Unfortunately, trains will be a hard sell

by John M. Crisp

Full disclosure: I like trains.

In fact, I wouldn’t have minded if America had not taken such a sharp turn in the mid-20th century away from public transportation — such as trains and buses — toward the private ownership of automobiles.

It was a national choice. Eventually nearly everyone was on board. In the 1950s, President Dwight Eisenhower advocated for an extensive interstate highway system. Congress agreed. Gas was cheap and seemingly inexhaustible. Soon every family had a car; some even had two.

As private automobiles became essential to Americans’ lives, they began to reshape Americans’ lives in new ways. We invented the suburbs and motels and drive-thru fast food. Jack Kerouac, Bonnie and Clyde and “Fast and Furious” became possible.

We fell in love with the freedom to go anywhere, anytime, alone or with our families, rather than with strangers on a bus or train. Americans discovered the romance of the open road; teenagers discovered the romance of the backseat.

But the bargain had Faustian elements: To accommodate our cars, we paved millions of acres for roads and parking lots. Automobiles required a dependable supply of petroleum, and thus our foreign policy has been largely shaped by the need to keep oil flowing from some of the most volatile parts of the earth. In the process some of those areas became even more volatile. Few elements of modern life have had a bigger impact than private ownership of automobiles on the world economy, climate, air quality and the congestion of our cities.

The flip side of the independence provided by the automobile is insularity. A natural consequence of driving in increasingly congested conditions is road rage. Cities became dangerously inhospitable for pedestrians. And hundreds of millions of miles driven by millions of drivers — many of whom are sleepy, drunk, inept, speeding or texting — guaranteed that the carnage on our roadways would be impressive. And it is: About 100 people are killed every day in traffic accidents.

The inevitable consequence of our preference for automobiles was a steady, downward-spiraling deterioration of public transportation. Train service became scarce, slow and erratic. It disappeared completely in many places. The same with bus service, and bus stations became shabby, dreary places haunted by those who can’t afford to drive.

Public transportation became trapped in a vicious cycle: It deteriorated because fewer people used it, and fewer people used it because it was deteriorating.

Those of us who like public transportation are encouraged by suggestions that the Biden administration is interested in reimagining the choices that Americans have for getting around in ways that will remedy some of the downsides of our car culture.

Indeed, the administration’s proposed infrastructure plan includes money for upgrading Amtrak and improving and increasing rail service to more cities. At the same time, the plan reflects our deep commitment to the private vehicle: It includes funds for 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations, reinforcing the idea that everyone still has to have her own car.

Is our choice of personal vehicles over public transportation irrevocable? I fear that it is.

We have embraced the freedom of the automobile, and we will be loath to relinquish it, even for modes of transportation that are faster, more comfortable, more efficient, safer and easier on the environment.

Unfortunately Americans’ preference for our current way of getting around is prejudiced by our unfamiliarity with good public transportation; we haven’t seen it in our country for years. For that we have to look elsewhere.

Here’s one example: Around 20 times per day, a train leaves central Barcelona. Fewer than three hours later it arrives in central Madrid, a distance of 314 miles. The traveler reclines in a seat that is much roomier and much more comfortable than on any airplane. He doesn’t have to check his bags. He can sleep, read, watch movies or surf the internet.

He can stroll down to the bar car and have a drink. He is served delicious fare with his choice of five wines. Meanwhile the Spanish countryside glides past at 192 mph.

One wonders: If Spaniards can have this, why can’t we?

 John M. Crisp lives in Georgetown, Texas, and can be reached at jcrispcolumns@gmail.com