It's good to take the train every now and then. It lets you get a taste of something special, something that you don't find much any more. Modern air travel sucks the soul out of the journey. It takes the process of getting from Point A to Point B and boils it down to the barest essentials. You drive to the airport, sit down on a plane, read a book, watch a movie, get a little work done, get off the plane, and leave at another airport. The airports even look the same. They've all got the same vendors, the same stores, the same seats, the same overpriced conveniences, and the same indifferent people providing the same indifferent services. If the airline pulled a fast one on you and substituted a simulator for the real plane, you might not figure out that you've been had until you're on the way to the airport.
Rail is different. When you get on a train, you get to experience a part of the journey that air travel leaves out: the stuff in the middle. The little towns, the small cities, the countryside and the people aren't seven miles below. They're fifty feet away, and they slide by slowly enough to let you catch the flavor of things you pass. You can see the personality of the countryside from the ground in a way that you just can't when you look down from the sky.
I miss that sometimes. I miss the poetry that goes with rail travel, too. Today, the train that I was on left from Penn Station in New York. This isn't the old Pennsylvania Station, this is a hole in the ground under a sports stadium, with dirty floors, low ceilings, and no personality. When I was a lot younger, and the trip on the train was the highlight of the whole vacation, Amtrak still used Grand Central Terminal in New York. The glory days of the station were long past. It was dingy and grimy and smelled of a generation's worth of diesel fumes, but there were still hints of magic there.
The ceiling of the terminal hadn't been cleaned in decades, but you could just make out the gold stars and outlines of the constellations up there. The entrances to the platforms were still through the old gates, and with trains lined up at every platform there was a sense of purpose and business to the station. Even the train announcements had more personality.
They had to, of course, because trains don't skip everything in between the two main points. Trains go to lots of places. The train to Buffalo isn't just the train to Buffalo, it's the train to everywhere in between New York City and Buffalo. Announcing a train departure properly can't help but have more personality than an airport speaker's monotone statement that 1st class passengers are now welcome to step onto flight somethingoranother going to whothehellreallycares. But there was one guy at Grand Central when I was growing up who could really do it right. I can still remember:
"Now boarding at Gate Number twenty-three, Platform A, Train Number 63, The Lake Shore Limited 2:30 departure for Buffalo. Making station stops at Crrrrrrr-Oton HarmonPoughkeepsieRhinecliff HudsonAllll-Bany Rensselaer. Schnectady. AmsterdamUticaRomeSyracuseRochesterBufffffff-Alo Depew! Continuting on to Erie. Cleveland. Chicago. Connect at Chicago for Allllllllll points west and south. Now departing Gate Number Twenty-Three Alllllll-A-bo-oard!"
It had rhythm and poetry. It was a performance in the spoken word. And I miss that magic.