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.

Cheating with public transportation

Stock Transportation school bus

Stock Transportation school bus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The school busmy earliest experiences with public transportation and often the only one in many New Hampshire towns, like many towns around the country. The big yellow birds swooped in early mornings in all weather, plucked me up, and dropped me off at school. In the afternoon, all the other buses and cool older kids with cars were already gone when my bus showed up. It took more than thirty minutes to get the two miles from school to home because of the bus route’s loops.

As soon as kids in town were old enough to get cars and get off of the yellow buses with their noisy elementary school kids, their cold green seats, and their long rides, most kids did. Cars were what adults have. Buses were for kids.

Amtrak – My senior year of school was the first time I saw trains as transportation and not just tourist rail like the Cog Railway.

Three of my friends and I planned a trip to Washington, DC to look at colleges. We would stay with Erich’s older sister, and we got out of classes for a few days. Our parents, who didn’t want to drive us to Logan Airport in Boston, suggested Amtrak.

In the 80s, each time we went to town, my family bumped over a train track that was old and lacking signage. Most lines were torn up and crossings were paved over. Visiting family in Vermont, we crossed other old train lines. I never saw a train. I figured they were all old relics. I wasn’t aware that trains still ran in the 1990s.

One early, early morning the four of us with our bags were dropped off next to the train tracks near the NH/VT border. There was no station; it was a flag stop and we were the only four people waiting there in the early morning dark with our tickets. When the train came into view, it slowed down, and a conductor waved us aboard for the 8-hour ride to DC. We slept or did homework most of the way. It was surprisingly simple.

JR East Tokyo Map

JR East Tokyo Map (Photo credit: Dushan and Miae)

Japan Railway – My love affair with train travel blossomed when I spent a year in Japan teaching English. It was mind-boggling how many trains there were just for the city. You could set your watch by them: if they were late, you picked up a pass on exiting to hand in to your boss. Otherwise – no excuses.

They weren’t always cheap, but they spiderwebbed the country making everything accessible. I think I visited every stop on the Yamanote subway line that encircled the city like a hug.

I could visit my friend Ayako by train. We went to Kyoto for a weekend by shinkansen or bullet train. I could meet all my friends by train. When I went to work, I had a choice of train or subway line. It was astounding.

Unfaithful – My year of train travel gave me time to question cars. There were plenty of them around Tokyo, but none of the foreigners like me had one, and it was okay. Taxes, parking, gas all cost more than we could imagine. And why bother? Trains meant time to socialize, read, or people watch. And above-ground trains gave time to watch the landscape. Why didn’t the US have trains like this? Where could you even find subways and trains? Fellow English teachers from the UK talked about trains being normal for them, though everyone agreed that Japan was the most amazing. But what about the US? What happened?

I still missed my car. I missed driving. I just didn’t miss it all as much as I thought I would.

Returning to the States, I still dreamed of trains. I wondered what it would be like to walk a short distance from my home to jump on a train. I learned about the Rails to Trails movement and all the old abandon lines that crossed NH. So many just left to nature. What happened to the trains that used to use them?

Driving around again, I realized I’d been unfaithful to my car. The damage was done, and we would never be able to return to where we’d once been.