Monday, October 20, 2008

Amtrak Diaries

(Note: This Hawaii Island Journal article recounts a trip I made less than a month after 9/11. I wanted to find out if Amtrak was a viable alternative to transportation via flying bomb. I discovered much more than that. F0r an updated editorial based on this story, see "Amtrak Editorial.")

The Amtrak Diaries

The U.S. Congress is currently considering a proposal to dismantle Amtrak, the national passenger rail service. Amtrak officials say that despite five years of increased ridership and profits, the rail service will require a $1.2 billion cash infusion to maintain its aging trains and stations, or will have to close down all long-distance passenger service outside the East Coast by this October.

Hawaii Island itself has been trainless since 1947, but thousands of this state’s residents travel on the mainland each year. In most of the world, passenger trains still thrive, operating at a fraction of the fuel costs for jets. In the wake of 9-ll, are trains still a viable alternative to at least some airline travel?

Last October, Senior Contributing Writer Alan McNarie took Amtrak from California to Missouri, traveling across a changed national landscape to see his son. Here’s what he discovered.

September 21, 2001. My ex e-mails me from Missouri to suggest something good that might come out of the national tragedy of ten days ago. “Why don’t you come see your son while airfares are down?” she asks.

My son, Aidan, will turn five next month. I haven’t seen him in over a year. But I have mixed feelings about air travel that have nothing to do with fear of skyjacking. The last three times I’ve gone to Missouri, I’ve arrived exhausted from nearly twelve hours in cramped airline seats and deliberately uncomfortable airports. I’ve come off the plane with bleeding sinuses from the arid atmosphere inside the planes, where air itself is scrimped on to save money. Inevitably, I’ve fallen sick within a day or two of arrival--likely either from breathing someone’s germs in the closed atmosphere of the plane, or from encountering some mainland microbe that my run-down body and damaged sinuses weren’t prepared to meet. If I only have a few precious days with my son, I’d prefer not to spend them coughing in bed.

Like everyone in this country, I also have a new realization of our vulnerability. Ever since World War II, we’ve been pouring huge government subsidies into airports and highways, while neglecting trains and mass transit. Now our main transportation systems consist of rolling bombs that kill thousands of us in traffic accidents each year, and of flying bombs that can kill thousands with a single explosion.

We can’t get off this island without an airplane. There’s not even a ferry to Oahu. But are there viable alternatives to flying bombs, once we get to the mainland?

I log onto the Web to find out.

October 15. It’s about 4:30 in the evening when the Hele-On Bus pulls into Kailua-Kona and disgorges me, my single overweight duffle and overstuffed canvas briefcase (per new baggage regulations) at a local shopping center.

After several nights of re-checking travel websites and trying alternate routes, I’ve snagged a $289 round trip fare from Kona to L.A. and a $212 round-trip Amtrak ticket from there to Jefferson City, Missouri, where my ex-father-in-law and my son will meet me. I’ve saved more than $600 over a flight to Columbia, Missouri, the nearest airport to my son. But I’ll spend about five extra days en route.

I’m trading time not just for money, but for a better quality of journey (I hope). And then there’s patriotic duty. If significant numbers of people switched from planes to trains, it would be a huge step toward energy independence.

Booking the direct flight from Kona allowed me to replace a connector flight to Honolulu with a $5, four-hour ride from Hilo. The Hele-on was air-conditioned, the seat was comfortable and the scenery, of course, was superb. But thanks to the island’s legislated taxi-cab monopoly, I have to pay $20 for a cab from Kailua-Kona to the airport. The driver is friendly, but doesn’t offer to help with the bags.

At the airport, National Guardsmen patrol with M-16s and ironically conspicuous camouflage uniforms. Forewarned by the travel sites, I’ve left my pocketknife and razor behind. I send my bags through the security x-ray, empty my pockets into the tray, pass through the scanner without setting it off, then get checked with a hand-detector. Someone else opens my duffel to examine my tins of chicken and tuna and cartons of fruit juice (I’ve heard that train food is superb but expensive). The hand-detector goes off for a plastic mint case from my watch pocket. I get patted down.

