Pushing Back

The roar was intolerable, a decibel level that OSHA would probably deem illegal…and that’s just what it’s like being crammed into a ballroom at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in support of gun control. And it was worth it, extroversion overload and all. Hillary Clinton spoke passionately in favor of getting weapons out of the hands of loonies. She always has. No, she’s not as in touch with the nation’s economic sickness as, say, Bernie Sanders. But she has her points. I like her. She spoke without notes or Teleprompter. And she gives every impression of being an extremely intelligent person.

I waited for the ballroom to drain, as it were, before venturing out. Such events are nightmares in terms of wheelchair access. Getting to one’s seat means asking a succession of people at tables to shift their chairs. Meanwhile waiters keep asking me to shift my wheelchair, the latter being an enormous thing with an unwieldy set of back wheels that easily trip up passersby. No matter. It was over, and we left. Then we went upstairs to eyeball the spectacular and most unique Hyatt Regency lobby. Jane had never been there. The place looks better than ever.

Meanwhile, back at the domestic ranch, I am reading “Passengers Voice,” monthly publication of the Rail Passengers Association. It’s quite edifying, particularly if you read the thing with a large dose of salt. In this case, this means mixing the apparent truth with Republican reality. Mendacity, myopia and socio-pathology will bring the real picture into focus. Congress just appropriated $2.8 billion for passenger rail. And at the very same moment, Amtrak is being gradually and secretly dismantled. How do you dismantle something so big secretly? Let’s put it this way. Death of a thousand cuts.

Thing is, outside of the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak really consists of a few regional lines which are state-supported. And something like 15 national trains, as they have been dubbed. City of New Orleans. Southwest Chief. Coast Starlight. And so on.

The first thing to understand about these trains is their popularity. Many are sold out all summer. On the rest, sleeping accommodation is sold out virtually year-round. In political terms, this translates into fierce grassroots support. The Trump administration vowed to eliminate these trains just a few months ago. Members of Congress, wanting to keep their jobs, decided otherwise. Sort of.

The trains do meet with a certain level of, let us say, technocratic opposition. And this is understandable. The serious people among Amtrak’s leadership, the ones who want to see the nation’s passenger rail infrastructure develop as it should, look at these overnight trains and shudder. They run on 19th-century routes, on what today is freight track. A few of these trains may even have run faster in the 1800s. It’s entirely possible.

Why do people ride them? This is a perfectly sound question. But note that it is a secondary one. Whatever the reason, the public has stated a consumer preference. In a consumer society, one would think that those in charge would not only listen but respond appropriately. In other words, this is what people want, it’s what people enjoy. And essentially that should be that. The same logic could be applied to heroin, I suppose, But that would be stretching it. An overnight trip on Amtrak is much better for you than an opiate, I always say.

But if you’re wondering, the trains provide a mix of slow recreational travel and conventional point-to-point transportation. In other words, one of their first missions is to support tourism. And that means internal and foreign markets. Why do people want to get a cliff-hanging view of the Willamette River Gorge in southern Oregon, one of the experiences of riding the Coast Starlight? Ask them. It’s hard to get a seat this summer, any summer.

Which brings us back to Republicans. And a certain number of Democrats. We have a Puritanical streak in this country, not to mention being on a death ride to oblivion. The notion of paying for something that people actually enjoy…well, it drives some politicians to drink. And actually, drinking would be good for them. They can do this in one of the Amtrak restaurant cars. If there are any. Amtrak is systematically dismantling its dining service. The 2 1/2 day run from Chicago to San Francisco aboard the California Zephyr, for example, isn’t improved by having microwaved Salisbury steak from a vending machine. But this is imminent.

There will be pushback. Stay tuned.

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