Ride the rails

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I recently took a long train ride, one of three or four I take each year. This one was long enough to sleep overnight, partake of several meals, and spend hours absorbing Amtrak's view of America through a slumbercoach window. There's something soothing about a train ride: The motion sometimes puts the rider into a deep sleep. Then there is the rhythm of the train whistles, reminders that the railroads are a minority among transportation modes today, required to announce their presence to automobiles whose numbers will soon exceed the American population.

Yet the train is fuel-efficient, not excessive in fares, and historic. It was the nation's first major infrastructure, even before roads, which means that its route is a sort of textbook of America's past. Although pioneered by the British, the railroad became America's first big business, the marvel of the 19th century, even affecting the way the nation kept track of time. Before the iron horses, each town set time according to the location of the sun, leading to 56 different ``sun'' areas. Railroad st andard time, introduced in 1883 and still observed, corrected that problem.

Most developed nations have not only maintained but refined their passenger rail systems. Except for the Northeast corridor and a few other routes, the United States has not. Prior to Amtrak's creation in 1971, the private rail carriers shunned the passenger end of their business. And Amtrak's annual battle with Congress and the White House over its subsidy would suggest that politicians would rather fly than really get into training. Then there's Amtrak's service which is as erratic in quality as a sum mer hurricane in movement: Sometimes the personnel are friendly, sometimes not; sometimes the air conditioning works as it should, sometimes it doesn't.

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Amtrak will continue to ride on one rail until its officials and Washington authorities get their act together. Deteriorating depots need to be modernized; railroad property cries for a proper cleanup; and equipment and personnel must look and act the part of a transportation industry entering the 21st century.

All this sounds like a big agenda -- and it is. But a nation that can put a man on the moon, put microchips on the tip of a woman's finger, and fathom the deepest recesses of the ocean can make its rail system, like its autos and planes, a tribute to its origins, past accomplishments, and, most of all, to its present technology and leadership.

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University.

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