A couple of years ago, Alissa, Harry and I (Annie wasn’t even on the way yet) took Amtrak’s Coast Starlight from Seattle to LA for a family vacation. Taking the train on a long-distance journey is a fascinating way to travel. It’s not nearly as jarring as air travel, where you can walk into an airport all bundled up for winter, walk down a corridor to a claustrophobic feeling room that shakes and vibrates for a few hours until you walk up a corridor identical to the one you walked down, walk out of an airport and find yourself in a summery paradise. With a train, you see the land scape change. Evergreens give way to oaks which give way to palm trees. Logging and orchard towns give way to garlic and artichoke capitals, and the intimate coves and inlets of Puget Sound are replaced by the majestic blue sweep of the Pacific.
But that’s just the beginning. To travel on rails is to travel through our history, to view an odd jumble of past, present and future. There’s no doubt that the creation of the railroads, while linking people from sea to sea, had a price paid in the blood sweat and tears of the workers who built the railroad, at times under highly unjust conditions. Still, those workers formed unions, contributing to the rise of the labor movement and subsequently the middle class. As the most efficient method of moving large amounts of materials from producer to consumer, railroads have served as the engine of the industrial age. As such, when you take a train, you naturally don’t go through the high-value neighborhoods of most towns. You go through rail yards and quarries, river and seaports. You go through graffiti adorned tunnels and under overpasses that are home to those who have no other home. To a degree, you go through areas that exist as the inner workings that make our industrial economy function. They are often not pretty places, and they are not home to the wealthy and powerful, but they are as much a part of the journey as the mountain passes and rolling hills. And what of those places where the only people around for miles are your fellow travelers chugging though the wilderness? Rail travel is an opportunity to see the vastness and grandeur of nature and to imagine how audacious a task it was to build the railroad in the first place.
By revealing the industrial and the natural, rail travel is revealing two forces that are often seen as adversarial to one another. Of course it cannot be forgotten that the railroads helped fuel the industrial revolution which has gotten us into the current climate crisis. But there’s something else that one sees on the train. I was impressed to see the growth of light and heavy commuter rail and its integration with buses to move increasing numbers of people to and from work. It let’s me envision a future where things like inter-city high speed rail over solar powered electric tracks is a common and convenient alternative to cars. It gives me hope that railroads may be part of the solution to a problem that they helped create. It gives me hope that maybe we as humans can be the same