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The case for the train -- with feeling

Every election year we give up responding to clarion calls. But there's one clarion call we'll always respond to: Bring back the railroad.m We don't hear it half enough. Certainly we can't say we've spotted any candidate running on a railroad platform, if you'll forgive the pun.

In England the ever-distinguished voice of Barbara Ward requests "a sane return to a wider use of railways." In the United States energy-conservationists like Barry Commoner point out most reasonably that "the energy needed to construct a highway is about four times that needed for the same length of railroad track" -- and he isn't even talking about the $2 billion of taxpayers' money allotted to four miles of the New York City Westway.

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Still, what we're waiting for is not a show of logic but a flash of fire. You may dismiss us as a romantic. But every time we read those stories with the same headline ("Is the American love affair with the car over?"), we dream of a grand passion with the railroad to take the automobile's place. "A joyous mania ," one writer has called the 19th-century Englishman's love for his railroad. "A joyous mania" is what we have in mind for you, Amtrak, and all you other desperate survivors.

As with ships and -- yes -- automobiles, a grand passion for the railroad, we are convinced, must start in childwood. We have just one thing in common with Proust. We too fell asleep at night with the sound of a train in our ears. We have a very nice set piece we do on train whistles in the night, but just this once we'll let Marcel have the floor: "I could hear the whistling of the train, which, now nearer and now farther off, punctuating the distance like the note of a bird in a forest, showed me in perspective the deserted countryside."

This is the stuff that could put the American railroad back in the black, we say.

To make a railroad romantic's heart beat faster, all a train has to do is whistle. But if the steam locomotive should return as a consequence of the Great Coal Revival, there will be other bits of poetry to move the fancy. The white -- well, reasonably white -- plumes of smoke from the stack. The little snorts and puffs of the engine as it blows off steam in the station. The impatient clanging of the bell. What a benign monster really!

Once heard as a child, the clicks and clacks of the wheels on the rails become a rhythm forever imprinted on the memory. Who can forget the Huck Finn pleasure of lying on your stomach in the June sun -- school just out -- counting the freight cars going by?

There are romantics of the freight car, just as there are romantics of the engine, and even romantics of the caboose. W. H. Auden was a romantic of the mail train -- Pantings up past lonely farms, Fed by the fireman's restless arms . . . Lurching through the cutting, and beneath the bridge, Into the gap in the distant ridge . . . Past cottong grass and moorland boulder, Shoveling white steam over her shoulder.

On the other hand, the long-distance automobile trip -- automatic pilot on the superhighway -- is almost as abstract as a plane flight. As for the flight itself -- pure passivity! One sucks ice cubes and watches movies. Can anything very human happen at 5,000 feet at the speed of whoosh?

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The heart had time to break when a loved one pulled out of a train station, the eyes on the platform locked with the eyes in the coach car window. The blues practically specialized in trains. "The 2:19," sang Louis Armstrong, "took my baby away" -- and vice versa, as in the other blues: When a woman takes the blues, She tucks her head and cries; But when a man catches the blues, He catches a freight and rides.

Sooner or later the train gives you amber waves of grain and shining seas -- and rubs your nose in the slums. Nothing gets left out.

Are we saying the train is a more human form of transportation, as well as cheaper? Not by comparison with the overland stage maybe, but it beats everything since.

We keep waiting to hear a really ringing, "All aboard!"


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