Last year when we returned home to Italy after a stay in the U.S. we asked a friend to drive us to the Phoenix Airport (Sky Harbor, what a great name for an airport). Our trip involved a couple of plane changes before we finally arrived in Pisa (Aeroporto Galileo Galilei – another evocative name).
After claiming our luggage we walked to the shuttle train which, after the briefest of waits, carried us to the main Pisa train station. Another short wait ensued, and then we hopped on a train that carried us right to Rapallo.
Dragging our bags behind us we crossed the street to the bus station. We did have to wait close to an hour, but then a bus carried us up the hill to San Maurizio and dropped us off within 20 meters of our house.
The Italian part of the journey combined all the bests parts of travel: thrifty independence, timeliness, the joy of riding on a train, and the entertainment of time spent at a bus station. What more could you ask?
Why can’t we do that in the United States? Once upon a time American cities were connected by an intricate web of rails and it was quite possible to get from one town to another by train. Not only was it possible; it was often the most efficient way to travel.
The magic of watching a train chuff into a small-town station is long gone. American kids don’t have a lot of opportunities to see passenger trains unless they live near large metropolitan areas. What a pity!
And how inconvenient. All the post-World War II road building in the U.S. was a boon to those with the means to buy, store and feed an automobile; for everyone else it has been a huge disservice, as public transportation has dwindled and train tracks have been pulled up. It’s an ugly circle: fewer passengers leads to less service which leads to even fewer passengers which leads to….
Some say it is a matter of size. The U.S. is vast. Well, so is Europe, and we can get to just about anywhere in Europe from our front door using only public transportation. Is it as convenient as driving? Of course not! But it is less costly, much less tiring and likely to be pretty entertaining. And it’s probably better for Old Mother Earth. From our front door in Arizona we can take a very nice walk… and end up back at our front door.
(In Elaborations over on the right there are fascinating accounts of ‘house-party girls’ arriving by train for a college weekend in Massachusetts, and of the last passenger train to run through the Hoosac Tunnel.)