Monday, April 13, 2009

The Litle Engine That Could

Almost eighty years ago, Edna St Vincent Millay wrote these lines:

All night there isn't a train goes by/Though the night is still for sleep and dreaming/ But I see its cinders red on the sky/And hear its engine steaming.

Times have changed.

Though Joe Biden rides Amtrak and even admits it, no plitician has come out in this desperate political season to say the obvious: we have a pre-built transporation infrastructure in this country and we're letting it crumble away to nothing. It's touching and sad to page through Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged these days, with its naieve view of train travel as the bold thread connecting our pioneering past with the glittering future. What was her hero's greatest accomplishment, after all? Designing a light, strong railroad bridge with his new metal. I guess that stuff mattered, back in 1958. Today we let our railroad bridges rust into irrelevance while we build more highways to connect more subdivisions full of houses no one will ever buy, in a delusional fugue state of automobile euphoria. Even Henry Ford had second thoughts about the combustion engine. He's quoted somewhere as fearing it might mean the end of the world. Not that he let those vaagrant doubts stop him from inventing his production line and making his fortune. The end of the world meant big money then, and it always has.

But he very well might be right.

We struggle for solutions to the pr0blems of pollution and greenhouse gases, the depletion of our oil reserves and the power those dwindling reserves give to all the people who hate us. We talk about better gas mileage and electric cars, cafe standards and hybrids. But all that talk misses the point. We have a great part of the solution to this problem in our possession right now. We need to fix the rairoad track beds and open up new lines and make train travel enjoyable again. As a means of moving frieght, a commitment to the railroads could easily take more than half the trucks off the road in less than a decade.

Anyone who has driven from Cape Cod to New York or Boston would be glad to take a train instead ... if such a train existed. Anyone living in Los Angeles, driving downtown on the Santa Monica freeway in the morning rush hour (that would be -- three hours where no one moves at all) would be ecstatic to have those little red trolleys back, the southland rail service that car companies and oil companies crushed so many years ago.

But the tracks are still there. We don't need an army of immigrant workers to die laying those rails. It's been done. All we have to do now is realize the gift that sleeps in the weeds beside our highways, like a giant snake in the August sun of half a century's neglect, the weathered wood ties splitting, the the old rails proving that even metal gets fatigued.

My son rode the train -- The Vermonter -- from Amherst Mass. to Montpelier, Vermont for my MFA graduation last month. The cabin was dirty, the upholstery ripped, the windows, smudged. The food they offered was grim and borderline inedible. The station in Montpelier was difficult to find, lonely and out of the way. It had an abandoned look. It seemed like a good place to get mugged.

But then the rails started singing and we saw the big light and the majestic engine rolled into the outskirts of this little northern town, blowing its whistle and announcing itself to the slumbering world and I felt a quickening thrill of expectation and adventure. It was so huge, and in the swirl of metal wheel on metal track, so quiet. It had a throwback pride,an antique dignity that no car or bus could match. The urge to jump and ride on into the night leapt up in me like a dog in the high grass.

So it turns out that Ayn Rand actually was right about something, after all. This beautiful beast truly was an avatar of our past, and with a little vision, some heartfelt appreciation expressed through the pocket book, with some National pride and political will, it could also be the key to a sustainable future.

Let Edna St. Vincent Millay have the last word:

My heart is warm with the friends I make/And better friends I'll not be knowing/ Yet there isn't a train I wouldn't take, / No matter where it's going.

43 comments:

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