Thursday 19 May 2022

Open Letter to Amtrak

Originally written in 2009.

Dear Sir or Madam:

When I visited my native USA this summer, I needed to take my daughter from Minnesota to Missouri, a thousand-mile trek across the Heartland. I decided to use Amtrak, and wanted to share with you my perceptions of the journey.

I wanted to avoid driving for several reasons. I didn’t want to strap a five-year-old into a car seat for 12 hours, or be forced to stop at numerous roadside franchises designed to sell movie promotional toys and congealed pseudo-food. I remembered the last time we made the journey, when a kamikaze deer smashed our rental car and left us stranded on the Iowa highway. Most of all, though, I wanted to see how easily one could journey halfway down the length of America without a car.

Let me start by noting that everyone I dealt with at Amtrak was courteous and helpful, even funny. As superior as the European trains are, their staff would be less likely to make friendly conversation as they processed our ticket, or smile as they gave us directions. A European conductor might be less likely to stop by especially to check on my daughter, or to announce after an empty small-town night stop, “Folks, that was Dwight, Illinois, and we hope that was as exciting for you as it was for us.”

The staff’s best efforts could not make the train ride a pleasant experience, though. We showed up at 7 am for our 7:45 train – the only train going to our destination that day -- which showed up at 8:30. The delays only increased as the day progressed, and we finally arrived in Chicago two hours late, missing our connecting train. We finally reached Alton, Illinois in the small hours of the morning, long after we were supposed to arrive.

As my daughter played in the seats, she poked her leg on a metal corner, and I considered whether I needed to bring her to the emergency room for a tetanus shot. The toilets were miniscule and poorly ventilated. The only food available on the first, nine-hour leg was six cars up, I was not inclined to leave either a sleeping child or my belongings. The dining car on the second leg opened two hours late. The food that I could find was of vending-machine quality but three times as expensive.

It was a pleasant summer evening travelling from Chicago to St. Louis, but the cars were kept sufficiently frigid that the Russian immigrants in front of us complained loudly. Whether because of the food, the temperature or the stress, my daughter spent most of the next day vomiting.

A sixteen-hour plane trip, by contrast, would probably involve a few full meals, many snacks and a selection of movies. I don’t require an on-board masseuse or French waiters, but some accessible juice or pretzels would go a long way.

A more fundamental problem, which I know is out of your control, can be shown by a brief glance at the map on your web site: Amtrak has only a small number of lines that must stretch between two oceans and serve 300 million people.

Nearby towns that do have Amtrak lines are often inaccessible to each other, as the lines run parallel for hundreds of miles without meeting. For example, Denver, CO and La Junta, CO both have Amtrak lines and are 176 miles apart. But to get from one to the other by train, one must travel from Denver, Colorado to Galesburg, Illinois (!), 889 miles away, and then travel another 896 miles back to La Junta – a 1,785-mile trip in all.

Alternately, one could travel from Denver to San Francisco (1,266 miles), San Francisco to Los Angeles (381 miles) and Los Angeles to La Junta (1,115 miles) for a 2,762-mile journey – again, to travel 176 miles.

To use an example closer to my birthplace, Poplar Bluff, MO and Fulton, Kentucky are 117 miles apart, but to travel from one to the other would require an 858-mile trip to Chicago and back. Oklahoma City and Dodge City are 263 miles apart, but a train would have to take a 1,548-mile journey through Fort Worth and St. Louis to get from one to the other.

I estimated these figures by looking at the stops on your web site and Google-mapping the distances between cities, so the mileage may not be exact -- for Google’s directions, like everything else in America, assumes that you will drive. But you get the idea.

To understand how strange this is, consider my own home of Ireland. The Irish are not the most crisply efficient people on Earth, but their trains usually arrive once every half hour, and if they are five minutes late an outraged grumble ripples through the assembled commuters.

Cross-country trips – only the distance of a cross-state trip for us, of course – have fairly good food served in your car, comfortable seats, wireless service for laptops, and so on – and it is no more expensive than Amtrak per unit of distance, even though everything else in the country is two or three times more expensive.