I settle into a hard plastic departure lounge seat whose “arm rests,” too narrow for human arms; seem designed mainly to keep people from stretching out on more than one seat. I have a tail-numbing three hours to watch the National Guardsmen watch us.

Finally the boarding call comes.

American Airlines advertises the extra legroom in its coach cabin. But when a 6’1” person sits in a Boeing 757’s window seat, the wall curves in to meet his shoulder. The passenger in the next seat meets his other shoulder. The luggage rack cuts off about a quarter of the nearest TV screen, mounted from the aisle ceiling. Thus dissuaded from paying $5 for an in-flight video, I scrunch into myself and try to sleep....

Oct. 16: the plane touches down before dawn. I lug my heavy bags through LAX’s long, long, corridors, past more armed National Guardsmen. After 20 minutes on the smoggy curb, I pay another $21 for a shuttle to Union Station.

This time, the driver earns his money, threading for an hour through the back streets of Hollywood and Burbank and Los Angeles: mile after mile of drab modern architecture and smoggy air.

“The freeway’s impossible this time of day,” the cabbie explains.

Union Station sits across from Olvero St., the Mexican-souvenir-stand-clogged heart of Old Los Angeles. The station is one of those grand secular cathedrals from railroading’s bygone glory days: Spanish-influenced, high arched ceilings painted in deep golds and browns, richly carved woodwork, an acre or so of overstuffed leather seats. The seats here aren’t designed for sleeping, either, but at least you can sit comfortably in them.

I use them long enough to scan a morning Los Angeles Times. More bombing in Afghanistan. More anthrax cases.

I get up to find out if it’s possible to move around without a car in the City of Freeways.

It is. L.A. has a fast, clean, comfortable urban rail system called the Metrolink, and a vast grid of local and express buses. At Union Station’s ornate carved-wood information booth, I learn that I could have gotten a free shuttle from the airport to the nearest Metrolink stop, a $1.60 train ride from Union Station.

I opt for a short subway ride and slightly longer bus ride to the LA County Museum of Art. Next door are the La Brea Tar Pits, one the few places on earth where oil still bubbles naturally to the surface, though we’re slowly draining the petroleum reserve from under it. I spend the morning among Rodin sculptures and Japanese screen paintings, and the afternoon among the bones of saber-tooth tigers who became fatally enmired in petroleum products.

Back at the station by 6 p.m., I lug my reclaimed baggage down the long hallway to the boarding platform. The gleaming, double-decker Superliner coaches of the Southwestern Chief tower on the siding. There are no M-16s in evidence. Apparently the authorities think rail travel is so forgotten that even terrorists won’t bother with it.

A smiling train attendant glances at my ticket, then points out my car to me. The long cross-country experiment has begun.

The train has a top speed of 79 mph, but slows to a crawl as it climbs the pass into the moonlit Sierras. What Southwestern Chief lacks in speed, however, it makes up in space. There’s a lounge car with a snack bar and two large TVs for on-train videos. Each coach car has four restrooms, including men’s and women’s dressing rooms, but no showers. (For an $800 sleeper car berth, I’d have gotten a bed, a shower, gourmet meals and fresh fruit.)

Even the coach car seats are the size of first class airline seats, with living-room-recliner-like adjustable leg rests, plus footrests attached to the seat in front. The seats actually recline, not just tilt back a couple of inches. And no seat belts!

They’re still not designed for a comfortable night’s sleep, though. Nothing keeps your head from twisting or falling over as you snooze. Leaning against the side of the car could leave lumps on your head if you hit a stretch of rough track, despite the little pillows they give you.

People cope with this in various ways. Some use rolled-up clothing for auxiliary padding. Children cram themselves and their sleeping bags into the floor space between the seats. Some shorter adults look for a pair of adjoining empty seats and curl up across them--though those who do, don’t always get to stay. Throughout the night, a trickle of passengers, mostly students and Latino families, continues to board the train from various small-town whistle stops, forcing train attendants to rouse sleeping squatters from their unassigned seats.

