Dateline: Harper’s Ferry

It’s a curious thing about this nation’s passenger rail network.

I mean to say, apart from that we have one in the first place.  This appears to surprise a lot of people.  “Chicago?  When do you fly out?” they ask, confident in the familiar ritualized response of airline and time and ticket class.  When I say I’m taking the Capitol Limited, they’re at a complete loss.  I must clarify:  Amtrak.  A passenger train.

Yes, Virginia, we still have passenger trains.  They’re a lot different than in the olden days, but in some ways they’re still exactly the same.  Folks from all walks of life: college students, families taking a vacation, the odd writer sitting at the corner table.  Half a dozen people in the distinctive uniform of Mennonites.  A wayward lawyer, chalking up the billable hours reading briefs; she does some of her best work on trains — no distractions, she says pointedly.  An eccentric bureaucrat thumbing his nose at government travel requirements (it’s a non-refundable ticket and his H.R. department disapproves, but he’s saving them eight hundred bucks).

And always, there’s a small group of old men who love trains.  I guess one of these days I’ll be one of them.  They’re retired, many from railway jobs; they have pensions and a desire to move about the country, not so much to destinations as following routes.  They communicate mostly in monosyllables and grunts until you mention something within their narrow scope of interest, a recent derailment perhaps.  Then their eyes light up, their faces animate, and you’re suddenly the recipient of an awful lot of information — some of which you’d be happier not knowing.

“Freight went in over the side of that bridge a week back.  Nothing but empty grain cars.  Still trying to work out what happened, but they’ve already opened the bridge back up.  Not to worry, young feller; that bridge is for freight only.  All the same company, of course; CSX owns all the track, does all the maintenance on the whole line.”

“Better than in the old days,” another says.  “Steam boiler hit that river, shock of the cold water and it’d blow sky high.  That one wreck up in Parsippany, sent one of the driving wheels clear through a stone farmhouse and killed a cow on the far side.  Good quarter mile away, that was.”

“T’other hand, them first diesels weren’t no treat neither.  Goods train out of York, had a slow leak that finally caught fire, whole train went up in seconds, they say.  Blazing like a comet, clear across the countryside.  Brakeman got clear, saw the whole thing.  Met him working Pullmans just after the War.”

If you’re ever lucky enough to fall in among this crowd in the Club Car and the tales start flowing free, don’t ever make the mistake of chiming in.  They know their own and you aren’t one of them.  Let them talk and before you know it you’ll be hearing about old wrecks and scalded firemen and ghost trains out of legend.  I know no finer way to while away the hours through Cumberland Gap on into Pennsylvania, with the sun long set and most of the passengers dreaming in their seats, lulled by the rhythm of the rails.

But as I was saying:  It’s a curious thing.  We’ve still got this network of passenger trains running on antique track, and today they run slower than they did seventy years ago.  Some folks still ride, but most would rather save a few hours and fly, or if time’s not a factor they might hop a Greyhound, cramped and uncomfortable though it be.  The schedules are more reliable — and small wonder; freight trains get priority over passenger, though you wouldn’t think it.

One of the fellows was telling me about one spot in Ohio where the big freights change out their crews.  It’s about two miles from one of the biggest freight yards in the country, a place where the sidings spread out in the dozens and hundreds.  But the freights don’t use a siding to switch out staff; they stop and park.  On a spot where twenty percent of the cargo in the country bottlenecks down to two parallel tracks, a big freight will wait half an hour for the paperwork to get filled out before moving on, and heaven help us if there’s two at once.  And that’s just one example.

Thoreau once remarked that, to look at us, you’d think we wanted to live life exactly the way we’re now doing it, so dogmatically do we cling to things just because they’ve always been done the same way.  And yet, if ever we stop and question something in a way the evening news and the politicians haven’t yet thought to, we’re automatically classed as madmen, kooks, eccentrics, or radicals.

Perhaps tomorrow it’ll be different.  There’s a big bunch of very bright people running for president, including not one but two Rhodes Scholars, professors and newsmen and self-made millionaires, and an honest-to-God socialist from Vermont that people are starting to think might just be on to something when he says things hadn’t ought to be like this.  Maybe, just maybe, we’re heading into a future where intelligence is encouraged, innovation is applauded, and change will be the new watchword.

But then I remember the last time, and the time before that.  Most likely the only things that will change are the faces.

Dark thoughts on a dark night, trekking from one urban wasteland to another to engage in what will likely be a futile private battle against fraud and greed.  I’m just a modern Don Quixote tilting at windmills, and this train is my Rocinante.  And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

This is your Not Fake News reporter somewhere in a mountain valley, signing off.  There’s someone telling stories; I’m gonna go listen.

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