Trains: We Need More than Thomas
by Dr. John E.
Bonfadini, Ed.D., Professor Emeritus, George Mason University
My wife had purchased a Sandra
Bullock “chick flick” for watching on our laptop computer as we headed from
Lorton, Va., to Sanford, Fla., on the Auto Train. We enjoyed the movie
together, then went to eat at the 7 p.m. seating. The Amtrak movie followed
at 9 p.m.
Lucky for me, the movie was also a Bullock film, with a
plot similar to the one we’d just seen — this time she marries the dude.
But talking about movies is not what this article is
about. It’s about trains as an important part of America’s history and, I
hope, of the future. Seven years ago I decided to start taking the Auto
Train instead of playing “Jimmie Johnson” trying to beat all the other
Yankees heading to and from Florida. In my opinion, it’s one of the best
travel options for visiting the Sunshine State.
This winter had been exceptionally
cold and we were looking forward to getting some sunshine and visiting the
grandkids. The train left the station about 3:40 p.m., about 10 minutes
ahead of schedule. The conductor informed us that the Auto Train was the
longest train in the Amtrak fleet. This train was carrying 170 cars/vans and
one motorcycle. I saw a gentleman with a Harley shirt. I’ll bet the bike was
Most of the seats were filled with senior citizens like
me. I know I now qualify for senior citizenship, as I got confused after the
movie and began walking the wrong way back to my seat. They usually put most
of the senior coach passengers in a separate car from all the families. We
travel coach but Amtrak also offers different bedroom combinations. Every
seat is now equipped with an electrical outlet ... everyone has a computer,
even the old folks. Also, we need to charge those cell phones.
As the train slowly pulled out of the station, a slight
drizzle was falling. I looked out the window to see many new homes that had
been built within view of the tracks. I also noticed a lot of old tires that
had been discarded along the tracks. There was a significant amount of other
debris that made me realize that even with all the emphasis on the
environment, as a nation we still haven’t got the message. I would like to
recommend that someone adopt sections of the railroad just as we adopt and
clean highways. Areas along the tracks have become dumping grounds for
I’d fished many of the areas along the Potomac River where
the train travels and noticed the trash of our country’s prosperity on the
river’s banks. The train passed the Possum Point power plant’s hot-water
discharge that was a favorite fishing area of mine. The area is next to the
railroad but is now closed because of the mounds of garbage left by the
fishing public. They took it in but never took it out. That’s also why many
farmers are now posting “no fishing” signs on their privately owned land
through which streams flow.
train moved on and I recalled my youth, living above an ethnic club. My dad
was a coal miner who tended bar as a second job. Mom also took over the
bartending duties when dad wanted to go hunting or fishing. The “Independent
Club” was built right next to the railroad tracks in the town of
Bentleyville, Pa. I would climb out the second-story kitchen window onto the
roof and count the coal cars as they headed to and from the local mines.
Sometime I’d even toss a stone or two at the cars. I walked those tracks
many times and just don’t remember seeing any trash next to the rail beds. I
do recall walking the tracks and picking up coal that had fallen from the
cars, to use in our home stove.
As the Auto Train progressed to
more rural areas, I also began to notice that most of the homes and
businesses along the tracks were in need of repair. Many were abandoned.
Several small stores still hung on in some rural communities we passed, but
a lot of the small businesses had closed. It was a sad reflection of
America. Individually owned trackside establishments have been replaced by
distant shopping centers and Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, Burger King, Home Depot,
and other national-chain businesses. The heyday of American individualism is
fading and nothing illustrated it more dramatically than that train ride.
The older major highways of the
past paralleled sections of the track heading south. These roads don’t have
the same volume of traffic they had in years past. Most of the cars and
trucks are on Interstate 95 burning up huge quantities of fuel. I thought
about how much fuel this train saved by piggybacking 170 cars to Florida. My
rough calculation was about 40 gallons per car, which totaled 6,800 gallons
of fuel. If we used the rails to piggyback more trucks, the savings in fuel
and highway costs could be substantial. To accomplish that goal, the rails
would have to be modernized — a worthy project for both the government and
CSX, who owns the tracks. If done properly, we could revitalize many areas
of the country by making commuting to metropolitan areas easier.
There’s something mystical about
trains. One of my sons lives next door to me. I stopped to tell the
grandkids goodbye. Alex, my three-year-old grandson, was playing a Thomas
the Tank Engine computer game. He loves trains. Grandma got him a riding
model for his birthday. She also took time to purchase a model train from
the Amtrak store. My IPod is loaded with country songs, many telling stories
about trains. Wabash Cannonball is a favorite. If you take time to look on
YouTube, there are some great postings of freight trains as they pass over
crossings and through tunnels. Alex will sit on my lap for hours watching
the trains. I often wonder why these same kids who love trains never say
they want to work on a railroad or be a locomotive engineer. Bill Wood, a
golfing friend and fellow educator, has a son who is a railroad engineer.
Mark loves the outdoors and now drives locomotives for Norfolk Southern.
I’ll bet that not one counselor (his dad was one) ever mentioned that as a
possible occupation. We just don’t see our children in “real jobs.”
Mark is fortunate that his dad knew to let him
find his own way after college. Sitting behind a desk is not for everyone.
President Eisenhower is given credit for our
interstate-highway system. Maybe the sitting president or a future president
will start the process of building a new network of rails. Some of the
American Recovery and Investment Act of 2009 funds are being used for
much-needed upgrades to the train station in Sanford, Fla. France and Japan
were the leaders in high-speed rail transportation. I saw a graph where
China now leads in building high-speed rail systems. I believe we were way
down the list. As a country we seem to be falling down the list on a number
of things. It’s time to turn that around.
Funny thing — I began writing this
article on the Auto Train in February, and I’m now finishing it in June, on
the same Auto Train. This summer train has a different load: plenty of cars,
fewer seniors, and many, many kids heading to see Mickey. I’m going to see
my oldest grandson graduate from high school. He has never talked about
becoming a locomotive engineer. He’s going to Florida State to major in
business. I doubt if he ever thought about driving anything other than a
fully loaded Mustang.