Monday, March 12, 2007

I've been wand'rin' early, wand'rin' late,
New York City to the Golden Gate.

About to make another trip, Malcolm was reminiscing. The elves, whose ken far exceeds that of mortals, at first kept stumm and listened tolerantly.

Today Malcolm was on a favourite topic: trains. He reckons that the finest trip possible was Wells-on-Sea to Fakenham, each way, to grammar school, aged twelve, behind an aging and arthritic ex-GER 4-4-0 Claud Hamilton. The line, the trains and engines are long gone, the age has past. Memory, however, is a bourne to and from which this traveller readily returns.

Then there was the East Coast Line, behind a panting LNER A4 (if one was lucky) or, at worst (at worst?) an A3. Then came the Deltics: and the romance was diesel-smoked away.

Or, once upon a time, the Irish Mail meant something other than a Associated Newspapers re-branding exercise:
Let's face it, the Daily Mail is not even a truly British paper. Its kilted edition for Scotland has done well enough, mainly due to out-spending its rivals on marketing and by discounting. But it hasn't really dented that market either. The Daily Mail is essentially English, isn't it? Well, isn't it?
For a an indication of just how truly "Oirish" this artifact really is, Malcolm urges a try at the website "". 'Nuff said. [Agitated nodding from the elves in green.]

No, the Irish Mail was something between a hooley and a wake. For Malcolm, it meant going home to Mum: nip out Trinity Back Gate, a couple of jars at Westland Row. The bar open on the Cambria (or it might be the Hibernia, or in the pits of winter maintenance, Heaven help us, the ghastly Princess Maud). At Holyhead, a midnight assignation with an LMS Royal Scot. For others, though, the same journey would be bitter, a first taste of leaving home and emigration:
...from Chester onwards there is nothing but flatlands and sights of industry, mine-tops, slag heaps, fields of green that seem sickly after the emerald grass of Ireland, cows of a colour and shape never seen on the other side of the Irish Sea, wagon-loads of coal, poultry farms, and very rarely the sight of even a low hill.
[That's Reardon Conner's A Plain Tale from the Bogs, 1937 and long out-of-print].

Noticing growing restlessness, and even an unsuppressed yawn, among the elves, Malcolm changed tack. His mind meandered to recent trips on Amtrak.

Two years, two trips.

The first from New York on the Vermonter. 324 miles to Montpelier ("Mont-peel-yer", none of your fancy French stuff). Scheduled for 8½ hours and, no matter what, the twenty-minute smoking break stops are religiously observed. Train 56 leaves Penn Station 42 minutes late. At Berlin, CT, a passenger trips and falls: so we leave 66 minutes late. As darkness falls, into Vermont, the schedule slips further, until arrival at Montpelier 80 minutes adrift. The train still has three further stops, about the same number of paying passengers, and 90 minutes to go.

And yet it is an experience Malcolm regards benevolently. The second half of the trip northwards is, like Steve Goodman's City of New Orleans:
Fifteen cars and fifteen restless riders.
At New Haven, the electric loco is replaced by a diesel. Inevitably the passing towns turn their backs on the railway; but, heading up the river valley in Connecticut, the scenery changes from industrial wasteland to silvan greenery, with repetitive siren-wails for every crossing. Then there is the extraordinary jockeying that happens at Palmer, MA, when the Vermonter switches from the New England Central tracks to CSX. There is no scheduled halt at Palmer (population 12,500), but as in Casablanca, we wait ... and wait ... and wait ...

The leisurely progress of the Vermonter is a contrast to Malcolm's experience on the other side of the continent. Last October he took the Coast Starlight from Seattle to Portland, just 186 miles and 4 hours. From Vancouver to Los Angeles, all 35¼ hours of it, this was—and should be—one of the world's great train-journeys. The train is deliberately timed for one particular high-spot:
north of Santa Barbara on a spectacular 42-mile stretch of track that hugs the Pacific. This is coastline you cannot see from a car because we are traveling through Vandenberg Air Force Base, and there is no public road... Everyone here has a camera pointed out the window. The ocean, flat and calm, stretches to the horizon in bands of purple, aquamarine, cobalt and indigo. The shore is undeveloped, deserted. Seabirds float on updrafts.
For Malcolm that must be another trip, another year.

Because Amtrak has only passage rights over (in this case) Union Pacific track, the delays can be considerable, hence the moniker "Coast Starlate". So, it was to Malcolm's surprise that everything ran to time: a to-the-second departure from King Street, Seattle and nosing into Union Station, Portland, a minute or three early. Again there is spectacular scenery: along Puget Sound and under the Tacoma Narrows Bridge (nary a quiver!), Mounts Rainier and St Helens omnipresent to the east, until the route reaches and crosses the Columbia River. Unlike the Vermonter, most seats seemed filled.

The United States has to come to terms with what it wants with mass transport. The big cities all have efficient and reliable (but not fast) commuter networks. The resurgence of light-rail projects is amazing in the land of the automobile. Presumably long-distance heavy freight will also survive. Stand (and you will have to) at New York Penn and count the announcements for Amtrak delays.

Once the major airports
(and LAX would be a welcome start) are all linked to the PTAs, the cross-country train journey seems doomed. And yet, despite the modest speeds Amtrak achieves, the time factor is not greatly significant. Boston South to 8th and 33rd is just on four hours (and that's not the Acela express): in real life, that's quicker than the 75min BOS-JFK air route. Just don't try to convince any road-warrior.

Malcolm found he was surrounded by the low drone of dozing elves. The rest is silence. Sphere: Related Content

1 comment:

Clay Eals said...

Good to see your post about "City of New Orleans" by Steve Goodman. He often doesn't get his due. Thought you might be interested in an eight-year project of mine that is coming to fruition -- a biography of Goodman that will be published this spring. Please e-mail me at if you would like me to e-mail you a background sheet on the book. Or check my Internet site below.

Clay Eals
1728 California Ave. S.W. #301
Seattle, WA 98116-1958

(206) 935-7515

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