No, the seat cushion beneath me can’t be used as a flotation device, and yes, riding the rails just doesn’t get you places as quickly as cruising on a jet. However, there’s something to be said about the experience of passenger rail service. Perhaps I’m nostalgic, or jaded because I can write this as I stretch my six-foot frame as much as I like and type on my laptop with my own electrical outlet, but intercity rail lines are something the United States needs.

The collapse of private rail systems in the wake of cheap, reliable air transportation led to the creation of the consolidated, government-subsidized Amtrak service we know today. When I decided to take a trip by train this fall break to Chicago, some of my friends responded to my plans with skepticism, and warnings. In their minds, Amtrak was just a step up from a Greyhound bus. They thought I would be surrounded by filth, decay and mentally deranged travelers. To many people, the quality of travel is expected to be a function of how fast you are moving.

However, what the train has to offer is fairly tangible. Besides printing a ticket and boarding the train, wait times are negligible. Considering you’re asked to spend at least 2 hours at an airport before your flight, suddenly the 4-hour train ride doesn’t seem nearly as bad as 3 hours in an airport and over an hour packed in an airplane. I’m pleasantly surprised that my seat is cleaner and more comfortable than any airline I’ve ever been on, and at less than half the cost.

Unlike airports, train stations can be located centrally in a city without the NIMBY concerns facing airport projects located even remotely near populated areas. Perhaps the most sentimental reason is that when you take the train, you’re forced to see what lies between cities, for me right now it’s rolling hills of orange and green, covered with a fine fog.

There are, of course, things to consider when we talk about Amtrak. Train delays, often caused by having to use track space owned by private freight rail lines, are frequent. The equipment trains use is decades old. Europe offers high-speed rail twice as fast as most U.S. services in comparatively futuristic trains, shuttling travelers between cities with an efficiency we can’t match here. Factor in how much more economical and environmentally friendly train travel is compared to airliners, and it seems almost maddening that we are so far behind.

The biggest limiting factor to train travel of course is speed. Not everyone thinks the journey is as important as the destination, and to most, getting where you want to be fast is the key. While our existing fleet of trains runs between 80 to 120 miles per hour, except for the Acela high speed service in the Northeast corridor (which can only go faster than other Amtrak trains for brief periods), Europe and Asia have existing and upcoming technologies offering speeds over twice as great. TGV type trains operating at well over 200 miles per hour have been around since 1981, but we haven’t made an effort to set up the dedicated rail lines required for such a service.

By making an effort to connect clusters of nearby cities and offering modern service and amenities air traffic can be greatly reduced, not only reducing our consumption of fossil fuels but also taking strain off of our overburdened air traffic control and airport system. These environmental benefits can be even greater to the environment if electrically driven trains are used and powered by the next generation of renewable energy sources.

Scenery and nostalgia aside, the United States is facing crises of economics, the environment and infrastructure. Delays can be reduced and speeds increased if funds are put into dedicated passenger rail lines, while also offering people a cleaner, efficient and enjoyable alternative to air travel. Perhaps now, more than ever, we should take a second look at a way of travel tied intrinsically to the past, but with great potential for our future.

Ben Caleca is an Engineering junior.

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