South Orange train station

I had always intended to revisit the idea initially captured in the Train Culture post from January. A little over a month ago the post kicked up a spike of momentum in social media networks and was featured on the WordPress.com homepage. The avalanche of thoughtful comments, not to mention making several new friends and receiving an unbelievably flattering review from Roger DuPuis of Trams Stop Here!, was unexpected confirmation that I had stumbled over something that resonated with more than a few out there, and that it was about time I pick up where I left off.

In a nutshell: the lifestyle shaping and community forming aspects of train networks seem often to be overlooked in US national and regional level discussions on infrastructure planning. Without diminishing the importance of financial viability, particularly given the current state of the economy, I think that not giving such short shrift to experiences of end users (current and potential) would add a deeper perspective and go a long way in changing the tenor of the conversation.

Rather than set to work on a great train manifesto, which would inevitably end up overreaching in some areas, while at the same time never quite be complete, I think the best way to approach the topic is the same way we experience trains: one trip at a time. I’ll periodically feature a train culture story that highlights a slice or two of the big picture, creating an ongoing string of rail related vignettes.

No, you can't have my crab

The first one out of the gate features the newest member of our family on her very first train and inaugural visit to New York City. (In case anyone is confused, the photos are from last week. We were safely tucked away at home while the hurricane roared through.) We weren’t sure how the first trip might go, so we brought along plenty of toys in the event we had an unhappy rider. It turns out our concerns were overblown. It would be an understatement to say it is substantially easier to regulate the mood of an infant when she is not strapped into a car seat. I’m generally the driver when the three of us are out together, so travel time means I have to all but disengage from them, in order to focus on the road. The train returns that time to me, which, these days, is a commodity I do not take for granted.

New York Penn Station

I would have been more than satisfied if the story ended there. The other passengers in the car seemed to take much interest in our daughter intently examining her new surroundings, before doing a number on a container of bananas. What I was not expecting was the subsequent turn of the conversation. The two younger men seated next to us remarked how opportunities like this were much more common in Europe, with its extensive rail networks. They wondered aloud if the US would ever be able to have something that remotely approached that. An older man across the aisle talked about how the rail system where he had grown up played a fundamental role in his childhood mobility and independence. For a very modest sum, he could take transit to anywhere he wanted to go. For 35 minutes, our compartment brought together a group of strangers who discovered a united belief in the value of this kind of service. That’s train culture.

I've arrived!