Train Travel—America’s Missing Infrastructure

After travelling by train for the past three months in Central Europe through roughly 20 cities and towns, one thing amazes me—why in the world do Americans NOT have the same opportunity and ease of which Europeans have in travelling by train?

Seriously … why not?

I have my suspicions. And they all lead to government lobbyists, bought-off congressmen, and greed. And, in the end, we Americans do not get to enjoy what I found was a way of life in Europe that made my unique, three-month travels possible.

This is not to say cars and planes do not also have their place. They do and they are not things I would want to stop. But train travel brings a whole new dimension to life that Americans have been deprived of.

To best describe to Americans who have not experienced this dimension, I will try to explain it this way: Imagine WALKING 1/2 – 1 mile to a train depot, no matter where you are in America, buying your train ticket within minutes, boarding a train that arrives on the minute or within 1-2 minutes of its appointed arrival time, placing your travel bags above the seat you pick out, and departing within five minutes.

Imagine that!

No driving to the train depot, no checking in your bags after waiting in a very slow-moving line, no going through laborious checkpoints, no waiting at an airport terminal for an hour, and no waiting on a plane for another 30 minutes before the plane finally takes off.

And imagine this: When your train arrives at its destination, you simply step off the train and WALK to your accommodations. I did just this in roughly 20 different cities and towns in Europe for three months and only 2-3 times hired a taxi, and never had to rent a car. Other than the few times I did hire a taxi, I WALKED to my accommodation right after stepping off the train. My accommodations were typically no more than 2-3 kilometers from the train depot. And, while walking through the heart of the city, I would often pick up a bottle of wine or some other supply that was conveniently in a store located on my way to the hotel.

After imagining this, try to imagine walking from the airport to your accommodation located in the city’s center. Ha! Just walking out of the sterile cement park is a small journey in itself. But once that is accomplished, you still have to walk to the city, not to mention the city’s center. That’s because airports are typically out in the boondocks; a wonderful scenario for taxi drivers who will charge you roughly $40 to take you to your hotel.

Now, imagine this: Some inspiring moment comes over you to travel to a particular destination. And after doing a quick check on the Web to find arrival times at the nearest train depot, you simply walk to the train depot, buy the ticket, and, within minutes, step onto the train, and you are on your way … no cars, no three-month planning, no reserving a seat.

Try to do that travelling by plane. Good luck! It’s a crap shoot and the odds are against you getting a seat on that plane that will take you to that city. And buying a plane ticket requires major premeditated planning. And then you wait … and wait … and then wait some more, usually months before boarding that plane. Wow! Talk about inspiring and spontaneous … Not!

There are other finer points of train travel. For example, no other mode of transportation relaxes me more the sound and feel of those iron wheels rolling steadfastly along iron rails stretching for miles through beautiful countryside. I also would much rather be sitting on a train than on an airplane, which is a little too claustrophobic as plane companies continuously find tighter ways to pack people like sardines in a tin can, as you look out your little peep hole called a window at monotonous sky and clouds … not the most romantic scenery to be staring at when travelling.

Of course, there are negatives to train travel but they are small in comparison to the alternative. For example, trains typically make several stops before reaching your final destination. These stops typically last no more than one minute and, if you look at the glass-half-full side, this gives you a new opportunity to spontaneously depart the train if you desire. The ticket you bought is typically good for 24 hours so you can always board another train later to continue to your original destination. Try doing that with your plane ticket. It’s not going to happen, unless you have a parachute. …

But, with all this said, if you haven’t travelled by train in Europe, you will not appreciate the advantages and convenience of train travel. It is a difficult thing to describe until you make it part of your life for a period of time. Then you see how train travel opens up so many new travel opportunities; things you would not do otherwise.

I will simply end by saying we Americans have been deprived of something that would make our lives richer in experience. There’s no reason why we cannot build such an infrastructure in America. But as with all major infrastructure building in America, it requires congress to agree, and sadly our congress doesn’t work. So, we will continue to muddle along with no train infrastructure, and no way to experience this other dimension of travel in our lives in America. What a pity.

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