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The Gilded Choo-choo

by James Lileks

Aside from the used diaper in the sleeping-car compartment, it wasn’t a bad train trip. Arrived the day it was supposed to, didn’t derail. If you’re wondering how a used diaper could sit in a train without being detected by the staff, then you never took Amtrak in the bad old days. Either the staff didn’t care, or they believed the diaper was a metaphor for the system, or no one could detect its bouquet amongst the other fragrances that wafted through the train. The ghosts of a million cigarettes from the smoker’s lounge, the blue perfume of the diesel engines, the chemical tang of the overtaxed bathrooms — it was enough to make one act like a nobleman during the Black Death, and walk around sniffing a handkerchief soaked with perfume to ward off the vile miasma. On one trip through the plains in the middle of winter, the bathrooms simply froze, and could not be used. Amend that: They could be used. You just couldn’t dispose of anything.

Amtrak got better — or so I’ve heard. The last train trip I took was seven years ago. The food wasn’t inedible, the old Carter-era car didn’t sound like it would fly apart if we went faster than 45 mph, and the steward was delightful and attentive. It still felt like being shipped across the country in a padded box. Yes, there’s something civilized about experiencing the length of your journey gazing out a window while the train calls out its clubfoot cadence — ca-CANK ca-CANK ca-CANK ca-CANK. But you always enter a town by the back door, bumping and swaying along old tracks like a drunk on hands and knees. You leave the train, and head up the dank stairs to a modern Soviet-styled station that lacks only a statue of Lenin with his arm up like he’s hailing a taxi.

Trains are romantic: We have a vision of sleek streamlined steel machines slicing through the night, the mournful whistle wafting through the farmer’s dreams. But we do not wear fedoras or listen to Fibber McGee and Molly on the radio or exhibit other traits of the bygone era. We drive or we fly. Nevertheless, California is keen on a hypersonic choo-choo, as you’ve no doubt heard — and while locals are starting to question the wisdom of spending a tenth of a trillion on the project, it staggers on. The government is behind it. The unions are behind it. People who believe there is a direct relationship between the number of cars that drive to Sacramento and a polar bear drowning in 2027 a.d. are behind it. The only thing that could stop the train is the discovery that it endangers gay brine shrimp, but even then they’d just go 30 miles around the pond and call the route the Diversity Bend. Like many ideas from the first few decades of the previous century, trains are perfectly progressive. There’s no individual decision on direction or duration, no competition, no penalty for poor performance, and the money to run the thing is exacted from the unwilling by the force of the state. If that’s not enlightenment, what is?

Here’s another thing that’s not enlightened: city streets. An article in the New York Times notes that cities are turning off the streetlights to balance the budget — if copper vampires haven’t already sucked out the light’s wiring, that is. One of the cities cited in the Times piece has a jobs page on its website, and you’re sure it says “Check back when we’re not so broke we’re returning our citizens to the 17th century,” but no. They’re hiring a city planner, who will coordinate facilitation of the comprehensive strategies — meaning, apply for federal grants for bike trails paved with recycled car tires — and a bilingual preschool teacher, who can answer little kids in their native tongue when they ask why the streets are so dark.

Sure, it sounds bad; sure, it feels like the Seventies, when the great cities felt like rusted heaps about to devolve into dark mazes populated by heroin addicts. But it’s only a matter of time before we get the positive side of coal-dark streets. Reporters will find that neighborhood lady whose number of cats is equaled only by the number of bumper stickers on her car, and she’ll talk about how one can see the constellations now. Light pollution, after all, has been a common complaint among those who enjoy the sprawl of the empyrean beyond: You can’t see the stars if you live in the city. To which one might reply: True. You can’t see Sirius. You can, however, see the man breaking into your neighbor’s house. It’s one of those trade-offs. The headlines write themselves: “As Cities Go Dark, Residents Rediscover an Ancient Vista.” It’s more honest to live in the dark, isn’t it? The interrogating glare of a streetlight is an imposition on the natural order. Like dams and highways and the other manifestations of 20th-century hubris, streetlights will be seen as an unsustainable indulgence, a waste of carbon in an expense of shine, as Shakespeare might have put it, if he wrote for The Nation.

No money for humble civic amenities, but billions for needless trains. Fewer services for citizens, but fast locomotives to carry lobbyists to the Capitol to argue for more trains. It’s like the Romans letting the aqueducts crumble while spending the loot on gilded chariots. You’re tempted to say that the last person to leave Western civilization as we knew it should turn out the lights, but that’s not a one-man job. Union rules require at least a dozen supervisors.

– Mr. Lileks blogs at

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