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A new train of thought

John Infranca | Friday, March 19, 2004

I suppose I should blame my parents for the fact that I was born with legs. Faulty genes are also responsible for my poor eyesight and probably my lack of coordination. But at this moment what I most bemoan is my bipedal existence. I am crammed in aisle 14 of a United Airlines 757. Thirteen aisles of “economy plus” are in front of me. Their ample leg room gave me a tinge of excitement that abruptly vanished when I arrived at my own seat in the first row of “economy minus.” It is not actually called that, but it became apparent that the extra room for the passengers in front of me was provided at my expense, and that of the legions of fellow steerage passengers, as I folded myself into my seat. Perhaps I should stand so that the folks in “economy plus” can fully recline. Instead I sit quietly as the circulation in my legs slowly ebbs. It was not always like this. There was a day when air travel was civilized. People wore ties, real meals were served, there were “lounges” on board and you could even smoke. Perhaps not all of these are substantial losses. Still, I can not help but feel that most flight experiences amount to little more than fragile struggles to maintain one’s human dignity. After nearly stripping to your boxers to pass through security, you shuffle down the aisle into your tiny seat. Often I am fortunate enough to arrive at my aisle seat with no one sitting next to me. The entire plane appears full, but I have found favor with the gods. As door to the gate begins to close, and I strike up a conversation with the attractive young woman in the window seat, I stare hopefully into a blissful future of delightful banter over complimentary pretzels and Bloody Mary mix. Then, suddenly, at the last possible moment, a rather large, hairy man in a tank top bursts through the plane’s door. Slowly, he make his way down the aisle, looking intently at his ticket until, his journey complete, he stops at my row. And so it begins. I feel partly responsible for this whole sordid mess: the meals you now have to pay for, the bag of pretzels that slowly grows smaller and smaller, creeping towards the day where it will be referred to simply as “a pretzel in a bag.” The only thing airlines do not seem to skimp on these days is napkins. Every drink or snack inevitably arrives happily perched upon a napkin. During a recent flight I asked for a napkin and was given it on top of another napkin. It all seemed redundant. I think that I caused all of this. My searching the Internet for an incredible fare across the country for 200-something dollars might bear some connection to the cramped quarters in which I now find myself. Americans love to travel. We also love our space: our cars large, our recliners wide and our stomachs increasingly pronounced. But perhaps most central to our collective personality is the love of a bargain that keeps Target and Wal-Mart in business and situates us like sardines as we ferry across the skies. There is an alternative that might combine our love of space with our desire to save money. Train travel is cheap and the seats are spacious. You can find more than ample sustenance in the snack or dining car and eat like a king with the money you save. Train travel is also remarkably more environmentally friendly than other modes of transportation. According to a recent article in Sierra Magazine, train travel produces on average one-sixth of the pollution per passenger per mile traveled of an airplane and one-third that for an automobile. Train travel is also slowly becoming faster. While many countries have long boasted high-speed rail service, the United States has only recently begun to establish the infrastructure necessary to operate such trains. Amtrak’s high-speed Acela train currently operates between Boston, New York and Washington, DC, and there are plans to develop similar service in ten other corridors across the country. In California, the state has provided significant funding for a fast train that would link major cities. The technology available for train travel is also rapidly advancing. Magnetic levitation trains, which average speeds of 240 miles per hour, are being developed and studies are being made regarding the possibility of such service along the East Coast.Adequate support for train travel has, unfortunately, always been an issue. No passenger system in the world is profitable without some subsidies, but unfortunately highways and airlines in the United States receive far greater subsidies than train travel. Changing this will rely in part on increased support of passenger trains, both commuter lines like the South Shore to Chicago and longer service home on breaks via Amtrak. Such travel can prove to be more frugal, more civilized and more sustainable than air or automobile travel. It can also leave you free to stretch your legs.

John Infranca is a theology graduate student. His column appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at [email protected] views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.