Some of my favorite moments of travel in life have involved Mass Transit. Most specifically forms of trains, trams, or other on rails vehicles. The one exception was the cruise I was on, but that’s been covered ad nauseum here before.
Trains can move a phenomenal amount of people with very little in the way of locomotion (heh), a single train engine can pull (effectively) 110 cars. You can hold about 150 people in one car, I’m going to arbitrarily drop this down to 100 and call it a “sexy luxury train”. This means our sexy train can hold 15,000 people.
How many can a greyhound hold? 55 or so on a tour bus. That means a single train can transport 272 times more people. Now I know quantity does not mean quality, but have you ever ridden on a train? Dear lord if it is anything close to modern it is like being in heaven on wheels. The bullet trains I rode in Japan were as smooth as butter, no hopping and skipping you see in traditional movies that feature trains. We got from city to city fast and it was the most relaxing experience I have experienced that didn’t cost me thousands of dollars.
Airplanes are cramped sardines completely entrenched in ridiculous laws and the utterly obnoxious TSA, so you spend a half hour to an hour getting annoyed just to get onto a plane where you barely have space to twitch without bumping someone. Plus you have the luxury of knowing that if anything goes wrong you’ll be falling for about 30,000 feet before you smash into the ground.
Train accidents are hardly casualty free, in fact they can be quite horrifying, we are talking thousands of tons of steel moving at high speeds (30-150 tons for each car). You put our squishy bodies into the equation and its like squeezing putty through a cheese grater. In 2009 there was a single train accident, or at least only one that lead to any casualties. It was a subway train during rush hour so it was pretty much the worst case scenario, barring any 24 Jack Bauer silliness.
Trains also, perhaps by luck, move through some of the most beautiful and scenic locations in the world. I say perhaps by luck because it seems unlikely that they were built with such things in mind, but our travels in Japan lead us through some of the most beautiful regions I have ever seen. Even the populated areas greatly varied with us seeing cities, farmland, and even tiny villages. I found myself daydreaming about what those people were doing in those tiny villages far from civilization (something I figured was impossible in a county the size of Japan, but it is very empty of people for large distances).
The trains we took in Canada, and the trains I’ve taken in a few states now each passed through utterly gorgeous swaths of nature. Our connection with life is perhaps one of the biggest reasons I find train rides so fantastic, where a car ride almost certainly will plop you next to asphalt and man made structures, a train doesn’t need constant and relatively rapid refueling. It can travel immense distances in a single run.
But even if they couldn’t imagine if we expanded our mass transit systems so that you could consistently get to and from any major city in any state in the US without using a single automobile? It would only take 20,000 max capacity trains to put every single US citizen on a train at the same time. I’m not suggesting this but my point is that the feasibility of such a thing is hardly outside of our resources or possibility. 20,000 trains? Good lord the US makes between 3.6 and 4 Million cars every year, that’s about 1.5 tons per vehicle or 5,400,000 tons of material being put into automobile production every year in the US alone. Imagine shifting that kind of production power into trains (and the rails necessary for them to move about).
You’d be able to travel easier, cheaper, and in far more comfort than you do now. The stress of traffic, the dangers of drunk, tired, and bad drivers, and the environmental costs would all be drastically reduced. You could spend your time traveling from Washington DC to Eugene Oregon playing on your laptop, or chatting with your family.
Imagine if you had wireless internet support for all these travel routes, you could work for your job (many US jobs can be telecommuted, most don’t because of dated policies) while traveling. You might be saying to yourself…but I need to get to X fast! Well what about bullet trains, you can already go about 150 miles per hour and this number is increasing as new magnetic rail systems are developed and implemented. A 747 travels at 567 miles per hour or about 3.78 times faster, admittedly this is also as the crow flies, but you are still looking at a small and closing gap.
One could hope that such a change would lead to businesses rethinking how they function, our world is moving into instant demands and instant results, this is too fast for the human brain. This is too fast for policy, for study, for sustainability. If we begin to slow how we get around and think more all inclusive in how we design our artificial environment we could see it leak into all other facets of life. We could shift our fast food culture to a more studious and thoughtful one.
If you’ve never ridden on a train I suggest to do it at least once in your life and I hope its one that isn’t in disrepair (a somewhat difficult thing in the US, danke lobbyists), because the sheer difference in culture and comfort compared to an airplane is something to behold. The only thing keeping planes cheaper is the sheer difference in customer base, they make up the difference in quantity of travelers whereas trains do not have that luxury in the US.
I would love to see the US shift from cars to trains, on the micro and macro levels. For interstate travel and intercity travel. A beautifully orchestrated symphony of moving parts, a clockwork fine tuned to atomic level accuracy. No longer would the roads be a dangerous gamble on ones life, no longer would travel to the big city be wrought with pollution, traffic, and accidents.
Expanding our desire for comfort and convenience into something that now only barely manages the bare minimum. The amount of money necessary to really streamline the comfort experience for travel now is so far out of whack, its just been going on long enough for people to think it acceptable.
PS. I actually would love an electric car, but watching people swerving wildly from lane to lane without turn signals, safe distance, or regard for speed limits in California has shown me that its really not a matter of “if” I’ll be in a car accident but when.