Trains and buses

The last two summers, for two weeks each, I’ve gone to Europe with my boyfriend to visit family. I had been to Europe twice before that. Getting around there is unlike most anywhere in the US outside of a densely packed city like New York, and I think that while I may have recognized it as a kid, I see it so much more as an adult. My boyfriend didn’t learn to drive until he came to the US, and as a kid none of his family owned a car. His parents still live in their small town, and even in their 80s they can get around on foot to make jaunts to the grocery store and run nearly all of their daily errands.

In the Swiss town we were visiting, for anyone taking the train, which is part of the national system, not a local bus or subway, it’s a ten minute walk from downtown. The hillside rising up above town is awash with vineyards and wound with a few small streets for access. But even a road along the hillside sprouts an occasional bus stop. While I have not seen the bus running, and don’t know exactly where it goes since I’ve only walked there a bit on a weekend, I can’t say how it works, but the fact that it’s there surprised me.

I understand that the way that Europe probably was and the way it evolved to what it is now, has a lot to do with the fact that there are many people without a lot of space. In the US, we like to spread out. Eisenhower’s Interstate System certainly aided that spread. For a long while, though, this country was dominated by trains. Now trains are everywhere else it seems.

There is something of a renaissance in the US currently underway with our train system – the bastard child included in the transportation funding that no one in Congress seems to really want to talk about and most wish would just go away. Amtrak began to fail in the 1960s as the automobile caught the nation’s attention. By the ‘80s, my mother drove over an old train line that I always looked down, wondering if a train would round the bend of the old brown tracks with the overgrown bushes beside it. My mother said that before I was born she could hear the train whistle during the day. The line has long since disappeared, but maybe it’s a Rail Trail now; if not, who knows what’s happened to it. But I remember being dazzled, even as I sat in my car seat, by the idea of taking a train to somewhere far away.

I took a train a few years ago after visiting my sister in Oregon. I had planned to take Amtrak’s Empire Builder to Chicago. It’s one of the busiest lines in the country, but primarily as a vacation train for the views. I got a phonecall several days before departure that rains had flooded out most of the track, so I needed to reroute. Luckily I had a brother in Boulder at the time. I left Portland, OR heading south to Sacramento, CA and changed trains there for Denver, CO. After staying overnight with my brother, I flew east, missing most of the country that I’d hoped to see from the ground, but getting home in about the same amount of time.

A study came out recently that shows that Millennials, the generation of people born after about 1980, putting me on the line between Gen X and Millennial, have more interest in public transportation, or at least not owning a car, as the generations before them. It’s true that between the older friends I have and the younger ones, there is a definite shift, especially when given the options. I’ve seen how so many more people are pushing for better transportation and biking, and a shift back to trains and away from cars. My younger brother lives in NYC, doesn’t have a car by choice, and uses the train to visit our parents, but my younger sister who lives in rural NH with kids has to have a car. It’s not going to be like Europe anytime soon, but for making it easier to get around in the US, the push for more varied transportation options is a welcome change.

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