Other European countries have even better service. When visiting Germany, I could tour major cities with a toddler, limited German and no car, through a series of national rail lines, urban trams, buses, subways, and sub-subways under the first set of subways.

A common response is that America is a much vaster country, so compare Ireland’s dozens of lines and stations with a US state about twice the size – say, Wisconsin, with one Amtrak line and two stops. Or compare vast to vast: Russia is larger than the United States, yet Russians travel 1,220 kilometres per person per year by train, while Americans have only 80 kilometres – behind Pakistan, Kazakhstan and Egypt.

You could argue that this indicates our prosperity, as more people can afford their own cars. But far fewer Americans had their own cars when there were more trains, indicating the opposite: that more people need to pay for cars because they have no rail service. Europeans often travel 10,000 percent more by trains than Americans do, and they are not necessarily less prosperous nations.

We used to be better. The golden spike in the transcontinental railroad looms large in our history books, and my country was once covered by a capillary network of lines that reached hundreds, if not thousands, of small towns. Visit or live in Missouri or Kansas towns, as I have, and you will often see a long-abandoned train station in the old town centre, tracks still visible under the grass. We deserve better, as a civilised nation and alleged superpower, than to live with so many new ruins.

Trains or streetcar networks once branched out inside cities as well – my grandparents met and fell in love on the St. Louis trolleys, around the time Judy Garland was singing an ode to them in the film Meet Me in St. Louis. The film was set in 1904 and made in 1944, so the trolleys had been around for decades at that point – but tragically, not for much longer. They and other streetcar lines were bought and destroyed by a coalition of oil, car and tire companies long ago – the companies were later found guilty of criminal conspiracy in federal court, and fined $5,000 each.

Recent rail lines in St. Louis and Minneapolis were built only after decades of fierce opposition, and critics unfavourably compared existing light rail lines to road use – without comparing it to a road that goes from point A to point B without meeting any other roads. I will also hear people claim that the trains are largely empty, without noting that the cars on the road are also largely empty. And if the stations in Minneapolis and Chicago were any indication, there are far more people clamouring to use even Amtrak than the stations can handle.

I realize I’m conflating the apples and oranges of heavy and light rail, Amtrak and streetcars. I realize I’m ranting about decisions that were made far above you or long ago. But I bring it up to show that I am sympathetic to your situation. I suspect your likeable and highly professional staff works very hard under difficult conditions and an insufficient budget – paid, I understand, not by taxes as roads and electric lines are, or as your counterparts would be in sane countries, but on fares alone. I suspect you are considered, like the Postal Service, a vestigial bit of infrastructure in this era of frequent flyers and broadband, relegated to the poor, the elderly, nuns and the Amish, left to die of natural causes.

I think this is seriously misguided. Rail worked for us for decades, and today Third-World peasants can count on transportation freedoms that most Americans cannot. Every surge in the price of fuel, every dire warning about the climate's transformation, every new plunge in the economy makes Americans’ constant driving more difficult and rails more necessary.

But if more of us are to travel by rail, we should be able to widely, with trains running many times a day to many destinations. Riding the train should be an experience people will seek out, and to which we will return.

I have used Amtrak before, and I expect I will again, so let me know who I can write to help change this. Feel free to pass it on to your head of projects, your CEO, the Secretary of Transportation, whoever you think appropriate.

And get that metal corner sanded off.

Wednesday 11 May 2022

The Girl at the Beach


Irish television used to run a funny parody of "Baywatch," reimagining it on these shores. Tanned and sculpted lifeguards, that most popular image of America, tried to run across the shore to familiar power chords -- but as it was the Irish coast, they shivered in the drizzle, tiptoed over the horse deposits and did the hokey-pokey over the sharp rocks. "What works over there doesn't over here," said the voice-over. "But our beer does."

Soft beaches are rare as hot days on our windswept shores, so when I heard about a secret beach – public but surrounded by private lands – I saved the knowledge for the first hot day of the year. Sure enough, today we saw the temperature get to 25 degrees Celsius – 77 degrees Fahrenheit, what we in Missouri called “room temperature” but here was called “a scorcher.”

