Thursday, March 3, 2011


Of all the many modes of transportation, I have always liked trains most of all. (Prior to my knee and back problems a couple of years ago, I invariably even preferred the New York City Subway to riding the bus!).
Forty years ago, an assignment in my undergraduate American Political Thought class was to write an American "Utopia." There are any number of things about the America I envisioned in that paper that I might not subscribe to today, but the privileged status of inter-city train travel that I included in my "Utopia" expressed an anti-automibile bias I still feel (even if I now have to drive a car every single day!).
Living in New York until last year, I almost always took Amtrak if I was going to Washingotn, Dc, or to Boston. Although I can hear the railraod from my bedroom at night, it's entirely freight traffic. Although there is now a welcome MegaBus connection between Knoxville and DC, there is no longer any passenger train service from Knoxville to anywhere. (There is a beautiful train station, walking distance from my church, which -oddly - is now slated to become a high school!)
All this is on my mind because of reading George Will's political column in the March 7 Newsweek. As for Will's take on trains, his title says it all: "High Speed to Insolvency: Why Liberals Love Trains." Now Will is undoubtedly one of the brighter bulbs in the conservative chandelier, and there have been many occasions over the decades when I have found much wisdom and insight in his analyses. Nor do I necessarily doubt Will's facts, however much I disagree with his pro-car ideology. He is probably correct on the costliness of rail transportation. Indeed, I am almost willing to stipulate that probably any other way of getting from place to place - bus, plane, or even auto - is probably more efficient and less expensive to society in the long run. But I still prefer trains!
Some of that may be purely personal and esthetic. Airline travel was once seen as luxurious, but not anymore. Trains are the one mode of travel (apart perhaps from ships, which are also largely irrelevant as alternatives) where one can really sit in comfort and also walk around, etc. Admittedly, however, that is a highly personal preference.
At its heart, however, Will's argument is about freedom - individual freedom. "To progressives," contends Will, "the best thing about railroads is that people riding them are not in automobiles, which are subversice of the deference on whihc progressivism depends. Automobiles go hither and yon, whever and wherever the friver desires, without timetables," Will continues. "Automobiles encourage people to think they - unsupervised, untutored, and unscripted - are masters of their fates. The automoibile encourages people in delusions of adequacy, which make them resistant to government by experts who know what chopices people should make."
That quasi-libertarian argument resonates deeply at the roots of Americna experience. As I have often said, in explaining American values to European friends, most of our ancestors came here to get away from overly controlling social structures, which is why Americans will often choose the excesses of liberty over the security and comfort of government intervention in their lives. I understand that - and can even agree with it up to a point.
But there is another dimension to human existence, which an uncritical preoccupation with liberty misses. What is so powerfully appealing about trains to me is how irreducibly (as I believe Tony Judt once remarked) public traveling by train is. It is a communal experience, which for me taps into the fundamentally social dimension of human nature - the very dimension which is so thoroughly under attack today.
Trains may not be efficient. They probably are more costly than we can as a country afford at present. But they represent something we cannot afford to forget about why we need a country and what it takes to flourish as full human beings - something we forget to our great peril.

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