I’m writing from around 33,000 feet above Wyoming on a flight from San Francisco to Boston.
I feel guilty flying: it’s not something I’m particularly pleased to do, and not only because I don’t enjoy the experience. We’re destroying our planet, and by taking the easy way out and boarding an Airbus A321 across the country, I’m part of that. JetBlue announced on takeoff that this flight was carbon neutral, but I don’t think I believe in carbon credits, and the principle goes far beyond offsetting a single flight.
Earlier this year, I drove a hybrid van across the country. A few years ago, I took the train. Each was a pretty long journey: the train is almost three full days, and to be safe driving cross country you’ve really got to take at least a week. In comparison, this flight will take five hours.
What does adequate mass transit look like?
If there had been high speed rail with a quality internet connection, I would have taken it without any question. But driving means taking weeks off work; the train means taking a few days. It wasn’t time I could easily spend. Adding connectivity to the train would have made it the perfect way to do it.
Amtrak’s infrastructure dates back to 1971 and hasn’t really been updated since then. (Imagine my surprise when I booked an en-suite sleeper cabin and discovered that the toilet bowl was next to the head of my bed.) If we could invest in it just to bring it up to the level of every other nation in the global north - frankly, a task we need to perform with all our infrastructure - it would be a viable way to get around. As it is, it’s an also-ran that isn’t even cheaper than boarding a plane.
The popularity of planes shows that Americans are willing to take mass transit if it’s the best option. What are domestic flights if not buses in the sky? So there’s every possibility of creating a modern train system that people will use, and which works well.
Make it run fast and on time. Make sure there’s food, great internet, the opportunity to sleep, and a variety of options. Add seat-back entertainment - hey, maybe you could order your food from there - and comfortable seats. Do away with the 1971 aesthetic but keep the amazing staff that have kept the railways working for decades, sometimes handing down roles from parent to child. Make the north-east Acela route - essentially the same experience as getting on virtually any standard class train in Europe - the base level. For business travelers, make it like a moving hotel. And then encourage everyone to use it for the experience.
This isn’t frivolous: transit is important. Preventing people from moving around the country (or between countries) is not an option. So let’s upgrade our options and do it in style - and help save the planet in the process. The money is there; all that’s required is will.