HIGHWAY OR TRAIN, INDIVIDUAL OR GROUP: WHAT’S THE AMERICAN WAY?

By Paul M. Lewis

Not long ago, my partner and I were driving to Northern Arizona from our home in Southern California. We go each month to visit with my partner’s mother, who is in hospice care at a nursing home there. It’s usually at least an eight and a half hour drive each way, longer if somebody was texting, or chatting on the cell phone, or otherwise distracted, and so has caused an accident.

For the most part, we try to work it out so as to avoid the worst of rush hour traffic on the freeways, leaving early enough to give ourselves some breathing room. We also tend to take the northern route, heading up Interstate 15 to Barstow, and then taking I-40 east until it meets Arizona state route 89. Taking the I-10 east instead might cut off a few miles, but the 40 is so much more beautiful. It goes through the magnificent Mojave Desert National Preserve in California, and once you’re in Arizona you pass through an enchanting forest of juniper trees.

When there’s a problem on the roads, it’s always in the LA megalopolis. For us, getting to Barstow entails taking the 405 to the 22 to the 55 to the 91 to the 15. Anyone who drives the LA freeways knows what I’m talking about, and for those unfamiliar with these routes, it’s maybe enough to say that they can be torturous. One of the worst places is the intersection of the 91 and the 15, near the Inland Empire town of Corona. That’s because so many people have moved to the southern part of Riverside County, where housing at least once was a lot cheaper, in search of the American dream: a house with 3 or 4 bedrooms, living room, dining room and family room, plus a yard out back with grass where the kids can play and the dog can romp. If you’re lucky, or rich enough, maybe you even have a swimming pool, to boot.

For years, that intersection narrowed down to one lane, and traffic backed up accordingly. On a dark winter’s morning, driving east on the 91 and approaching the 15, you could see a gargantuan necklace of headlights, as cars awaited their turn to get onto the westbound 91. Nowadays, Caltrans (the California Department of Transportation) is in the midst of a monster construction project there, involving a multiple lane overpass.

Which is what got me to thinking. The last time we came through there, we were on our way home, and so it was the middle of the afternoon. The behemoth hulk of the half-built overpass was plainly visible, hanging in midair, as workers and machines scrambled over the area following their appointed tasks, ones not necessarily apparent to us passersby. Still, progress was clearly being made, or I guess that’s what it’s called. At least, you could see that more of the road had been completed than when we started our regular treks to Arizona, something like eight months ago.

And no doubt, the folks who use those freeways everyday, commuting back and forth to jobs nearer the coast from communities like Riverside, or Lake Elsinore, or Murrieta, or even as far south as Temecula, will be overjoyed once the work is done. My guess is that things will be better for them, at least for maybe a year or two, until the traffic catches up with the improvements—as it always does—and we’re back once again looking at what will then be a double, or even a triple-line, necklace of headlights.

The Caltrans budget for the current 2015-16 year is 10.5 billion dollars, an almost 2 billion dollar, or 11.9%, increase over that of the previous year. Even though this represents less than 10% of the state’s overall budget of about $113 billion, it is still a lot of money. Though some might say even that’s not enough. After all, without our freeways, how would people get to work, how would goods and services be moved, how would anyone get anywhere, for any reason? But remember this, too, that the ten billion plus dollars spent by the state on Caltrans this year represents only a tiny fraction of the amount spent over the years on the building of this kind of infrastructure. In other words, that ten billion is the cost for maintenance, and some isolated construction projects, on a system that basically already exists.

What has occurred to me many times, as we drive through that interchange between the 91 and the 15—or any other you may care to name—is why did we never invest the same monumental sums of money into rail connections? In my freeway-smog addled mind’s eye, I imagine my partner and me, for example, sitting comfortably in a bullet train, heading east out of downtown Los Angeles straight to Phoenix. Then, after relaxing for a short wait in a beautifully appointed train station there, we would take another line north from Phoenix to Prescott (our final destination); or, if it had to go to Flagstaff first, then from there on a smaller branch line down to Prescott. This same kind of convenient train travel could of course be reproduced in all fifty states. But that is not what we have. What trains are available are hardly convenient. Years ago, we took a train trip from Los Angeles to Seattle. It was supposed to leave LA at noon, and arrive in Seattle at 8:00 PM the following evening. Instead, it left at 4:00 PM and arrived at 3:00 o’clock in the morning two days later. Does that instill confidence in getting from place to place on time, to say nothing of comfortably? This huge delay happened mostly because there is, for the most part, only one train track between these two major west coast cities, and freight trains often take the right-of-way. It’s not supposed to be like that, but the freight carriers far prefer to pay the relative pittance of a fine for not giving way to a passenger train, and so slowing down their own operations.

