Thursday, June 18, 2009


I know of no form of land-based personal transportation that's more fun to ride than a horse, but a close second is a glorious, full-blown passenger train pulled by a real steam locomotive. America should be laying track, not ripping it up.

Imagine how bracing it would be to ride in an open flat car with seats, under a canopy of trees like this (above). I did that a few years ago and the experience was so moving that I'll likely never forget it.

It's amazing that a noisy, heavy, industrial product like a locomotive should fit in so well with nature.

Maybe steam trains seem so environmentally friendly because they're confined to a narrow set of tracks, and don't make frequent stops. Maybe it's because the trains seem more like animals than machines. They actually have character. You root for them as they try to negotiate a hill.

Oh bliss!...riding along the treetops...the treetops!...and across a stream on a trestle!

Oddly enough, it's not the steam power by itself that makes trains so appealing. Put the same boiler and funnel on wheels (above) and it seems like a senseless nuisance. For some reason a train has to ride on rails to capture our imaginations.

My guess is that the appeal has to do with the uniquely pleasing and stimulating sounds and motions of steam trains on tracks...that and the terrific visuals. As I said before, steam trains seem to have personalities. There are few other machines you can say that about. I suppose mechanical clocks have a little of that quality. Even toasters have a bit of it.

This business of pleasing sensations derived from things seems like an odd subject to discuss, yet when you think about it, it's not discussed enough. I wish there was a book that catalogued things like this. If there was, then architects and designers could refer to it. Wouldn't it be nice to walk through a building that combined interesting tactile and aural cues with stimulating and romantic visuals? Wouldn't it be nice to have more items and buildings in the world that had appealing personalities?

Here's (above) the Disneyland Express entering a tunnel. Tunnels are so mysterious, and so congenial to trains. They appear like a gateway to another world, like the rabbit hole in "Alice in Wonderland." There should always be lush greenery around a tunnel.

Geez, I have to use Hello Kitty photos to show what the interior of the Disneyland passenger cars look like. It's embarrassing! Anyway, the idea that passengers should face the side is an interesting one.

Disneyland-size steam railroads should be all over the suburbs of our big cities, and they should be used for real, practical transport, not just entertainment. The first city to try this will see a big rise in income from tourists.

I like this photo (above) because it shows how naturally small steam trains fit in with ordinary urban landscapes. Amtrack fails to do this because of the awkward and unimaginative design of the cars.

I stumbled on this photo (above) of a small, rural train platform that's fallen into disuse. Wow! Clean up the tracks and it'll be ready for business again. Let the plants try to cover the makes for an interesting atmosphere! It's like a train platform in the middle of Jurassic Park. You expect to see raptors!

Once we have steam trains back, we can phase in cool, 0ld-style train stations (above).

I grew up near a beautiful train station like the one above. I and my kid friends had many philosophical discussions while sitting on wooden benches under the platform roof. I especially liked to be there while it was raining, during a thunder and lightening storm. The station sheltered us like a kindly grandfather, and it was bracing to see giant, heavy locomotives hiss and shutter to a stop in the rain.

Why do we moderns deny ourselves the simple pleasures of life? I love high tech...I wish I had a personal jet plane...but I also like horses and small wooden sailboats. Since everybody else likes them too, why don't we re-instate them where ever it's appropriate? Cars are fine, but lets have other kinds of mass transportation too.


Hans Flagon said...

Too bad Amtrak is more expensive than flying, even if you have the extra time to travel (and the route is convenient).

Caleb said...

I agree that high tech is usually not the most fun or memorable.

Reminds me of the "steampunk" sci-fi trend:

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Hans: Yeah, I wonder about that. Why does it cost so much to run Amtrack? Maybe it's because Amtrack trains aren't that appealing, and don't attract many customers.

Caleb: Steampunk? I never heard of it! It sounds interesting, though. Thanks for the tip!

Jennifer said...

That would be nice to have again, but in this age of "right here, right now", I don't think it would be profitable enough. However, one avenue where I can see this being profitable is regional travel.

Airline travel is getting worse and worse, yet people are willing to put up with being packed in a plane like sardines (unless you are flying first class) because they can get to their destination quickly.

I agree with Hans about Amtrak. I'm going back to Florida (where I'm originally from) for a few weeks to visit friends and family, and I thought about taking the train because I have the time and I wanted to enjoy the scenery. To get a round-trip sleeper section on a train from Pittsburgh to Jacksonville costs the same amount of money as a first class round-trip airline ticket from Pgh to Jax! To make matters worse, there was a 10-HOUR LAYOVER in Washington DC on Amtrak!! I'm going to drive instead.

I.D.R.C. said...

Here's the trick with Amtrack. Book coach. If the trip you book lacks enough first class travelers they will call you with an offer for a sleeper at a BIG discount. Take it. All your meals are free. White tablecloth real dining.

The romance of steam aside, once you are on the train the attraction to train travel is all out the window.

If you never get that sleeper offer, cancel your trip. Coach sucks.

Anonymous said...

