I spent this past weekend with great friends on a post-car trip in the East Bay Hills of the SF Bay Area. We biked from a BART train station up to some secluded and rustic wineries before biking thirty miles to a lakeside campsite. The trip was about 40 miles on Saturday and it took all day. We traveled slowly, less than 10 miles per hour, by bike, and spent a whole day going places we could have gone in a car in a fraction of the time. It was very hot, almost 100 degrees, but everyone still enjoyed the trip.
On Sunday, heading back from the trip we talked about traveling the country by train. In particular, we talked about the trip from SF/Oakland to Green River, Utah, where Kelly and I lived this summer and traveled to and from by Amtrak’s California Zephyr route. How long did the trip take they asked? “23 hours, one way. You get on in Oakland at 10:00 am and arrive in Green River at 8:50 am the next day.” The general response from a group that had just spent a weekend traveling by exceedingly slow means? Nuts. Crazy. No way. Impractical. Unrealistic. Not reasonable.
This skeptical response got me thinking—am I just a radical ideologue for train travel? Am I so politically committed to rail travel (hell, I’m a card carrying member of the National Rail Passenger Rider’s Association!) that I am blinded by my own prejudices and persuasions? I don’t think so. I reasonably believe that the train is the best way to do such a trip and that its not just that I’m fooling myself.
Not even counting environmental concerns (which are great and distinct, i.e. the relative climate change emissions caused by flying from SFO to SLC etc. vs. the train), taking the train is more pleasant, easier, and truly a better way to make this trip all around. Kelly is convinced as well. Even given the pressures of an incredibly busy building and design schedule this summer in Utah, she still opted for taking the train round-trip (rather than flying round-trip or at least one of the legs) between the Bay Area and Green River this summer when she had to come home for just a couple days for an interview. Kelly’s perspective on this problem, of how to convince others that the train really is the best option here is a version of ‘Lady, if you have to ask, you’ll never know.’ And she’s got a point. But I’m interested in trying to convince the proverbial ‘Lady’ anyhow.
Some of our friends asked about visiting via plane for a weekend this summer. This is understandable given the American commitment to allowing ourselves only minimal vacation days. So let’s say you did decide to visit beautiful Green River, Utah via what must presumably be a faster plane trip from the Bay Area. The fastest itinerary I can come up with is 14 hours.
That’s 10 hours faster than traveling by train. I’m not convinced this is a ‘savings’ or a ‘gain’ at all. Traveling by plane is a much bigger hassle, it’s tiring and uncomfortable, and you don’t get to see the beautiful landscapes that connect the San Rafael Desert with metropolitan and mountainous California. There are multiple connections to be made, between airlines, and then also between different modes. If you fly to SLC you would need to rent a car for the 3.5 hour drive to Green River. If you fly into Grand Junction, CO, you’ll need to catch the bus downtown to the train station and ride the train (the Zehpyr no less! eh hem) to Green River. By comparison, the train is seamless—get on in Oakland and walk off the platform in downtown Green River. Sure it’s faster to fly and drive in sheer quantitative terms, but does the added stress really end up producing a more reasonable and realistic way to travel? I’m all for faster, pleasant trips when they really are faster and pleasant—that’s why I bike much more than I walk. Cycling makes the journey much faster. I’d ‘see much more’ if I walked more, but I’ve got shit to do. So I’m not against speed, no, not at all—I’m trying to point out the ways in which we’ve got ourselves convinced that certain modes of transportation are faster than others when they really aren’t all that much faster, especially when qualitative aspects are brought into the equation. Our decisions are never based solely on quantitative measures—there are other factors, there always are.
On the 23 hour train trip between Green River and the Bay Area (a trip I made more than a few times this summer) I slept for seven to eight hours of the night and read, wrote, and stared out of the train’s large windows for the remaining hours. I talked with fellow travelers, met new people and ran into old friends. I watched impromptu and unexpected interactions occur in the train’s common areas. Sure, there are some moments of boredom when sitting on a train all day. But they are few and far between. Arriving at the train platform in Green River or the end of the line in Oakland, the trip feels quick, brief, surprisingly rapid. Maybe Kelly’s right. But I think there’s still hope for convincing the most inquisitve of skeptics. :)