The passenger beside me, an Hispanic-American truck driver who’s letting someone else drive for once, soon goes off to the lounge car. While he’s gone, I stretch diagonally across both seats. When he returns, I head for the lounge car. We sleep in shifts.

Oct. 17. I awaken with a bruised tailbone from the hard plastic strip between the seats, and go to the lounge car to watch the sunrise over the ancient tawny mountains of the Arizona desert. A herd of pronghorn antelopes watches us, bolts a few yards, then resumes grazing.

But it isn’t all bucolic scenery. Pulling out of Albuquerque, we pass through miles of junkyards and warehouses, whole graveyards of kitchen appliances and acres of asphalt and parked semi-trailors, interspersed with barrios of wooden shacks and huts--some falling down, some neatly kept, all tiny. Further out sprawl suburbs of new two-story adobe townhouses, set further back from the noisy tracks. The American Dream has fractured into little suburban castles and the noisy hells of industrial workplaces. The poorer you get, the closer you live to hell.

Now we’re moving our hells clear out of the country, to Mexico and China--at the cost of supertankers full of oil, much of it imported from a part of the world where whole generations of children have grown into middle-aged men in refugee camps. We’ve propped up despotic regimes and supplied religious fanatics with Stinger missiles, just to keep those goods and tankers coming. What the hell did we expect to happen?

The lounge car serves as a miniature melting pot, where the Have-Nots traveling by coach meet the Haves from the sleeper cars. As the train crawls alongside Interstate 30, past stands of pinion pine and golden aspen in the Sandia Mountains, I enjoy the view with a middle-aged educational consultant, who praises the train’s superb service and excellent dining.

“I’ve driven this route before,” he says, “and you don’t get one tenth out of driving it that you get out of the train. You’re too busy watching the road.”

I wonder aloud what Amtrak could do if it got the $12 billion that was just voted to bail out the airlines. I’m thinking of extra routes, new coaches and upgraded tracks.

My companion has a different reaction.

“God, think of the luxury they could offer then!” he says.

We cross the continental divide at sunset. Mercifully, the train passes through Eastern Colorado and Kansas during the night.

October 18. We roll into Kansas City at dawn, almost exactly on time.

Kansas City’s Union Station is another grand marble relic, recently renovated to include restaurants and an interactive science museum. But Amtrak operates out of a cramped, concrete temporary station next door, with no place to store baggage. My local train leaves at 3:30 p.m. I lug my bags up two stories of stalled escalator steps, walk to Union Station, then ascend another flight of steps to a skywalk that takes me across two streets to the rental lockers in Hallmark’s Crown Center.

The soul of Kansas City used to be the stockyards. Now it’s probably Hallmark Cards, which is remaking part of the city center into a new and different urban dream: a towering complex of apartments, office buildings, hotels, restaurants and shops, all linked by glass skyways. You can walk to work, to shopping, to the train or bus if you have to. But if your job pays well enough, you’d never have to leave the complex.

Even this dream community is still powered by cheap fossil fuel, however. Without air conditioning, these steel-and-glass buildings and skyways would become ovens.

Walking through Crown Center’s posh shops, I try to think like an Afghani or a Palestinian. The average annual personal income in Afganistan is equivalent to about $800. What would I make of entire shops devoted to model cars or wildlife figurines--of a culture with the spare income to buy Official NFL dog scarves, “cat sitter” videos of chirping finches, and $1000 toy train sets?

In the Crown Center lobby, architecture students are building sculptures of canned goods that will be donated to the homeless. I give them my remaining six-pack of juice, whose contents have now traveled from the fruit trees of Washington to a processing plant in Ohio to a store in Hawai‘i to Kansas City, Missouri.

