Keep the Clickety Clack

Two reactions to the summer's Amtrak bailout: (1) Dang! Another government bailout! (2) How long since I've taken the train?

The Enron, Tyco, WorldCom, and Martha Stewart troubles quickly smokescreened the Amtrak business troubles off the media's watch list, leaving only a few Libertarians to complain about the $270 million Congressional gift. The critics pointed out that governments shouldn't own businesses. Fed Ex, as they incessantly note, makes money while the postal service doesn't.

But some resources should be shared. Sidewalks, roads, highways have always been maintained by the communities, some of the last territories regarded as commons. At any rate, there will be more Amtrak requests -- Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta promised only that the $270 million would keep the trains running until October.

Of course we have to bail out Amtrak. Again and again and as often as it takes. But, the critics say, we should make railroads profitable or abandon them.

While it's fair to insist that Amtrak upgrade service in return, we can't hold the railroads to make profit targets that other transporters don't meet.

Besides bailing out the travel agencies, taxpayers donated generously to the airlines when travel was disrupted after Sept. 11 -- $5 billion, including an $802 million grant. United reaped enough government loans to buy 30 luxury jets.

And, before you erringly conclude that United completed the financial redistribution by putting Americans to work, the tax money went for jets from France.

Taxpayers pay for roads and highways. Taxes pay for the Corps of Engineers to scoop out the channels for barges, and taxes build docks for cruise ships.

Even the airlines benefit from taxpayer largess. Allan Sloan, writing in Newsweek on Oct. 7, 2002, suggests that we should look at the airlines as "a public-works project for airline employees and airplane builders." Since 1938, when the industry took off, the total profit for airlines has been $3 billion, according to the Air Transport Association. Taxpayers have built the terminals, paved the airstrips, condemned entire villages to expand airfields and build roads and parking lots around them.

Critics, many from Washington, D.C., where railroads still pay their way, lugging commuters up and down the East Coast, say we should compare today's railroads to the pre-subsidy railroads. Besides moving product and people, the railroad corporations built terminals, track, and opened employment to African-Americans before other industries.

And, though the Washingtonians might not have noticed, the railroads have contributed more good images to more good bluegrass songs than all other movers and shakers combined. Well, maybe excepting the truckers.

Indeed, it may be the bluegrass-nostalgia-pathos that makes Amtrak the subject of so much disparagement. Americans are in love with the new, the shiny. Railroads have begun to seem retro and unnecessary.

The rest of the world, on the other hand, is modernizing rail systems, perfecting high-speed rail transit and sending new lines into the countryside. Europe has built an entire, profitable tourist industry on "Eurailpass," and the UK has done the same with "Britpass." China plans to invest more than 130 billion yuan ($15.7 billion) in the country's rail system within the next five years, according to the China Daily.

Americans need the option to air and highway travel. Railroads are thrifty, in terms of energy expended, and they serve many towns that are far from airports.

Yeah, but how long has it been since you've taken the train?

I had to make several trips between Chicago and my home in mid-Missouri last summer. I made the trips by car and air. One trip, planned to be air travel, became a car trip because, checking in at the airport, I couldn't find my ID. I had lost it on an earlier trip.

It arrived a few days later at my house in the mail -- thanks to the kindness of strangers -- but I was already sick of airports and tired of driving. It was time to renew acquaintance with the rails. I booked a trip from Chicago (leaving at 9:15 a.m.) to Jefferson City (arriving at 5:24 p.m.) for $55 -- about half the cost of air travel.

Compared to flying, considering drive time to the airport, and check-in time before boarding a plane, eight-plus hours of train travel was only about two hours more than I'd spend traveling by air.

The decision was made easier with Congress discussing the pilots-with-guns proposal. Having seen Airplane II, I know what happens when guns shoot holes in the walls of jet planes. But there's more. Call it history, heritage, pace.

"Clickety clack. Clickety clack," said one friend, rolling her eyes. "Bad road beds. Delays." A pause, then: "They're still in business?"

Yes, they're still in business. And they're trying harder. Even the cheerful voice recognition system on their toll-free number (1-800-872-7245) seems to be trying harder, attentively listing the necessary but dull questions. "When do you want to travel?" "Where do you want to go?" and summing up your answers with a chatty "Let's review."

I arrived at Union Station, Chicago, a half-hour before departure to show my picture ID and pay the bill. Entering the station -- a huge, echoing vault of a marble building with gilded lettering and bronze light fixtures and statues -- I was temporarily disoriented. No problem. Almost as soon as I hesitated on the steps, someone pointed me in the right direction. Ever try to find information in an airport?

Here are a few advantages to train travel, jotted down as I rolled across the prairie: Art Deco stations. Space for knees, head, suitcases. Breathable air. Genuine good humor from the staff, who seemed content with life on the rails -- not that I'm-stressed-got-to-get-along-with-you-I'll-try-to-be-polite tight smile that passes for service in air terminals and highway joints. Painless eardrums. A nice, low train whistle -- two longs, two shorts, two longs. Clickety Clack, Clickety Clack.

There was a family of four on their way to a Cardinals ball game in the seats in front of me, three excited cosmetologists going to a convention in the seats behind me. We rolled through towns and their old pickups, rusty trailers, gravel roads, and ditches of dock, dill, cedars, sumacs and locust trees, elderberries and daylilies. I had to wonder -- besides the economic benefit, there's an intangible ... something good. Who would want this to go away? Who would want to lose this railroad experience?

And, while the family played cards, or the kids walked through the staggering car to the bathroom, then came back to ask "Where does it go when you flush?" and while the cosmetologists dozed, we rolled past the backyards of dozens of homes -- old ones dressed up in new siding and new ones, treeless on former corn fields. Bird baths, trampolines, kids on bikes, flower pots and new plastic playhouses. Basketball courts. Backyard fences-vine-covered, chain-link, picket, stockade. Abandoned junkyards, empty storefronts, prosperous-looking banks. Kids waving. Canals, ponds, graffiti, ball fields. Vegetable gardens.

And, yes, that restful clickety clack, clickety clack.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

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