Steam locomotives are so appropriate in natural surroundings because they both have organic characteristics. A steam locomotive is very much a living organism, albeit a mechanical one. Steam trains rarely overpowered their environment so they mutually co-existed. Now, you add roadways for cars and the next thing you know there are interstates, expressways, frontage roads, hotels, fast food places, etc. Railroads helped create and link towns but they never seemed to promote the destructive tendancies highway systems did and do.
I don't think the environmentalists will ever allow steam locomotives to return nor do the railroads want the heavy maintenance costs associated with steam loco upkeep. That said, I do think there is a great opportunity for passenger railroads to make a comeback if they can stir up some excitement and incentives to ride. Besides, Amtrak needs passenger rail competition.

Brian O.

Niki said...

Steampunk is pretty funky, I love how cool it can be. I also just so happens that I live near a horse ranch and a cattle farm father down the road I've never been to either in person though, oh and there is also another cattle farm in the other direction on my street.

Kali Fontecchio said...

I love riding the Disneyland train for an hour! So pretty, and easy on the feet, haha.

My friend Julianne didn't even know it existed till I showed her!

Jenny Lerew said...

I took a sleeper from NYC to Los Angeles-3 days and nights. It was romantic, thrilling and expensive and it certainly spoiled me for traveling any other class (overnight, anyway). My fellow travelers were also straight out of a film. No steam, alas, but the sound and motion made me sleep like a baby.

Mitch K said...

I love planes a lot, but I take the train whenever I go cross-country! I would die to take a boat somewhere. What we also need is more boat trips!

Where did you get to go with a tree canopy like the one your described? It sounds incredible!

Craig said...

We were the Juke Box Puppet Band on a PBS series called SHINING TIME STATION. That was the show that introduced Thomas The Tank Engine to American audiences. The American producer on the series was a old train nut, and he said that STS got lots of young kids (who are probably all in their 20's today!) interested in the magic of steam locomotives. Here's a piece featuring the Juke Box Band:

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Mitch: Where's the canopy? It covers part of the track on a narrow-gauge railroad somewhere in the forest near San Jose. The train is used to haul tourists now, but I think it was originally built for loggers.

Jennifer: Interesting. It's sad to think that the future of passanger railroading depends on people's experience with Amtrak.

IDRC: Wow! Valuable advice!

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Craig: I like the part where the two men are repeatedly trying to grab the singer!

Jenny: Sigh. I'm envious!

Acetate said...

Glad you mentioned Disneyland Eddie. All of the things you like about steam trains were not forgotten by Walt and his Imagineering staff. If you havn't been to Disney World...GO! So many fun forms of transportation are there. Boats, monorails, steam trains, you name it. I often wonder why cities don't take a lesson from Disney for mass transit.

John A said...

The seating in the Disneyland train is that way for a reason--there's nothing to see on the other side!(at least that used to be true before the park expanded) plus, it also sets the viewer up for the final leg of the circle around the park that ends back on Main Street-The Grand Canyon diorama and the Primeval World Dinosaurs (originally seen at the World's Fair)When my son was litle we couldn't leave Disneyland without seeing the dinosaurs.

thomas said...

I've been on this before. It runs silently. The cars have a pleasing capsule shape that is both retro and futuristic.

Hope the link works....

Newark light rail

Thad said...

I just spent about 9 hours on an Amtrack train from Niagara Falls to NYC... it cost $110 (for both ways). I figure in that it would cost at least $80 to fill up my tank with gas (this is for both ways mind you), and factor in $30 as the real cost of not having to sit behind the wheel. Not too bad at all really.

Anonymous said...

I wholeheartedly agree!

Rick Roberts said...

Steam locotives could return and I two areas were the business could thrive. First off, the suburbs. A small, local train that connects to every area in a town. That would also provide alot of jobs. Secound, around mountainous regions were tourists want to take the time to marvel at the tranquil beauty of nature.

Jenny Lerew said...

Re: Mitch's question: I think this might be the "San Jose" steam train in your photo of the trestle:
Roaring Camp Railroads

Brubaker said...

Of course, I grew up in Japan, where "shinkansen" (bullet train) is common. Some people would ride these things everyday to work, and in my sister's case, to school.

I wish we have these bullet trains in US. I guess the closest is Amtrak, although the Japanese trains are less expensive, depending on where you're going (here's a shocker, something that's cheaper in Japan than in Americs!).

It's possible for one to take a train from Fukuoka's Hakata station to Tokyo, although I've never rode on that.

thomas said...

The framing of the building in that last station photo is very beautiful. It follows through from the closed part of the building, to the overhanging "porch". I'd imagine it would make you feel very sheltered, if you were actually in it.

Here's a link to a museum dedicated to the work of photographer O. Winston Link, who was dedicated to photographing the last of the operating steam engines.


Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Jenny, Brubaker, Thomas: Many thanks for the links! I'll check them out when I get home tonight!

Clarity said...

I adore this post. I travelled on a couple of trains during boarding school - although it wasn't glamorous I adored the adventure and motion of the train. I think any mode of transport that involves sleeping while in motion is fun!

The pictures of the steam trains - gorgeous