If the government—and of course the people who elect their representatives—made train travel a priority, we could have made that same journey in a matter of hours, not days. Just as Europeans do on their trains, or the Japanese, or nowadays even the Chinese. The travel time, for example, between Paris and Marseille—a journey of approximately 775 miles—takes about 3 hours and 40 minutes on the TGV (train à grande vitesse, France’s version of the bullet train). You leave from central Paris and arrive in central Marseille. No need to bother with highways, airports, or parking, or sitting in traffic. You can read, chat with your fellow passengers, or just sit and look out the window. And all this for about 25 euros, just over $28 US dollars, according to the current exchange rate. Is that what it costs to actually operate these state-of-the-art trains? Probably not, but the government is willing to subsidize the cost, and so are the French people. By contrast, the distance between Los Angeles and Phoenix is about 365 miles. The Amtrak ticket costs $100 more than the ticket between Paris and Marseille, and it is estimated that the trip will take over 10 hours. In other words, it would cost 4 times as much, and take more than 3 times as long, for my partner and me to go half the distance. And we would still have to either rent a car in Phoenix to get to Prescott (a two hour drive), or get ourselves to the airport there to pick up the shuttle van.

Why would we ever do that? Indeed, why would anyone take a train in the United States, when travel by car is so much faster, cheaper, and more convenient? The answer obviously is almost no one. But what is behind these questions may be more interesting. One estimate of the cost of building the interstate system is that it takes approximately $1 million for every mile of highway built. Using that estimate, and multiplying it by the almost 48,000 miles of interstate highways we have in this country, we come to the mind-blowing total of approximately $48,000,000,000. To put it in words, because most of us are not used to seeing that many zeros after any number, that is forty-eight trillion dollars. Naturally, the money was spent to build these roads over the course of many decades. Still, by way of comparison, the entire US GDP, the Gross Domestic Product (i.e., the cost of all goods and services produced in the country in a given year) is projected to be just under $18 trillion dollars for 2016.

I learned a long time ago, working for many years at universities, that budgeting is always a matter of deciding on priorities. When my boss told me I could not hire an adviser I thought we needed, but I learned later that another office was able to, it was clear that that other office had a higher priority in the hierarchy of what was considered important at the university. Each of us does the same thing with our own household budgets. New car? Well, maybe not this year. Maybe it’s best to get the roof fixed, or pay down that outrageous credit card bill.

Although admittedly far more complex, the basic principle is the same when it comes to countries. Money is ultimately put where you, the taxpayer (via your representatives), want it to go. And Americans want their cars, and their highways. We want to be able to go out our front door, jump into our automobile, and hit the open road. Or that’s the fantasy, at least. We’re rugged individualists; we want independence, free choice; we want to go where we want, when we want, and to be able to stop whenever it’s convenient. Leave the trains—those giant conveyor belts of groups of people—to the socialists in Europe, or the communists in China. So, don’t look for a diminishing of car travel any time soon in this country. California has been attempting to build a bullet train between LA and San Francisco for several years now, but with all of the court challenges against it, the project has just barely begun. And even if and when it is completed, it will be required to run without state subsidy.

In the end, we get what we pay for. Americans have always wanted what we think of as our freedom of movement: the car in the garage ready to whisk us off whenever we choose either to work, or to school, or to an enchanting land of adventure. But along with this comes packed freeways, bumper-to-bumper traffic, huge costs, and polluted skies. If that is what we want, then that’s what we’ve got. And if anybody prefers a nice train ride, swift, clean, reliable and cheap, well, they’d just better take a trip to Paris to find it.

