Food For Thought

Trains: We Need More than Thomas

by Dr. John E. Bonfadini, Ed.D., Professor Emeritus, George Mason University

John Bonfadini

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 his.

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 America’s trash.

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.

 The 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. 

Whats Your View?

Obviously, there are at least two sides to every issue. Do you have a different view? This column is meant to provoke thought, so keep sending comments. Each one is read with the utmost interest. Send e-mail to:, or send written responses to the editor. Mail will be forwarded to the author.




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