Saturday, May 10, 2008

'They looked in the future and what did they see?'

On May 24, 1830, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad became the first passenger railroad in the United States, operating regularly scheduled trains from Baltimore to Ellicott City, a distance of only 13 miles. Yet this achievement changed the course of America's history. Ironically, it was Charles Carroll, last living signer of the Declaration of Independence who broke the ground for the B&O.

"There was a time in this fair land when the railroad did not run
when the wild, majestic mountains stood alone against the sun
long before the white man and long before the wheel
when the green, dark forest was too silent to be real"
It would be almost 39 years before trains could travel from one coast to the another in the United States, but on one fateful day in May of 1869, Leland Stanford, President of the Central Pacific, drove the final spike into the line that would become America's steel wedding band--marrying East and West less than a decade after the Civil War had threatened to tear the country asunder.

Written on one side of the Golden Spike was the phrase:
"May God continue the unity of our Country, as this Railroad unites the two great oceans of the world"

At that moment, travel across the country became much easier. An eight day trip by train replaced a month long journey by covered wagon. The railroad opened up the fertile farmlands of the western United States and set America's course irrevocably toward Manifest Destiny..

"For they looked in the future and what did they see?
They saw and iron road running from the sea to the sea"

Today, Amtrak celebrated the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad with the first annual National Train Day. At major train stations around the country, Amtrak opened its doors to (if Washington was any indication) teeming throngs of railfans.

At Union Station, here in DC, there were model train layouts, a concert, and a tour of railcars of the modern and historic varieties. I'm not sure whether the highlight for me was the Acela walkthrough or the New York Central lookout lounge, "Hickory Creek"

"Look away, said they, across this mighty land
from the eastern shore to the western strand
bring in the workers and bring up the rails
we gotta lay down tracks and tear up the trails
open her heart, let the life-blood flow
gotta get on our way, 'cause we're movin' too slow"

Part of the celebration, I think, was rejoicing on the resurgence of rail travel. Amtrak's numbers have been up lately, and more and more Americans are taking to the rails to travel. With gas prices going up and the disappearance of the 'friendly' skies, travelers are rediscovering the romance (and just plain practicality) of going by train.

On my way to the festivities this afternoon, I overheard two gentlemen talking (loudly) on the Metro about politics. They were clearly McCain supporters, but as we pulled into New York Avenue they saw an Amtrak Regional consist being pushed toward Union Station. One commented to the other that trains were the way to travel, and that Amtrak was a nice setup in that regard.

I chose not to point out to them that Mr. McCain is not known for his support for the ailing national passenger railroad system.

Of course the other part of the celebration was an acknowledgement of the importance of the small ceremony that took place in the dusty hills of Utah 139 years ago today. For it was that ribbon of steel that build America's foundation for the 20th Century.

"For the song of the future has been sung
all the battles have been won
on the mountiantops we stand
all the world at our command
we have opened up the soil
with our teardrops and our toil
for there was a time in this fair land when the railroad did not run..."

America is far from alone, however, in its journey through time. Our northern neighbor, Canada, completed their transcontinental line in 1885. The words interspersed through this post are lyrics to a song by Gordon Lightfoot. The song, the Canadian Railroad Trilogy, was written for the CBC in 1967 and has always struck a chord with me. Even though the song is about the building of Canada's line, the words seem appropriate for a reflection on our own Railroad.

And soon, I too will share in the romanticism of Lightfoot's song--first hand. In a little less than a month, I will be setting off to cross Canada from the Atlantic to the Pacific. This trip will be the trip of a lifetime for me. It's strange, I've always wanted to cross Canada by train, but I don't have the same inclination for America.

I suppose that part of my desire is to experience the romanticism of a foreign land, a land with two languages and one of the harshest landscapes in the world. It's also probably a desire to step back in time. The flagship train of Via Rail Canada is The Canadian which I will be riding from Toronto to Edmonton. The train's consist is made of 1955-built stainless steel Budd cars.

While Amtrak standardized their equipment (you gotta love Amcans) over the years, Via's fleet is a diverse mixture of new and old. After all, rolling stock on The Canadian, like the old cars on Twentieth Century Limited and The City of New Orleans, was built as the last hurrah--no, I'll call it the most recent hurrah because I'm not convinced that it is the final hurrah--of passenger railroading in North America. These trains were the epitome of luxury--and Via kept them.

The Amfleet has all the grace of a slow 747 with legroom and a cafe. Of course, I don't mean to come down hard on rail travel. Even on Amtrak, the experience is top notch. I have yet to find a better way to travel and I've ridden Amtrak in 22 states. But it would be nice to see the older equipment now and then. Give the fallen flags a couple of more flaps in the breeze, eh?

I am hopeful that our next president will recognize the ability of rail to build more sustainable America. While National Train Day (and this post) screamed 'nostalgia,' rail has a future here. The Acela is the first step in achieving a modern, first-world rail system (again) in the United States. It must not be the last step. We are decades behind Europe and Japan when it comes to an efficient transportation network. We need to step up to the plate if we are going to continue to be competitive in a world facing energy supply and demand issues.

So, in short, National Train Day is, for me at least, about remembering a time "when the railroad did not run" and also remembering a time when "all the battles [had] been won." At the same time, it is an admonition to look in the future.

And since I'm feeling nostalgic, I'll close with my favorite poem:

"The railroad track is miles away,
And the day is loud with voices speaking,
Yet there isn't a train goes by all day
But I hear its whistle shrieking.

"All night there isn't a train goes by,
Thought the night is still for sleep and dreaming,
But I see its cinders red on the sky,
and hear its engine steaming.

"My heart is warm with the friends I make,
And better friends I'll not be knowing;
Yet there isn't a train I wouldn't take,
No matter where it's going."
--Edna St. Vincent Millay, Travel

1 comment:

Richard Layman said...

I'm jealous of your upcoming trip. Some day I want to ride that train all the way to British Columbia. Take lots of photos...