By JOHN M. CRISP
America chose the automobile over other forms of transportation long before 1956, when President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act, legislation that authorized the construction of our national interstate highway system and represented a deep commitment to private transportation by means of the internal combustion engine. Without our 47,000 miles of four-lane, limited-access interstate highways, America would be a very different place.
A visit to the train station in Zurich, Switzerland, provides a glimpse of the parallel universe that we might live in if we had made a different choice sometime before 1956. The bahnhof’s cavernous high ceiling protects an immense array of parallel platforms that connect, literally, to everywhere. Arrivals and departures are indicated on a large overhead display. Old-fashioned cards flip and flutter to indicate destinations, departure and arrival times, and track numbers. Trains come and go constantly: Lucerne, Geneva, Hamburg, Milan, Paris, and nearly all points in between.
And they depart precisely on time, to the minute. Inside, the carriages are clean, spacious and comfortable, and the ride is smooth and safe. You can read, doze, work a crossword puzzle, take a short walk or watch the scenery. You can observe other passengers, like the two women who, going over the Bernina Pass, well above the tree line, and having had a couple of fine German beers with lunch, broke spontaneously into a well-harmonized Swiss yodeling song.
Many Americans, however, have never made any sort of trip by train. Our fondness for the automobile makes it the only conceivable mode of ground transportation for most people. Even in Western Europe, where train travel is comfortable and efficient and gasoline is very expensive and parking difficult, the trend is toward private ownership of automobiles.
But if high gas prices and serious threats to our oil supply ever provoke us to reconsider our commitment to transportation by private automobile, allow me to speak in favor of train travel by imagining two journeys from where I live in Corpus Christi, Texas, to, say, Houston’s Minute Maid Park to see the Astros.
First, the car trip: It begins with a number of tedious tasks associated with automobile ownership _ checking the tires and radiator, filling the tank _ and then a four-hour piece of work, maneuvering in traffic at 70 mph for some 200 miles. Some people enjoy this, but it’s tiresome. I might stop for dinner, but no alcohol _ I’m driving. When I reach Houston, things get hectic, with four or five lanes of fast-moving traffic going in both directions. But when we slow down for the inevitable construction, I begin to wonder if I’m going to make it to the game in time for the first pitch. Eventually, I find parking, some blocks from the ballpark.
Later, the hard part: A four-hour drive at night after an extra-inning game. It’s a good road, but there’s plenty of traffic and people are driving fast. Some of them are drunk, some are in an aggressive bad mood, some are talking on cell phones, some are driving unsafe cars, some are just bad drivers and some are sleepy. Before long, I’m sleepy, too, and maybe after a while I’m not such a great driver myself. I survive, nevertheless, and so do most of the others, with a few bloody and violent exceptions.
The train trip: Had our society chosen public train travel over private automobiles many years ago, I can imagine walking a few blocks to a subway station or bus stop for a trip to the train station and catching an express to downtown Houston. My train leaves precisely on time and I relax in a comfortable recliner and watch the coastal plain roll past for a while.
Then I might read, surf the Internet or watch a movie. I can have a bite to eat and, if I like, a couple of beers. We make two or three quick stops on the way, but three and a half hours later, I’m catching the subway to Minute Maid Park for the game. On the way back, I’m tired, so I skip the movie and doze in a comfortable recliner, and before I know it, we’re pulling into Corpus Christi.
Sometimes I actually regret Henry Ford’s ingenious idea.
(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Email jcrisp(at)delmar.edu.)