The image of a train brings with it a myriad of emotional reactions from the average person. From the early steam train voyages west across America to the futuristic monorail of Disney World, these Pavlovian responses are ingrained into our memories. The chrome of the engine on a sleek passenger rail triggers thoughts of a Capra-esque black and white film full of humor and romance. A dusty, steam engine takes us back to the gold rush of the early 1900’s. The relaxing, sumptuous leather of a dining car seat, the humorous possibilities of a crowded sleeper car, the thrill of adventure while journeying toward previously uncharted territory. For most of us these emotions are as clear as the movies and stories which first introduced us to this brilliant mode of mechanized transportation. In examining the glorious, and sometimes tumultuous history of the train, we can not only be transported back and forth through eras and life-styles, but come to the end of the line with the knowledge that we are once again about to board the resurrection of the train.
The train has become a nostalgic icon representing a more leisurely time in our history. Television and movies have helped to build the emphasis of glamor, intrigue and a slower, more peaceful time in society. While this all still holds a certain degree of truth, what is rarely pointed out is the ever-changing usefulness and personality of the train. Whereas in the classic western, a train is used because it was still a novelty and was the only real mode of transportation for those who could afford to purchase a ticket from the conductor. By the 1930’s and 40’s, films were more likely to portray the train as the preferred mode of travel and highlighted the romantic and mysterious aspects of a long, secluded ride through the night. Even now, as we celebrate the fact that the passenger rail has been in existence for nearly 200 years, trains have not outlived their usefulness. Many European countries have never left the age of the commuter train. They have not only kept it alive, but it has proven to be quite beneficial to their tourist trade. Here in the United States, California is instituting high speed rails and most major cities have some type of commuter train to help with their traffic needs. In fact, what is abundantly clear is that trains have evolved with the changing of our societal needs, our economical requirements and our desire to become one with and preserve our overextended environment.
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it
~George Santayana, The Life of Reason, Volume 1, 1905
While the average American is probably unaware who wrote those words, this quote is widely known. The obvious reason for it’s appreciation today, over 100 years after it was written, is that it still holds true. As a country, we have seen both great progress and great setbacks in every aspect of our lives. As we embark on an era which has become known as a time for change, we must look backwards in order to look ahead to a better future. When President Franklin Roosevelt first instituted “The New Deal” to combat the overwhelming effects of the Great Depression, he was met with skepticism and derision. After all was said and done, we, as a country were able to build ourselves back up to become an even stronger nation. Now, 75 years later, we find ourselves in a similar situation as a nation.
When we rebuilt and reemployed America, we did so in part by rejuvenating our transportation systems. At the time our focus was more on roads and automobiles, but in those 75 years we have learned a little more about the long-term damage of the single-car driver and what a dependence on oil can truly cost us in the end. Our focus needs to be a solution which will solve our problems on larger scale. A design which will serve multiple purposes and achieve a plethora of goals in one fluid movement. That movement is the resurrection of the passenger rail on a national level.
Bringing the passenger train to an area such as Asheville, North Carolina could be the advent of a change that is both remarkable and calculable. In measuring only the drivers who commute in the greater Asheville area and down through to the highly utilized Interstate 26 to Greenville/Spartanburg, South Carolina, the train could become the necessity that it is in larger cities like Chicago and New York. While it may not evoke those same images of gleaming silver and brass rails to rest your feet, the modern commuter train has evolved with the times. These days travelers prefer to use their blackberries, their wireless laptops and their PDA’s. The modern traveler has an iPod and sends texts on their cell phone. Methods of communication and work or leisure activities which would be encouraged on a train are being banned on our roadways due to the dangers which they create.
Now is the time for the train. Now is the time to embrace an integral part of who we are as a country. Now is the time to resurrect the philosophy of George Santayana and learn from the mistakes we have made with our environment. Now is the time to stream-line our lives and move forward into a better future. Now is the time to sit back on a train with our families and really have an opportunity to see this great and wonderful land that we have cultivated into our home. Now is the time to take those negatives of modern communication and turn them into possibilities of a more effective way of life and travel. Now is the time for the train. Now is the time to sieze a thought, a hope, an ideal…and turn it into a reality.
Now is the time for the train.