For some reason, I became enamored with train travel at a very early age. One of my earliest memories is of riding the Strasburg Railroad, an antique steam engine train in southeastern Pennsylvania, with my grandparents. I returned to daycare after my first trip to Washington, DC, recounting only the experience of riding the metro, including pitch-perfect recitation of, “Doors closing <ding dong>.” As I grew older, rail transit became a fundamental element of how I interacted with the world. Trains have meant never needing to brave the commuter traffic of Washington or New York metro areas, arriving safely at my destination after enjoying a few chapters of a book. While living in Japan, trains literally carried me anywhere I wanted to go, and the micro-worlds found above, below and around major hubs packed enough activity to merit their own anthropological study.
It was these thoughts that came to mind when I first heard mentions of the stimulus funding that had been marked for investment in US rail infrastructure. It was disappointing to watch how quickly the public discussion devolved into debate over whether we ought to be spending any money for this at all. Some politicians equated investment in public transportation with socialism and found that adopting an anti-train platform could help one garner a respectable amount of votes. What makes this all a bit absurd is that, with population growth projections of over 100 million in the next several decades, the choice between investing and not is a false one. Even more ridiculous, the much maligned stimulus funds merely propose to bring many existing and decrepit transit systems up to something resembling working order, and the so-called high speed rail plans are mere shadows compared to what already exists or is being built in Europe, Japan and China. The ship is sinking and we are arguing about whether to plug the hole.
It is a complex problem that needs to be addressed if we are to move forward, but I do not plan to jump into this technical, financial and political brouhaha. Rather than add to the shouting, I am much more interested in shining a light on the unique and fun aspects of train centric development that seem to often be overlooked by a largely car dependent society. So far, attempts at teasing out the precise dimensions of this idea have yielded an amorphous collection of images and experiences. As I tried explaining to my friend Christa a few weeks ago, I have not yet been able to define “train culture” but know it when I see it. The following examples are a starting point in painting a picture of these intangibles:
I grew up watching my father leave for work around 5:30 in the morning, a 90 minute car commute (each way). My father loves life as much as anyone else, so I often wonder what he might have done with an extra three hours a day. I have worked in Philadelphia, Washington, DC and New York, but for my entire career have never commuted by auto. Choosing to live and work in urban environments with mass transit, taking me out of the driver’s seat, was a conscious choice to ensure that I can always make productive use of my time. I have polished off many a good book on my way to and from work.
For a time, I was living in New Jersey but working in Washington four days a week. I took Amtrak down the Northeast Corridor early Monday morning and back Thursday evening. I usually departed on the trip down around 6:00am, making use of the quiet car to rest before jumping head first into the day when I arrived at Union Station. On the return trip, I could finish work, pull out a book, and in some cases even make a new friend. Though we grumbled about Amtrak’s less than stellar on-time statistics, in truth no one was sorry to have avoided a grueling trek up or down Interstate 95.
Hong Kong has a convenient and well-maintained metro system. It can take you all the way from Hong Kong Island to the border with Guangdong Province. Though not quite as fast, the brightly colored tram pictured above is another way to get around the central business district. For 2 HKD (about $0.25) you can take in the changing scenery, hang your arm out in the harbor breeze, and get up close and personal with the local inhabitants while en route to your destination.
China is investing in rail infrastructure as if its future depended on it (which it very well may, as anyone who has sat through a Beijing traffic jam can attest). It is building a high speed rail network comparable to Europe and Japan’s, as well as extensive regional rail (much of which still runs faster than Amtrak’s Acela), local services and metro systems. For my wife Min and I, this means that the 350km trip from Shanghai to Jinhua to visit our parents, four and a half hours at highway speeds, can be made in about two while comfortably zipping across the countryside and enjoying tea brewed by aid of the onboard hot water dispenser.
Japan’s Shinkansen trains whisk passengers between major cities at speeds of up to 300 km/h, stopping in central city transportation hubs with seamless connection to regional rail and metros. Their cost competitiveness and convenience (no security lines or baggage check) has led to the elimination of some short and medium haul flights. One could finish work in Osaka, hop on the Tokaido Shinkansen and be back in Tokyo (550 km away) in time for dinner. Despite the distances involved, Japanese from different regions can jump from city to city almost as effortlessly as data moving between nodes on a computer network.
In Tokyo, as in other large cities, extensive rail and metro networks have a profound impact on the rhythm of Japanese life. Stations often serve as focal points for neighborhoods. They are one of the most common locations for meeting others. Large department stores and grocery halls built into hub stations are always buzzing with activity as commuters stop to pick up items on the way home (I did my weekly grocery run at Odakyu’s food hall under Shibuya Station). Shinjuku Station, the Guinness world record holder for most passenger volume, has enough restaurants, vendors and services that one could survive a lifetime without leaving the complex.
The Shimokitazawa neighborhood in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward is defined by the fact that it surrounds its train station of the same name. The tiny apartments and shops on narrow streets and allies crammed into the spaces between the intersecting Odakyu and Keio Inokashira lines create its characteristic charm. For many in the US, it might be challenging to understand how this could be desirable, but the residents of Shimokita wouldn’t have it any other way.
In some ways I think travel by train helps us to remember that we are part of something bigger. New York’s Grand Central Terminal has more platforms than any other train station in the world, dispatching riders to destinations throughout New York State and Connecticut. The Main Concourse is typically awash with travelers headed to meetings with colleagues, friends and family. It vibrates with unmistakable energy confirming that life happens here.
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Yes, we are not Europe, Japan or China. There are difficult barriers we face. We have so much existing non-compact development, which makes rail impractical for some areas. Highway travel and petrol are not priced to reflect their true costs, which distort financial viability projections for public transit projects. Both of these contribute to a way of thinking that equates car ownership with personal freedom, but more cars and more highways are not scalable. We should not build trains (or other infrastructure) to nowhere, but where and when we must build there is a great opportunity to rethink how we as a society wish to cultivate our way of life. I hope that by calling more attention to these additional benefits we can reframe the discussion away from incremental changes to the status quo. Doors are opening <ding dong>.
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