Hear that lonesome whistle

I HATE to say anything unkind about Amtrak, because travel by train is a gracious and dignified mode of transportation. But I am afraid that the passenger train is doomed. Its basic appeal is an emotional one to my own aging generation, and it is gaining fewer and fewer young supporters. I had an extreme example of this a few years ago in the reaction of two granddaughters of a friend of mine. The young ladies, whose ages then were in the single digits, had flown from New York to Seattle and back at least three times and had twice traveled unaccompanied to Florida by plane.

Seasoned travelers though they were, they were terrified on their first visit to Steamtown. They absolutely refused to set foot on those dangerous ``steam cars.'' I can sympathize with them. Passenger trains terrify me, too, but for a different reason. I am fearful of the government subsidy they will require in view of their failure to attract a large fare-paying constituency.

For older people, the railroads are a rich mine of nostalgia. We recall the chatter of a telegraph key in a small-town station, and the mournful wail of a train whistle at night. Our musical heritage is rich in songs about trains, from ``The Wabash Cannonball'' to ``The Chattanooga Choo Choo.'' But the times are changing. A few years ago, a popular song celebrated ``the train they call the City of New Orleans.'' But the song proved more popular than the train, which was discontinued while the song was still echoing around the airwaves.

Our younger generation may someday know the sound of a train whistle only from that blues song: ``Hear that lonesome whistle -- Blowin' cross the trestle! Whoo-ee!'' and some of them may never understand the humor of those Helen Hokinson cartoons with a fuzzy-minded dowager hailing a porter as ``Oh, Redskin!'' and asking a conductor, ``Does my ticket allow me a hangover in Philadelphia?''

One of the bars to restoring train travel is the fact that the railroad was the keystone in a wide range of services that have vanished beyond recall. Back when trains were the main means of travel, they supported a network of station hotels all across the country. These ranged from the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York City to the Depot House in East Overshoe. In New York City, a traveler found abundant local transportation, but the Depot House usually helped support a nearby livery stable, where a traveling salesman could rent a horse and buggy to visit his customers.

In the big cities, the railroad station housed a little world of its own. This included newsstand operators, ticket agents, bootblacks, lunchroom cooks, and taxi drivers, many of them on the job 24 hours a day.

Even in the small towns, the railroad station was usually the only place that was open all night, although the rest of the town might close up at 9 o'clock. It provided a shelter from the weather and from loneliness. A night operator with a green eyeshade might be giving one ear to a clacking telegraph key and the other to a trainman waiting to deadhead to work on a late shift. If the town had a taxi driver, he would be there. If the town was big enough, there would be a diner across the street.

By day, the small-town station was a window on a wider world. It sold tickets to faraway romantic places like Albany and Buffalo, and even to San Francisco, which had an earthquake and Chinatown. When the Flier went through, gawking locals might glimpse people dining at a white-clothed table while a waiter hovered solicitously in the background.

As the early railroads replaced the canals, so the highways and airlines are replacing the railroads. Today's airports are the equivalents of yesterday's railroad stations. Rental cars have replaced livery stable buggies, and the hotel business has moved out of town.

The traveler by automobile can find food and lodging, car service and shopping malls, along the thousands of miles of highways. Just as the costs of Broadway have spawned the Off Broadway theaters, big-city prices have inspired convention centers along the highways.

These factors all spell the doom of railroad passenger service, and that reminds me of an incident far back in the past. Sixty years ago, I worked on a farm in Sicklerville, N.J. An engineer on a local branch railroad there had modified his train whistle to toot the opening six notes of ``Nearer, My God to Thee.''

It was an eerie experience to wake up in the middle of a stormy night and hear that hymn wailing through the windy darkness. The old farm is now a housing development, the railroad is long gone, and a superhighway skirts the edge of town. The air horns of 18-wheelers now hoot there all night; and I wonder sometimes whether that old engineer may not have been unconsciously foretelling the ultimate fate of his calling.

Gerald Raftery writes a weekly column for the Bennington (Vt.) Banner, and the Berkshire Eagle (Pittsfield, Mass.).

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