THE SLOW TRAIN TO PRAGUE

By Paul

Travel is its own kind of universe, especially international travel. You tend to live in an enclosed cocoon of airlines, buses, and trains, each with its own rules and its own culture. And in the midst of it all, it’s easy to lose track of days and dates, as well as normal connections with the wider world through newspapers and commercial news programs, especially when these media come in languages unfamiliar to you.

I noticed all this again recently when my partner and I, and an old friend of ours, spent a couple of weeks traveling around various parts of Western and what used to be called Central Europe. Within this kind of travel universe, things take on a character and a vividness all their own. At least if you travel the way we do and are busy from morning to late afternoon visiting museums, strolling about in medieval cathedrals, and as much as possible just taking in the atmosphere of a city. Getting from place to place, too, presents its own logic and its own challenges, which is to say that occasionally the getting there may sometimes be even more interesting, and certainly more challenging, than when you arrive.

A case in point for us this time was the train between Salzburg and Prague. For better or for worse, we are what you might call major planners-in-advance. In other words, we had done our advanced computer-based research on all the possible ways of getting from city to city, and in the end we’d opted for making this particular trip by train. Once that was decided, we discovered that there was no direct service between the two cities. The choices available to us were: going first through Munich, or back to Vienna (where we had just been), or traveling via the much smaller town of Linz in northern Austria. Each option appeared to have its advantages, as well as its drawbacks, and in the end we picked Linz, simply because it seemed to offer the shortest and most direct route.

Or so we thought, anyway. Our first clue that things might not be as simple as they appeared surfaced when we actually got the tickets in the mail. There were no seat assignments on either train, that is, the one from Salzburg to Linz, or the train from Linz to Prague. That seemed odd, and it took us three or four attempts at asking various railway officials once we got there before we understood that what we had was an open ticket, and there were no seat assignments of any kind for anyone on these trains. It was first-come-first-served. The second clue we didn’t catch, and which we understood only later on in hindsight, was the printing of two unfamiliar Czech words on the ticket for the Linz-to-Prague leg of the trip. After failing at several attempts to research what these words might mean, we just decided we’d ignore what we couldn’t understand. Sometimes that’s a strategy that actually works just fine, but then sometimes it doesn’t.

Our train turned out to be an old one, with actual compartments in it that had doors that closed and windows that opened. In itself, this was quite nice. I kept expecting to see Hercule Poirot walking down the narrow aisle with those mincing little steps of his. Once settled in, I used my halting phrasebook Czech to ask the conductor if there was a dining car on the train. He looked at me strangely and replied, “ne jidlo.” I got that phrase immediately and knew it was going to be a long 5 hour trip, since he was telling me that there was no food available.

But that too was fine. We had some energy bars to share amongst us, and nobody dies of starvation anyway in 5 hours. So, we settled down to enjoy the gorgeous scenery, as we passed through northern Austria and into the southern part of the Czech Republic. Green, green hills, very few villages, but fields covered in yellow flowers that looked to us a lot like wild mustard, but which were, I later discovered, more likely rapeseed flowers, which are used in the production of canola oil. All in all, it was a lovely, rustic, tranquil scene with warm breezes blowing and the pungent scent of these yellow flowers wafting in. What better way, we all thought, to enjoy a trip to Prague?

It was, I think, just about that time when the conductor came by again. His brief message, though again entirely in Czech, was simple and clear even to us: we were to get off the train at the next station and get onto a bus. Really? But our ticket clearly said Prague on it, and didn’t that mean going all the way by train? So what was this unceremonious and unlooked for departure from our comfortable compartment all about? Before I could gather my wits and ask, the conductor had hurried off to the next car. The three of us huddled for a quick discussion, and I volunteered to trail after the conductor to try to get more information.

It’s not easy when you don’t speak the language of the country you’re visiting. In the best of all possible worlds, I had hoped that my Russian, as rusty as it was, might be of some use, but it turned out not to be a lot of help. Yes, there are cognates aplenty between Russian and Czech, but individual words aren’t of much assistance when you’re attempting to make sense of whole sentences. And the nearest Slavic cousins to Czech are Polish and Slovak. So, as it turned out, Russian in the Czech Republic was about as much help as French might be in Italy.

