GEOFF CUTLER: Guess I'll Just Drive to Charleston
It was disheartening to read Stephen Smith's piece in Wednesday's Pilot on his recent train trip.
I've always been a great fan of train travel too, and have also thought about trying it again. A friend told me recently that there's a line from Fayetteville to Charleston. Having a son who lives and goes to school in Charleston, I thought it might be a fun way to get there -- and would give me a chance to rekindle an old joy. Now, I'm not so sure.
When I was a child, we came from Boston to Southern Pines on the train. We'd board in Dedham at 128 station in the early afternoon, and arrive in New York with enough time for dinner before boarding the overnight headed south. Negotiating the crowds and blaring loudspeakers of Penn Station, we made our way down to its bowels, where the gleaming, silver train awaited us.
I was scared of the noise, the hustle and bustle, but overwhelmingly excited at the same time. I gripped a parent's hand as tight as I could, letting go only when the smiling porter greeted us, led us to our sleeper car and said, "Welcome aboard."
In 1969, we drove to Chicago and picked up the train from there to Nevada. On the rails for days, we saw and experienced the western half of the states in all their grandeur and beauty. On this trip, I learned the true magic of train travel, which is simply to look out the window. For hours on end, I'd sit silently on the observation deck, mesmerized by America.
By the time we reached Reno, we'd made many friends of both staff and vacationers alike. We'd run up and down the train hundreds of times and eaten like kings. We'd been taken care of, and we'd learned a lot about our country. This trip cemented my love for train travel.
It wasn't until 1992 that I'd get a chance to take the train again. This time, four of us rode from Boston to New York to be with a family member for her "opening." She is an artist, and we thought this would be a fun way to get there.
It was, sort of, but clearly things had changed. The train was dirty, inside and out. We saw and experienced many of the same types of travelers that Stephen Smith encountered. The food was shrink-wrapped, and the staff, if you could find them, lacked the enthusiasm for their work that had been so common in the great characters I'd met as a child. The cars smelled of smoke, and the air-conditioning was broken.
To escape this feeling of letdown, I sat next to the window and looked out. The tracks of the Northeast corridor do not generally run through affluent neighborhoods, but again I was mesmerized by what I saw -- strewn garbage, graffiti, junked cars, pollution and squalor. It was eye-opening and tragic. I haven't been on the train since.
In 1970, members of Congress had the same romantic illusions about train travel that many of us did, only they decided to buy the country's passenger rail service, named it Amtrak, and said it would be a publicly owned company to make a profit.
It was billed as a government "experiment," and Washington has assured the public for almost 40 years that one day Amtrak would be a financial success story. To this day, it is not. Billions of our tax dollars have been poured into Amtrak, and recently the new administration announced it will throw another $1.5 billion at this government-subsidized failure.
The Amtrak story is just older than the studies and presidential groups commissioned to figure out what to do with this mess. Most come to the same conclusion: Return Amtrak to the private sector where it belongs. Only then does it stand a chance of competing against other forms of travel, while at the same time returning it to the excellence of service it used to provide.
If there was ever a case study for why government should keep its mitts off General Motors and Chrysler, with our money, Amtrak is it.
Geoff Cutler is owner of Cutler Tree LLC in Southern Pines and is a regular contributor to The Pilot and PineStraw magazine. Contact him at email@example.com.
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