesting.)

I was on this particular run of the Empire Service from New York City. We were clickety-clacking along just fine, at up to 79 mph, when the power went off and everything went quiet. The ponderous train continued to roll for several miles (a remarkable demonstration of momentum), then eased to a stop in the darkness.

Three toasty hours later, a CSX freight locomotive rescued us and towed us into Rochester. Sure, it was muggy and dark on the train, but in my opinion, didn't come close to being an ordeal. We could, unlike on airplane stuck on the tarmac (something that NEVER happens, right?) walk around or even lay down to sleep. My fellow passengers were patient and good-natured about the whole thing, except for one woman who said "I won't tolerate this for very long." I wanted to tell her that once she stops tolerating it, she would have her choice of stepping off the train into a swamp (right side), or onto an active track (left side). I also wanted to tell her that stalling in a train is much preferable than stalling on an airplane.

It's too bad that this was a "top story" in the news, because it adds to the bum rap that the trains get in the U.S. Even with the misfortune of the breakdown, I am glad a took the train to New York, rather than drove or flew. The scenery ranged from serene to spectacular, I met some friendly and fascinating folks, and I was able to sleep comfortably--an activity not safe or easy in cars or airplanes. Plus, I was delivered right into Penn Station and its easy access to myriad other mass transit options, and didn't have to deal with driving and parking in New York. I see trains as a supremely civilized, responsible, natural way to travel. Even if they break down every now and then.

Amtrak has come up with some very clever (and true) advertising messages to promote their service, such as Our Cabins Are Always Depressurized. And on their website, they rightfully promote the green-ness of train travel.

It's encouraging to see the nation starting to embrace the trains again--the federal government and the states are looking to rail again as an efficient, effective mode of transportation that should be better supported and even expanded. For decades our rail systems have been sadly and shamefully starved; maybe now the rail-volution is really in full swing.

So don't let the "top story" about our breakdown in the bogs of Wayne County deter you from taking the train.

by Evan Lowenstein
Coordinator, RochesterCityLiving
at the Landmark Society


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