Still, I was able to make our concerns clear to the conductor. “Why are we to get off at the next station? Will the bus then take us to Prague?” I managed to get across.

“Ne, ne!” he replied, clearly a little annoyed at my apparent slowness in comprehending simple things. He then explained in, I have no doubt, very clear Czech what was to happen, but all I could do was mumble a probably incoherent “nerozumim,” – “I don’t understand!” At which point, our long-suffering conductor none too patiently took out a diagram he had obviously prepared earlier, which clearly showed what was to happen: we were to get off the train, get on a bus, and then this bus would take us on to the other train station, at which point we would board another train and be on our way to Prague once more. Why it was he hadn’t shown us this drawing in the first place still remains something of a mystery to me.

Upon arrival at the station a few moments later, the train ground to a jolting halt. This truly was the middle of nowhere. There was a station building, to be sure, old and yellow, but no town, no village, not even a couple of houses scattered here and there. The only other human being was an official-looking railway man standing on the track with a sour expression on his face, pointing us all toward the waiting bus.

It’s strange the ideas that go through your head at such times. I suddenly felt myself transported back in time and saw in my mind’s eye a group of tired, confused, and frightened Jews getting off a train at perhaps this very same nowhere train station, ordered onto buses with no explanation, with everyone hurrying to follow orders under the watchful eyes of dour, unsympathetic, and unsmiling officials. What was even more astounding was the discovery later on that the exact scenario had unfolded itself in the minds both of my partner and of our friend, Tom. I had to wonder then if this nondescript station in the middle of a field somehow still held on to frightened and frightening vibrations of horrors that had unfolded there seventy or more years ago.  I suppose I will never know, but it felt like more than a chilling coincidence.

We all struggled to carry our luggage across several sets of tracks, and were told to put the bags into a waiting van (not on the bus we were to take). Maybe still under the spell of that strange vision, we just followed orders, trusting to fate and hoping that we would somehow be reunited with our bags. In the meantime, the bus started up for the half-hour drive through an even more lovely countryside. At one point, we saw the luggage van veer off in another direction, making us even more uneasy. Soon enough, though, we arrived at the next train station. Our monolingual Czech conductor was waiting there for us, and he motioned for us all to get on the next train. Finally, people began to speak up and everyone protested that we weren’t going anywhere without our luggage. The conductor pointed to what might have been a luggage car connected to the train, and said something else in no doubt excellent Czech. Those of us who were not Czech simply stood there, looking puzzled.

To our relief, however, the van with our luggage in it did arrive soon thereafter, and the ancient gentleman who had driven it attempted to unload its contents. All of the passengers scrambled to help him, and to find their own bags and take them themselves onto the train. All the while, the conductor looked on impassively. I kept trying to imagine what might be going through his mind. I finally decided it must be something like this: “What’s wrong with these stupid foreigners? I just clearly explained to them that the luggage would be loaded onto the car for them. But no! They’ve got to get their own bags and lug them across the tracks to their own compartments!”

The rest of the trip unfolded uneventfully. Our train actually did arrive in Prague, more or less on time. Apparently, the train-bus-train shuffle we all went through was simply part of the regular routine. As it turned out, as well, the two Czech words we couldn’t understand printed on our tickets were the names of the two stations. All clearly laid out, at least for those who could understand.

Prague is well worth the visit, by the way, if you ever have the opportunity. The Charles Bridge, the St. Vitus Cathedral, many old churches and museums, the gorgeous old Jewish quarter filled with Art Nouveau architecture, the food, the genuine warmth and friendliness of the Czech people. All this made for a memorable visit.

One last thought, though, is that if you ever find yourself traveling from Salzburg to Prague, you may want to consider taking the longer, but probably more comfortable and ultimately more direct route through Munich or Vienna. I’m guessing that both of these are without bus connections. On the other hand, if you did that, you might also have to do without old-fashioned train compartments, the echo of Poirot walking down the aisle, or the haunting ghosts of frightened people crossing the tracks at a lonely way station, to say nothing of glimpses of the glorious Czech countryside, the intoxicating scent of thousands of yellow flowers, or the chance to stumble along using your phrasebook Czech. And after all, in the end, isn’t that the very reason why it’s so compelling and so interesting to travel to far off lands in the first place?