We haven't been working on the railroad

In the African rain forests of Gabon a railroad is being built with the pretty name of Chemin de Fer Transgabonais. It is an exorbitantly expensive enterprise, eating up nearly a quarter of the government's budget.

There is almost nothing for the railroad to haul at the moment, and almost no place to take it to anyway. But in the third world the railroad still holds value as a symbol that a country has come of industrial age. Or as one official told a correspondent of the Wall Street Journal, "In movies and on television, we've seen how the railroad conquered the West." And so in a land where the dugout canoe remains a major carrier and only 240 miles of road have been paved, the Chemin de Fer Transgabonais is getting laid out like a red carpet to nowhere , at a cost of $3.5 million per mile.

Meanwhile, back in the Old West, the entrancing sound of wheels on tracks threatens to become as obsolete as the drumming hoofs of buffalo -- except, of course, in those movies. It is the Japanese bullet train that serves as the world's model railroad. The Paris Metro is the stuff today's movies get named after. And why not? Thanks to a 16-year plan of improvements, a passenger can now ride from one end of Paris to the other in less than 10 minutes. Things English may falter these days, but the London Underground keeps rolling along. A ninth line, the "Jubilee" Line, opened in 1979.

What can Americans boast of at the moment? San Diego has just set up a system using rails abandoned by the Southern Pacific Railroad. But the trolley is so much less than the American wave of the future that the Metropolitan Transit Development Board had to buy its cars from West Germany. Furthermore, this rather logical step -- evolving a transit line from old railroad tracks -- is being tried for the first time in 22 years. The last converter was the "T" of Boston, initiating its Riverside line in 1959.

As for the railroad itself, Amtrak is offering a return trip for a dollar if only you will ride the rails, please, to practically anywhere on the Northeast corridor.

Why have Americans so lost their taste for most forms of public transportation?

There is a conspiracy theory that says Detroit and the oil companies have seen to it over the years that the American has remained firmly seated in his automobile, or, at worst, a diesel bus.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology analysts in their study of "The Urban Transportation System" throw statistics at the reader -- licensed drivers up from 43 percent to 83 percent between 1950 and 1975, density of transit service down 77 percent -- until "the auto-dominant system" seems a demographic inevitability.

But there are intangibles here, just as there are intangibles in the rain forests of Gabon: matters of attitude. Sometimes it seems as if the peculiar idea operates that anything that worked well in the 19th century must be hopelessly obsolete by now. Isn't this the Age of the Supersonic Jet, if not the Age of the Space Shuttle? Would any self-respecting 1981 passenger ride a prop plane, to say nothing of a trolley or a railroad car?

And so, because of two kinds of snobbery, tracks inch across Gabon while they disappear in the United States. This is an exaggeration, of course, just as Mayor Tom Bradley of Los Angeles was exaggerating when he said: "Freeways to accommodate our autos have divided and conquered our city with ribbons of concrete -- separating people from their jobs and from each other, destroying the integrity of neighborhoods and encouraging urban spread and the destruction of needed open space." But in these exaggerations we see how complex the poetry, as well as the logistics, of travel can become.

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