The Girl and I took my friend’s directions, parked the car in a secluded place, and crept through undergrowth on the edge of someone’s property. We emerged scratched from the branches, but blinking in the sunshine, facing the first beach we’d ever seen on this island. 

We made sand castles, looked for crabs and sea life, inspected seaweed, and for the first time in my life, I swam in the ocean. We also discovered, tucked deep in the cliffs behind the beach, a waterfall, which formed a tiny stream that trickled towards the ocean until it sank into the sand.


Every night I read to her -- Pippi Longstockings, Winnie-the-Pooh, The Noisy Village -- and I encourage her to try as many words as she can. Tonight we talked about punctuation, and I explained that "!" was an exclamation point.

"I have an exclamation point," she said.

Where? I asked.

"Right here," she said, pointing to the scar where she was recently vaccinated.

Well, the ones on the paper are used when you feel something strongly, I said -- like when something hurts.

"My exclamation point feels like that sometimes," she said.

Wednesday 4 May 2022

What it means to have children


We devote much of our lives to our children, the messages we send to the future we will never see.  

If you walk through a city today, almost everything you see around you was conceived, designed, forged, shaped, fit and lain almost exclusively by married men trying to feed their wives and children, or by single men trying to earn enough money to attract women for sex and children. Without children, there's no point in working hard, or defending one's country, or avoiding addiction, or living.

People who do succeed in having children, though, shape everything in their lives around them. They pay mortgages, not because adults need a house, but so the children can have a yard to play in. They pay high prices for certain neighbourhoods, not because they need it themselves, but because they want to send their children to good schools. They plan holidays around their kids’ schedule. They keep healthy, resisting the temptations of the world, so that they remain with their children as long as possible.

We spend every evening reading to our children, taking walks with them, bringing them along as we check on the elderly neighbours or pick up roadside trash. We take them with us through our lives, but more than that, we change our lives for them. We aspire to become what our three-year-old sees when they look at us, and their gaze makes us better people.

For most of history, people also taught their children what they needed to know to live – hunting, farming, the family trade – expecting life in their children’s age to be much as theirs had been. For recent generations across much of the world, though, this has changed completely – as the fossil fuel boom transformed the landscape, parents assumed life in the future would be very, very different, and for a while they have been right. Old professions – farmer, cobbler, mason, miller, wright – became mere surnames and vanished from census records. The skills themselves disappeared almost completely, as parents did not pass on what they thought would be obsolete.

Our children might face a world moving in the opposite direction. We have a world powered by fossil fuels that will not last forever, dependent on a stable climate that is swiftly growing chaotic, financially dependent on global trade and debt that is becoming unsustainable, and accustomed to peace and cheap goods whose days are numbered. Technology may continue to develop, but there might be less industry to build it, less energy to run it and less money to pay for it.

Most people I talk to -- farmers, construction workers, taxi drivers -- understand that there is an ecological and economic crisis, even if they don't understand all the details. Most people also have children. Yet web sites and publications that discuss the environment or the economy rarely talk about children, and how to train them to deal with the world we anticipate, and most environmental activists I know have a strange absence of children.

It doesn’t help that we’re not sure what to prepare them for. Should we teach them how to write resumes and operate software to thrive in the businesses that exist today, or will they no longer exist a few decades from now? Should we teach them bushcraft skills to survive in the wild, or will those be useless standing in the unemployment line? We could teach them the old skills of farming and village crafts, but we don’t know for certain what crafts will make a comeback – and they would have to practice them while still making a living in the present-day world of suburbs and office complexes, which does not have a ready market for farriers and cobblers.

The best solution is probably to teach them the broad basics, and let them develop more specialized skills as interest and opportunities allow. We can’t second-guess the world, but we can give them the fundamental knowledge and attitude to react to a wide spectrum of unforeseen events. If you home-school, you can turn these into full courses – but even if you send them to a conventional school, you can continue to teach, talk and explore while making supper, driving or reading bedtime stories.