The Kansas City Mule, my train to Jefferson City, is composed of older, single-deck “Heritage” style cars. The seats are still comfortable, but the air-conditioning’s out. We stop twice to let 100-plus car freight trains inch past, with another long delay on the sidings to wait for the Mule’s sister train from St. Louis. Soon we’re nearly an hour behind schedule.

“We could have driven and been home by now!” complains an elderly woman across the aisle.

But the scenery makes up for the delays. Fall is at its peak. Missouri’s rolling hills are brilliant with red-and-yellow maples, yellow-and-brown hickories, red-and-brown oaks. Twice, the train rolls past small herds of deer.

Near Knob Noster, Missouri, passengers stare in awe at a different sight: two B-2 stealth bombers, taking off from Whiteman Air Force Base on their way to Afghanistan. One flies almost directly over us. It casts a shadow like an enormous black bat.

“Boy, that’s a big plane,” remarks the middle-aged farmer behind me. “I hear they fly about 900 miles per hour.”

He’s wrong. The B-2 is supposed to be sub-sonic. But these planes are enormous, with wingspans larger than those of most commercial airliners and a payload capacity of 20 tons of explosives. Each plane costs approximately 1.3 billion dollars. Those two planes up there represent more money than the entire estimated annual gross national product of Afghanistan.

Those planes are flying literally halfway around the world to bomb one of the world’s poorest countries. Figure in the cost of fuel--even cheap fuel--pilot and crew training, depreciation, maintenance, and $20,000 smart bombs, and each mission probably costs tens or hundreds of times more than anything it destroys on the ground. And the other side has learned how to kill thousands of Americans with only a few hate-filled lives and some box openers.

I’m sure we’ll be happy to free the women of Afghanistan if we get the chance. But we’re not fighting for freedom this time, despite our rhetoric. We’ve been sacrificing our own freedoms left and right. We enter a police state each time we enter an airport. We shop, work and drive under the vigilance of surveillance cameras. We can’t cash a check or use an ATM without being photographed. Whenever we sign onto a Web site or use a supermarket discount card, we subject ourselves to massive snooping over our personal habits. And now a new bill is making its way through Congress to authorize new intrusions, more searches without search warrants, more reading of our phone calls and e-mail, more detentions without trial. We’re quite willing to trade freedoms for a little security, a little faster travel, a few more goods priced a little more cheaply. And we’ve been even more willing to sacrifice other people’s freedom, if it keeps the cheap goods and the cheap oil flowing.

We aren’t fighting for freedom. We’re fighting to keep our cars and planes and skyscrapers and not get killed.

Energy in this country now is so cheap and plentiful that the capacity to kill thousands is everywhere. As the train crosses the Missouri countryside, it passes silos full of grain grown with fertilizer so packed with energy you can make bombs from it. Every town we pass holds gas stations whose underground tanks hold enough energy to kill dozens or hundreds. Every tank truck that supplies those filling stations is potentially a massive firebomb. Every petroleum tank farm is a superbomb, every refinery a potential holocaust of flames and poisonous gases, every supertanker an opportunity to wreak havoc over hundreds of miles of coastline. If we have to employ enough guards to cover everything flammable, we’ll go bankrupt.

Our enemies don’t need to invent weapons of mass destruction. We’ve invented them ourselves, and woven them into the fabric of our lives. They just need matches.

We can appear to win this war, just as the Israelis have appeared to win every war they’ve fought. But the hate will still remain, to explode again and again. We’ll still lose, in the long run, if we can’t find ways to cut our dependence on high energy and to stop people from hating us. We can’t continue to live our lives the way we have, and still win this war.

At dusk, the train pulls into the ancient station at Jefferson City. Standing beside his grandfather on the brick platform is my son. He waves. He is small and blond and smiling.

We have to start defusing the bombs.



2 comments:

Kanani said...

so very insightful, Alan. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this.

volcanocat said...

I so enjoyed reading this. I felt I was on the journey too. The insights and descriptions are so poignant. What a great piece of writing. It made me tear up. Yes, we have created our own weapons of mass destruction. This deserves a much bigger audience.