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alex beam

Never change, slow trains


Let’s stipulate that America has the worst passenger train service imaginable, from the Spartan, half-heated commuter carriages, to the cattle-car creature discomforts of Amtrak’s laughable intercity service. Amtrak’s scheduling is like the pirates’ code in the movie “Pirates of the Caribbean.” It is more like a set of guidelines than a statement of reality.

Yes, our trains are awful. Let’s keep them that way.

For me, trains are the lovable tortoises of our tortoise-and-two-hares transportation system. In a rush? Head for Logan. Need to get there now? Hop in your car. The taxpayers have lavished money on an interstate highway system that can transport you anywhere, and faster than almost any domestic train. And the food is better. I’ll take the Charlton rest stop on the Mass. Pike over the Amtrak club car any day of the week.

Why do I love the train? Because, to appropriate a term from our overheated campus rabble-rousers, it’s the last safe space we have. On Amtrak, it’s almost axiomatic that the cellphone coverage is erratic, and your wireless connection is guaranteed to be spotty or nonexistent.


So you are left to your own devices.

These would be: Conversation, a form of interaction more or less extinguished by e-mail and texting a number of years ago. Reading, yes, there are still readers out there, many of them pawing through a best-selling book called “The Girl on the Train.” Or thinking, meditating, or dreaming. It is a scary prospect, I’ll admit, being “alone with your thoughts.” Suppose there is nothing there? Well, it happens.

Trains are among the last imaginative spaces that remain in a world where it’s increasingly hard to distinguish real events from the fake (they’re called “virtual”) experiences that suffuse every aspect of our existence. That thing you see through the train window? It’s called the real world. Kind of junky, kind of monotone, and occasionally beautiful, as when the southbound Boston-to-Washington train makes that long, looping (slow) approach through Queens to the East River tunnels that lead to Penn Station.

On a sunny day, facing forwards, you have the Manhattan skyline to your right, backlit if dusk is approaching. Out the left-hand side, you can monitor the tiny beehive of LaGuardia Airport, tossing planes out over the Bronx and New Jersey.


Writers love trains, precisely because they are so closely hitched to the land of the imagination. “Writing requires a dip into the subconscious,” Jessica Gross wrote in the Paris Review. “The train is bounded, compartmentalized, and cozily small, like a carrel in a college library.”

Gross was the first recipient of Amtrak’s coveted writers’ residency, which offers trainophile writers free passage, and plenty of quiet, on its cross-country trains.

My friend Sabin Willett, who wrote his first novel commuting from Wellesley to his law practice in Boston, notes that writers do well to emulate the discipline of the iron horse: “There was something about the movement of it that prompted me,” he said. “The train has started, now you have to begin, and you have to get something done before we arrive.”

Each arrival imposes a deadline. And the little trips add up — to a novel, if you are lucky.

I know what you are thinking: This guy has never left the Northeast Corridor, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Wrong! I’ve ridden the fastest train in the world, the Shanghai Maglev train that links the city to its airport. Big deal. It’s expensive, and when you get there — too early, of course — you are stuck wandering around the same junkscape of high-end boutiques you find at every gateway airport in the world, bedazed and depressed by your lack of purchasing power.


Just a month ago, I was gallivanting around Japan in their astonishing shinkansen, the mercilessly punctual bullet trains that make every Japanese train station look like a scene from “Judge Dredd.” They are impressive, I’ll admit. But I never finished reading my novel! You’re 40 pages in, and it’s time to get off! Everything happens too quickly, by half.

There was and is a delightful overnight train called the Red Arrow that runs between Moscow and St. Petersburg. I rode it back when St. Petersburg was called Leningrad, and the Soviet authorities deliberately slowed the train down during the 440-mile trip so you could get a good night’s sleep and arrive at your destination fully refreshed.

Making haste slowly, as it were. Amtrak is very good at that.

There is a slow train coming, as Bob Dylan alerted us thirty-odd years ago, and expect to see me on it. Look for me in the back, luxuriating in the literal and metaphorical caboose of modern civilization. I’ll get there when I get there, and that is good enough for me.

Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at alexbeam@hotmail.com.