Take, for example, cooking. Amazingly, more than half of all Americans don’t cook anything that didn’t come out of a package, and I don’t imagine Ireland is vastly different. Show them how to put meals together with the basic trinity of vegetables, starch and protein. Show them how to sautee onions, blanch beans, sear meat and make salad dressing. They don’t have to become a master chef – they just have to cook healthy things they like.

Introduce them to growing things. Let them put beans on wet paper towels and watch them grow into sprouts. Have them plant seeds in a cup, and watch them check it day after day as it becomes cress. Take them into the garden as you check the plants for disease, prune the trees, weed the soil. Enlist their help; as Irish farmer John Seymour put it, there are few greater threats to caterpillars than a well-motivated three-year-old.

Teach them to forage, to pick flowers and shoots from fields in spring and fruits and nuts from trees in the fall. Most kids are fascinated by animals, and even unbidden would hunt for crayfish or snails like Easter eggs.

Show them how to turn one food into another – milk becomes yogurt, fruit can be dried for snacks, vegetables can be pickled. To a child, there are few things more fun than pounding and playing with bread dough. To an adult, there are few things more entertaining than their look of astonishment when you uncover the hidden dough and it’s twice as large as before.

Remember that children find their own routine normal, no matter how we feel about it, and they learn things not because we think they are important, but because we repeat them over and over. Make the lessons into song lyrics, set to some catchy tune they like. Make lessons into a game or a contest.

Read to them. I’m astonished at the number of parents who give their children phones or tablets, or let them play video games, often without even checking what they watch. Children don’t need to learn computer games or the latest programmes, but they do need to read, and see you reading. Nor do they need to read books just for children, many of which were created just as consumer products and not as literature. A few centuries ago children grew up reading complex adult material at very young ages, and yours can too.

When they are old enough, show them how money works. Most or our forebears kept their private parts private, but parents taught their children how to manage money wisely; today, almost nothing is embarrassing or forbidden except money. Most people I know were never taught now to do their taxes, estimate an appropriate salary or choose the right products when shopping, but if you teach your child these things, they will have an edge over most of their peers.

Demonstrate that take-out food can be made more quickly at home, for a fraction of the price. Introduce them to compound interest – lend them money at five percent interest per day, and show them how their debt doubles in a fortnight. Later, when they are old enough to have credit cards and mortgages – if such things exist -- they might remember.

Introduce them cheerfully to the notion that accidents happen, things break and the centre does not hold. It probably won’t happen, and there’s no point worrying, but we’d best know what to do just in case. My four-year-old helped me pack an emergency bag, and we recited like a nursery rhyme the items we needed: If it rains we have ponchos, masks if there’s smoke. This filters the water if pipes ever broke. 

The older they get, the more they should learn how the world is connected. This new gadget all your friends have – where was it made? What is that country like? How much energy does it take to ship it here? How long does it last? You might not want to introduce them to too much global tragedy too early, of course, but older children might like the opportunity to solve a mystery, and would take more seriously a conclusion they’ve reached on their own. I used to be an investigative reporter, and think everyone should be one, just for a little while – it should be a year-long course for teenagers.

Let them be curious. If they ask you questions whose answer you don’t know, be careful not to dismiss them or make something up – no parent thinks they would ever do that, but we all get busy and distracted. Admit you don’t know and look it up, or teach them to do so. Don’t let them accept Wikipedia or Google’s first entry. Demonstrate that there’s nothing wrong with not knowing the answer, and there’s something very right about asking the question.

Bring them along. Let them see you shovel an elderly neighbour’s walkway of snow, help build a community garden at the local church, buy second-hand clothes, split a bulk-food order with co-op members, speak at City Council meetings. Know that these things, too, are part of being a good neighbour and good citizen, something that decent people do.

Finally, I try to remember that daughter is not a blog I fill with my own thoughts – she has her own interests and will, and her future is as uncertain as the world's. You can influence them as you influence your spouse, but you’re not going to make them into someone they’re not. Luckily, there are uses for every type of personality, and we will need everyone in the years ahead. Try to make your kids understand that too – we are entering a time when we’ll need each other, and we’re all in this together.