Railroad romance and reality

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Over a century and a half after their first appearance on the American landscape, railroads continue to inspire the mixed reactions that greeted their debut. The American transcendentalists, among others, were ambivalent about the railroad, seeing it as a symbol of both progress and despoliation.

In 1842, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his journal: “I hear the whistle of the locomotive in the woods. Wherever that music comes it has its sequel. It is the voice of the civility of the Nineteenth Century saying, ‘Here I am.’”

Walt Whitman’s poem “Passage to India” envisioned the railroad, along with the Suez Canal and the transatlantic telegraph cable, as part of a vast network linking cities and continents:

Lo, soul, seest thou not God’s purpose from the first?
The earth to be spann’d, connected by network,
The races, neighbors, to marry and be given in marriage,
The oceans to be cross’d, the distant brought near,
The lands to be welded together.

Henry David Thoreau sometimes described the railroad in benign terms: “I watch the passage of the morning cars with the same feeling that I do the rising of the sun, which is hardly more regular.” Elsewhere, though, he depicted the locomotive as a sinister beast, a “devilish Iron Horse,” a “bloated pest,” corrupting and polluting the pristine wilderness.

In 1869, a golden spike driven at Promontory Summit, Utah, by officials of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific marked the completion of the transcontinental railroad. Today, 140 years later, it doubtless strikes many observers as surprising that we still depend so heavily on railroads to sustain the engine of American commerce.

Although it ranks near the bottom of industrialized countries in its use of passenger rail, the United States trails only China in its reliance on freight rail, moving in the neighborhood of 1775 million tons of freight a year. In this country, trains account for 38 percent of intercity freight transport, trailed by trucks with 28 percent.

Although railroads came into existence to serve existing towns and cities, new railroads in the sparsely settled 19th-century American West resulted in the creation of hundreds of new settlements, a process described by Jonathan Raban in his book “Bad Land”:

“As the line advanced across the land, it flung infant cities into being at intervals of a dozen miles or so. Trains needed to be loaded with freight and passengers, and it was part of the essential business of the railroad company to furnish its territory with customers, to create ready-made communities of people whose lives would be dependent on the umbilical of the line. . . . The company said, Let there be a city: and there was a city.”

Today, railroads encounter not too little civilization but too much. When the Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern Railroad announced plans to upgrade its 579-mile line between Wall, S.D., and Winona, Minn., it encountered fierce opposition, especially from Rochester, Minn., residents and businesses.

Closer to home, plans for a new LRT line between downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul have run up against objections from the University of Minnesota and Minnesota Public Radio, among others, on the grounds that trains will disrupt their business.

Although we’re dependent on railroads to deliver the goods we use, many of us rarely think about trains, and when we do it’s often with annoyance: stuck on a road transected by a track just when a train is coming by. If you’re an urban dweller who lives near a track — or, even more so, a switching yard — there is the more regular irritation of noise to contend with.

But set against these aggravations is the “romance of the rails.” Train use is up. Amtrak carried a record 25,850,000 passengers in 2007. While some of those riders might have been driven aboard by the high price of gas, others perhaps relished the convenience of boarding without having to remove their shoes and repack their carry-on bags. Or they may have been attracted by the fact that trains have a smaller carbon footprint than jets do. Or they might have appreciated the chance to see the countryside they were traveling through.

We still lag far behind Europe in our use of passenger rail. But as commuter rail and LRT continue to take hold in our large cities, that disparity lessens.

In the 1950s and 60s, Twin Citians made folk heroes of a couple of ersatz railroaders: TV stars Casey Jones and Roundhouse Rodney. Perhaps as we move ahead, some 21st-century counterparts will emerge to captivate our attention and draw us again to those mesmerizing words: “Board, board. Now arriving on track 11 . . . .”

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