New Mexicans, still suspicious about the addition of the Rail Runner to the state’s distant and lonely freight and occasional Amtrak passenger train, may not even notice the passing of National Train Day. Here, as in most places in the US, “America” and “love of trains” don’t really go together.
We might love the idea of loving trains, but we don’t really love them any more than we love, say, stagecoaches or mule trains. Trains are cool and cute and old-timey. We certainly don’t love them in the way we genuinely love giant, powerful personal automobiles with fat rims, bumpin’ systems and—as my own car has—13 cup holders. It’s true. I guess if I had three or four fat little kids—like a lot of Americans do—I could start a gang that specializes in boosting Dairy Queens. We’d hop in the getaway car with as many milk shakes as we could carry, which, by design, is a lot.
The Amtrak Hiawatha does not have a single cup holder. What’s up with that? Also, if I wanted to rob a fast-food joint, I’d have to get off and grab a bus or something. The train has stripped my freedom to go where I want, when I want. It’s socialism, I tell you. Or, a lot of people might say that, anyway. The conservative New Mexico Watchdog (newmexico.watchdog.org) has a particularly tea-baggish lust for the Rail Runner’s inability to pay for itself. And if the government teat gets tugged, it’s socialist entitlement. Unless the government is buying fighter jets. Americans really do have a love of fighter jets. Those things are awesome.
Sadly, New Mexico is not slated to be connected to the Obama administration’s bullet-train network anytime in the near future. We may have made national news with the announcement that the Rail Runner is offering free WiMax service in perpetuity—jealous East Coast commuters and Santa Fe Wi-Fi opponents let out simultaneous cries of animal anguish—but the $8 billion being released by the federal government to boost jobs and the economy through high-speed rail expansion in 31 states ain’t coming to New Mexico.
Apparently, Californians eager to get to Las Vegas love trains more than we do, and the federal government has noticed. But, hey, at least it’s happening somewhere. Maybe around 2050, when Denver decides it needs a connection to Phoenix or Juárez, New Mexico will become an accidental beneficiary.
In the meantime, there are many problems associated with expanding the nation’s rail lines. For starters, once you’ve gone on your ultra-deluxe, schmancy bullet-train ride, public transportation will still probably suck when you reach your destination. And then, obviously, there’s that persnickety issue of cost, assuming most Americans aren’t about to vote for their love of trains with greater vehemence than they acquiesce to a truly bloated military budget.
From a less skeptical view, as the number of Americans who choose to ride trains increases along with their ease and availability, public sympathy and understanding for interconnected networks of transportation will grow and local public transportation options will actually expand. As far as turning a profit goes, Amtrak has proven that it’s tough. But subsidy for subsidy, trains consume a lot fewer taxpayer dollars than the air-travel industry or the federal highway system. In fact, we’d have to start hurling bank-bailout-style billions at high-speed rail before we could even come close to matching our love of enabling cars and planes.
First, though, we need conditions to conspire for the development of an improved national network to aid economic recovery, most tangibly in the form of jobs. Unless we secretly redirect the efforts of scientists at our national labs or harness some top-secret alien technology from the Roswell UFO crash, we’ll have to make do with our regular-speed rail. Alien technology would be kind of ideal—as with the military, Americans could consider it with equal parts love and terror. And if we can’t get Americans to intellectually understand the need for high-speed rail, maybe we could scare them into it with alien weapons.
For now, though, I don’t mind regular-speed trains. You can watch the landscape drift by or, in true American fashion, get more work done. On the leisurely paced Amtrak Hiawatha, I managed to write this column while traveling between meetings.
Of course, if I were on New Mexico’s Rail Runner, I could have emailed it to my anxious editor.
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