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COMMONS MAGAZINE

Posted
July 20, 2015

A Moveable Commons

The train is not only an easy, economical way to get places. It's also a convivial, pleasurable experience.

(Photo by Bruce Fingerhood under a Creative Commons license.) 

Former OTC co-editor Jonathan Rowe was an evocative writer who could raise profound issues and insights with simple anecdotes. Here's an example from one of his still timely On the Commons blogs. For more of his work, see the recently published anthology Our Common Wealth.

She said something about Josh, who was asleep on my shoulder. Such a sweet boy. Those eyes. I thanked her, asked if she had kids. A daughter, she said, eighteen. Was it hard, her daughter leaving home? Yes. When she looked at her did she still see the three year old the daughter used to be? Yes again.

We were on a train, the Coastal Starlight between Southern California and Seattle. It was running late, which is something I’ll get to in a minute. Dusk was turning into night and we still were hours away from where we were supposed to be already. There was a sense of suspended reality, and a shared weariness that became a kind of intimacy.

What did she do? I might not like it, she said. Then she told me — law enforcement, LAPD. She was not large, but there was a wary edge; I could see it. Was a cop ever off duty, I asked.

A lot has been written about trains as an answer to America’s energy sinkhole, and to congestion on the highways. It’s true, mainly, but there’s something else that’s equally important: the way public transportation, and trains in particular, provide social glue, a place where lives can intersect in unplanned and often serendipitous ways. You sit with other people in a relaxed setting for hours on end. Naturally you start talking. When there’s an observation car, which is a kind of common room, you practically can’t help it.

Even if you don’t talk you listen. Next to me two women were chatting, an age gap of maybe 50 years between them. The younger one said she wanted to be a writer. The older one pulled a notebook from her handbag and read some poetry she had written. It was more Lake Wobegon than Sewanee Review. But how many settings in America today would a young and old person talk like that? If more politicians traveled on trains they wouldn’t have such need of focus groups and polls. They could listen for themselves.

They also might have time to think. Like most commons. trains are multifunctional. Where the market specializes, commons serve many purposes at once. While they encourage conviviality, they also are a sanctuary. You can put aside the phone and e-mail and simply be alone with your thoughts.

Thomas Carlyle, the British writer, once said that a traveler should not even read, but rather “sit still and label his thoughts.” I have a hunch that the vapidity of public debate today is connected in part to the way our leaders travel. The men who drafted the U.S. Constitution had long coach rides to Philadelphia in which to label and organize their thoughts. For long days and even weeks they had nothing to do but converse and reflect. The quality of the Constitutional debates was one result.

It doesn’t take much reading of the Congressional Record today to realize the trajectory since then has not been upward. As travel has sped and become more hectic; and as more modes of instant “communication” occupy our minds, the content of those minds has become thinner gruel. I doubt that the Federalist Papers could have been written by people who scurried about with cell phones.

Need it be said that trains also provide a chance to see this beautiful country of ours? Josh was entranced by the passing scene outside the window — the sawmills like the ones in his Richard Scarry books, the heavy equipment and construction sites, the woodlands in which most of the trees had been cut. “Did the Once-ler do that?” he asked, (referring, as most parents know, to the character in the Dr. Seuss fable The Lorax, who turned a verdant landscape into a wasteland in his pursuit of gain). Yes, I said, or someone like him.

Come to think of it, maybe that’s the problem. Many Republicans want to kill Amtrak, and maybe one reason is that they don’t want us to see what their Once-ler pals are doing to our country. Maybe they don’t want Americans talking across the ideological divides that they work so hard to maintain. They’d rather have us in the isolation of our cars, stewing in our angers and our sores rubbed raw by Mr. Limbaugh and his ilk.

The much-discussed polarity in American politics is related to the disappearance of commons in which Americans can talk with people with whom they do not already agree. Trains are a last refuge in which a writer from Northern California can talk with a cop from L.A. and find something to agree on. They are a place where dogmatics can yield to humanity. We need more of them not less

Why The Trains Don't Run on Time

The Coastal Starlight was five hours late, and I gather that’s not unusual. The train is on time only about half the time, and the main reason is that it doesn’t own the tracks it runs on. Those belong to the Union Pacific railroad, which requires Amtrak trains to pull onto a siding and sit while its freight trains pass. (Those trains can be very long.)

Stuff moves while people wait. There is something emblematic in that. But actually it’s worse. The tracks sit on land that by and large the railroads got for free. Congress gave it to them, which means that we taxpayers gave it to them, along with large sections on either side. The reason for the grants was so that the railroads could serve us taxpayers with rail service, including passenger service.

So now we get shunted aside on land we ourselves gave the railroads so that we could move. Many politicians in Washington want to kill Amtrak so we can’t move by rail at all. The railroads then will be off the hook entirely. They’ll have the land we gave them, and we’ll have nothing except the freight, for which we pay market rates. (That includes farmers and businesses by the way.)

The reason Congress had to establish Amtrak was because so many railroads had reneged on their obligation to provide passenger service. We taxpayers then had to fund what already had funded abundantly through generous bestowals from the commons. (The grants often included timber and mineral rights by the way.)

So here’s a proposal. If conservative politicians want to get the burden of passenger service off the taxpayers’ back, why doesn’t it put it back where it ought to be — on the recipients of the original land grants to build railroads? Why doesn’t Congress establish a levy on the land granted to railroads to accomplish what the grants originally were supposed to do?