By Jeremiah Cahill
My wife picked me up at the station in Columbus, Wisconsin and the vertigo hit me shortly after we got home to Madison—a kind of dizziness or sense of motion. I‘d been on long-distance trains for three days and three nights, and my body had adapted to the constant swaying. Back on firm ground, everything still seemed to move from side to side. It went on for hours.
Over the last month, I had traveled home to Hawaii, visiting family. I don’t fly there often because air miles are dirty miles, spewing carbon dioxide and other pollutants.
So, attempting to limit my carbon footprint, I rode Amtrak from the west coast, cutting out one significant leg of air travel. I got more than a train ride home—I got an education.
I hoped to come away with a clear alternative to air travel that I could recommend to friends. Confidently, I’d say, “Hey, instead of flying all the time have you thought about riding the train?”
Not so simple.
Back in 1869, dignitaries drove the so-called “golden spike” into place at Promontory Summit, Utah, linking western states with the network of eastern trains that extended as far as Iowa. People and goods began to move efficiently from coast to coast.
It was basic—just a single track. In some ways, not much has changed in 145 years.
I’ll admit, American trains retain a certain romance, including their names. In Emeryville, California, I boarded the Coastal Starlight that runs from Los Angeles to Seattle. In Portland, Oregon I would transfer to the Empire Builder, traversing Washington, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
I took in great scenery, from the California high desert around Mt. Shasta, the Cascade Range in Oregon, rivers and mountains of northern Idaho, and Glacier National Park, brilliant white following the first winter storm of the season. It’s one reason to recommend the train—see the American landscape from an observation car.
Another positive—you’ll meet people and have time for leisurely conversation. Hours spent in the dining and café cars introduced me to a working-class philosopher, a retired botanist, a family headed by an elderly climate-change denier, and an Amish couple who ride the train rather than fly. I tried unsuccessfully to converse with an oil field “roughneck” who, after weeks on the rigs, was more interested in eating everything on the breakfast menu and retiring to catch up on sleep.
On the negative side, if you’re looking for a speedy trip, forget it. Sometimes I wondered if we were averaging 30 miles an hour. Sure, when Amtrak gets cranking, you’re rolling along at 60 or 65. But portions of the western rail system still operate on just one main track. Passenger trains are in constant competition with freights.
And the Empire Builder hauls a lot of freight along that route. I gave up counting the times we were sidetracked by oil tank cars coming out of North Dakota.
Oh, the irony! There I was, on a quest to discover clean-burning, long-distance transportation but rolling through the heart of the shale oil boom. Posters proudly claim the Burlington Northern rail line “can ship 730,000 barrels of crude oil every day.”
Eerie—and most disturbing—were the bright-orange flames across the oil fields. “Flaring” oil wells burns off “waste” gas, which if captured reportedly could heat half a million homes each day.
Flaring oil wells is so extensive that nighttime satellite images of rural North Dakota light up with what appear to be cities but are instead gas fires burning round-the-clock.
So, weary and a bit discouraged after 2,600 miles, I was finally home. Despite my brain rocking from side to side, I knew it was time for some serious mass-transit research.
I thought about “bullet trains” in other countries. Why was I sleep deprived, lurching from stop to stop, while passengers elsewhere were speeding comfortably toward their destinations? Is this is the best the American railways can do?
Sure enough, since 1964 Japan’s high-speed rail network has carried hundreds of millions of passengers each year, with multiple trains traveling at 200 mile an hour between major cities.
High-speed rail lines operate in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy and a dozen other countries.
China’s high-speed rail network is now the longest in the world and the most heavily used.
Here at home, Amtrak has one high-speed line in the northeast corridor connecting Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C.
That’s a start but nowhere near the potential shown by trains employing magnetic levitation. “Mag-lev” trains run not on a conventional steel rail but use magnets to suspend and propel the vehicle at speeds close to 300 miles per hour. In China, mag-lev service connects Shanghai’s airport to the city’s other commuter rail services in mere minutes.
The 2015 United Nations climate talks in Paris now point the world toward a zero-carbon future. We’ll need all available tools as we move away from fossil fuels.
Unfortunately the antiquated American train system isn’t yet a big part of the solution.
Looking back, my bumpy trip across the western states convinces me that the U.S. can do better—much better—by investing in rail transit and renewable energy.
Now that the vertigo is past, I’m ready to help make that happen.
© 2016. Jeremiah Cahill spends his time doting on granddaughters, gearing up for climate activism, and dabbling in memoir and current-events essays. Originally from Honolulu, Hawaii, he now resides in Madison, Wisconsin.