It was two in the morning when the Amtrak train finally pulled into the station. Truthfully, calling what we have in Cleveland a “station” is incredibly forgiving. In reality Cleveland is cursed with a glorified slab of concrete held up by a couple of pillars next to the train tracks. City Lab rightfully called it one of the saddest stations in the country.
Being fifteen minutes late didn’t help matters. It would have been one thing if this were a pleasant afternoon, but instead it was a humid and muggy summer morning. The waiting room managed to be even more uncomfortable, so most waited outside on a collection of benches. The Cleveland Cavaliers had recently won the city’s first professional sports championship in over sixty years and was naturally the topic of conversation.
“I’m ready for them to do it again next year,” one said in excitement.
Another group chatted about a city they had rarely visited despite living in the surrounding suburbs.
“It looks really nice!” said one of the men, seemingly surprised as they waited for their relative on the incoming train.
My wife Melanie and I arrived by Uber. We would have preferred a local train, but a car is inexplicably the easiest way to arrive with the station trapped in the middle of a string of elevated highways. We also would have preferred a train at a more reasonable hour, but such is the state of U.S. auto-oriented infrastructure. Not owning a car, whether by choice or financial constraint, results in a form of transportation punishment. Only two trains pass through Cleveland, both in the middle of the night. A city of comparable size in Europe would see countless trains, high-speed intercity and otherwise, throughout the day.
Despite the inconvenience, we wanted to make a point to take Amtark. I personally had taken trains throughout Europe, Asia and even in Honduras, yet never in my home country. Our excuse came in the form of a family vacation to Bald Head Island, North Carolina. Neither one of us wanted to spend twelve or so hours in a car, and Melanie’s susceptibility to car sickness eliminated that option, not to mention flights to the nearest city were costly. Amtrak, while budgeting for time, proved to be more affordable by way of Washington D.C. A close friend of Melanie’s lived a short jaunt away from Union Station where we could spend the night before heading down to Raleigh the next morning. Amtrak, we decided, would be part of the vacation.
With a move to Europe forthcoming, this would prove to be our last chance to take Amtrak for the foreseeable future. So it was with excitement (and heavy eyelids) that we boarded when the train blew its whistle and finally arrived to Cleveland.
We were both immediately floored. Seats were incredibly generous and spacious with the ability to lay back. Had we mistakenly wandered into first class or something? I had to admit that these were the most comfortable seats I had ever experienced in any form of transportation. Falling asleep was hardly a chore, and I was pleased to awake somewhere in rural Pennsylvania with the rising sun glistening off the adjacent river.
Our day was mostly spent staring out the window, admiring the remarkably resplendent countryside that the United States is so famous for. It’s just a shame we’ve mostly limited access to it for those with automobiles. Shouldn’t this be available to anyone, regardless of income level or car ownership, as it is in most of Europe where so many of our ancestors emigrated from? It reminded me of how we once took a train in Switzerland to the largest waterfall in all of Europe. Unfortunately such a service does not exist to, say, Niagara Falls. Protecting these spaces, first under the stewardship of President Teddy Roosevelt, truly was and is America’s best idea. Dismantling and hampering our rail system was, however, one of our worst ideas. Methinks Teddy would agree.
I feel obliged to note that yes, the train was slow compared to a car. At random points we clocked our train at fifty-five miles per hour. This is enough for most Americans to throw their hands up in the air, guffawed-like, and wonder why we even bother maintaining the bones of a rail system.
Of course it could be much better. Train trips in Europe and Asia are far more often than not much faster than by car. The difference being that they’ve invested in their transportation networks to handle faster trains rather than widening highways, encouraging sprawl and wondering why congestion won’t go away. I know it’s a sin to stray from the “best country in the world” narrative, but I think it would do us some good to admit we can learn a thing or two from our European and Asian friends.
Our train from D.C. to Raleigh was more of what I expected. Seats were closer together and similar to what I’ve experienced in Europe and Japan. For all the criticism people who drive everywhere like to hurl at Amtrak, I can say the comfort was up to snub with the best of the world. If only our government didn’t hamstring them, they could offer better service.
Even in the interim, I’d be more than willing to go a little slower than a car if there was the sense that the country had plans to revamp our rail infrastructure. A five-hour train ride to Cincinnati from Cleveland sounds infinitely more pleasant to me than a four-hour drive that’ll more than likely get stretched to five or six hours with any kind of traffic through Columbus. Not to mention it was announced on the morning of this writing that auto-related fatalities could stretch past 40,000 by the end of 2016, the first time in over nine years. Cheaper gas prices has meant more traveling, which means more death. Unfortunately the proposed solution was to go after distracted drivers, not necessarily to get drivers off the road completely and into mass transit.
Most Americans would likely point to terrorism as an issue of greater concern than transportation. But consider that the United States State Department tallied 28,328 terror-related deaths worldwide in 2015. Twenty-four percent of those deaths included the perpetrators. Looking at numbers alone, it’s obvious our biggest threat is right here at home on our very own roads and highways. How many people need to die before we realize cars aren’t the solution?
In the end, Melanie and I agreed that more people would be singing a different tune if they gave Amtrak a chance. Amtrak is hardly perfect, but its failures stem from the inadequacy of American transportation planning and the influence of the auto industry. If we could build the world’s most extensive highway system, surely we’re also capable of developing the world’s greatest mass transit system. It will open our magnificent countryside, national parks and cities to more travelers while decreasing gas-guzzling, fume-farting traffic to destinations around the nation. Most importantly, it will save lives.