US: adopt rail transportation

Trains have inspired some of the finest music in the world.

The illustrious bard Jaquandor gripes:

What IS it with this country’s refusal to adopt rail as a serious method of transportation?

There’s a sign, less than two blocks from my house, that commemorates the Mohawk and Hudson Railroad that ran between Albany and Schenectady, one of the first in the nation. It’s clear that the transcontinental railroad created cohesion for the United States.

I’ve made it quite clear that I find passenger rail travel to be the only really civilized form of transportation. So why doesn’t the US embrace it more?

1) Freedom. The freedom of the open road, the myth sold by the car dealers decades ago, and now a part of the fabric of the self-definition of the country. EUROPEANS use trains and the metric system and socialized medicine, but that’s not what WE do. And it IS a big country.

2) Liberals. Most of the greatest concentration of potential train use, because of population patterns, is in the Northeast corridor from Boston to DC, and California. And do you know who lives there? LIBERALS, those arrogant prigs who fuss about energy conservation and don’t REALLY share American values. So screw ’em. We have the fix for the problems of some of the recent rail crashes, but we’re not going to spend money for THAT.

OK, that was exaggerated, but only slightly. There are also pockets of density in the eastern Midwest, and in parts of Texas suitable for rail transportation. Still, fixing the rails, usually shared by freight, and needing to defer to cargo, is considered “subsidizing” Amtrak. Fixing the roads is… oh, never mind, we don’t do that either.

And trains have inspired some of the finest music in the world. Here’s a list of 1000 songs. It’s MISSING at least two songs, both of which I own. One is Northern Bound Train by Pete Droge, which I’ve seen him perform. The other is Ridin’ the Rails by k.d. lang and Take 6, from the soundtrack to the movie Dick Tracy, a movie I’ve never seen.

Here are just a handful of my favorite train songs. Links to all.

500 Miles – Peter, Paul, and Mary
8:05 – Moby Grape
Big Train (from Memphis) – Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Carl Perkins

Casey Jones -Grateful Dead
Chattanooga Choo Choo – Glenn Miller
City of New Orleans – Steve Goodman

Engine Engine #9 – Roger Miller
Friendship Train – The Temptations
Hobo’s Lullabye – Emmylou Harris

Love Train -The O’Jays
Midnight Train to Georgia – Gladys Knight & The Pips
Northern Bound Train – Pete Droge

Ridin’ the Rails – k.d. lang and Take 6
Rock Island Line – Lead Belly

My Rail Adventure

There’s this guy who looks terribly familiar. He and this woman introduced themselves to each other. He had a small entourage; I peg him as a politician, but cannot suss out who he is.

[Written before my mom died.]
Sunday, I went to church primarily because I was teaching adult education.

Odd dichotomy: I was going to put my mother on the prayer list, yet at the same time, I didn’t want to hear several dozen people individually telling me they were praying for me and my mom and my family and/or they were sorry. [Yet, subsequently, getting several dozen e-mails – or a reading a post like this has been comforting.]

But there WERE people who already knew – my wife had told her Bodacious Bible Babes (R) group, which included one of the pastors, so it was already written in the concerns and announced at the early service. One church member asked what she could do to help. I requested that she take me to the train station on Monday a.m., if possible, so that I didn’t need to take two buses to get there, and she did.

Those living in Albany area know that the Albany train station is not in Albany, but rather across the Hudson River in Rensselaer. There used to be this dingy* building directly leading to the platform. But now it’s all spiffed up.

For years, train travel was the way I got to Charlotte, but it had to be well over a decade since my last trip. It was before the commonality of laptops and cellphones, that’s for sure. Opted not to bring a laptop – well, it would have been my daughter’s cute pink one, but that’s not why I didn’t bring it.

It was a sociological experiment. I did bring my cellphone, only because I needed to be in touch with both my family in Albany and Charlotte. And I brought something called books; I figured that being unplugged, I’d have a better chance to read them. Also had three magazines to finish.

The train was the 10:05 a.m., but the board said it was going to be 10 minutes late. No big deal since I had an hour and forty-five minutes to wait in Penn Station in New York City. Then it was 20 minutes late, then 30. Still feeling OK when the train did arrive 45 minutes late. I was feeling grateful that I wasn’t counting on another train that was scheduled to be 2 HOURS, 45 MINUTES LATE.

For reasons I don’t know, the people on the train I took were transferred to another train. We took off, but we didn’t get too far – we hadn’t even gotten to the next stop, Hudson, when I, and presumably others, literally smelled something wrong with the brakes. The train stopped, the train personnel investigated. After a few minutes, it was determined that we had to leave that train, walk across a narrow platform to another train, and then travel to NYC.

The train arrives at 2:30, 15 minutes after the train to Charlotte had departed. Pardon my language, but CRAP, what do I do?

I ask some Amtrak person who directs me to the wrong place, and I’m bouncing around in a mild panic when I hear three names over the loudspeaker, including mine, “go to dgvfc 8”. WHAT? “dgvfc 8.” I thought it was gate 8, but it turned out it was Amtrak ticket counter 8. Just in time, I get a ticket on the Acela train to Washington, DC.

The Acela train is particularly nice. I see how we’re going to catch up with the other train. The Acela goes from Boston to New York to DC, the best part of the system I think.

About four rows in front of me, there’s this guy who looks terribly familiar. He and this woman introduced themselves to each other. He had a small entourage; I peg him as a politician, but cannot suss out who he is. He gets off at Philadelphia. Finally, as I’m getting off the train in DC, I ask the woman. She tells me that he’s US Senator Tom Harkin, who I correctly recall is a Democrat from Iowa. Nice green tie he’s wearing.

I do, in fact, get to board the Crescent train to Charlotte, which ends up in Atlanta. (The stretch from Atlanta to New Orleans is closed Monday through Thursday for track repairs.) I call my wife and daughter, my sister Leslie, get something to eat, finish my first book (more about which, eventually) So it’s about 8:30. I’m tired, a little melancholy. I call my old friend Mary (she’s not old; I’ve just known her a long time), and talk a bit before my connection suddenly died. I thought to go to sleep, but never really do until about 12:30, for about an hour. Train pulls into Charlotte at 2:40, only 20 minutes late. My sister Marcia picks me up, and we go to the house. Eventually, I fitfully go to sleep in what has been my mother’s bed.

*When I wrote dingy, I almost wrote the word “dinghy”, which somehow seemed appropriate.

MOVIE REVIEWS: Unstoppable, and Tangled

In the very beginning of the story, Flynn talks about the day of his death; interesting, that, in the dark tradition of Disney stories.

The 2010 movie Unstoppable, which I saw with my wife on Black Friday in Oneonta in lieu of actual shopping, is a very competently made thriller about a runaway train with toxic chemicals, and the heroic efforts of a couple of railroad hands, a veteran (played by Denzel Washington) and a guy just out of training (Chris Pine, who played young James T. Kirk in the 2009 Star Trek movie) in stopping said train. It reviewed surprisingly well, especially with the top critics. My wife’s stomach was in knots most of the way through, and mine wasn’t, but I enjoyed it as a pleasant diversion. “Pleasant?” my wife wondered aloud. Jaquandor’s take on the movie pretty much nailed it.

The movie was a production of Tony Scott, who last year created the remake of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, which I did not see, also starring Denzel Washington; from what I read, Unstoppable is the better movie, though it has no real villain, only a particularly incompetent worker.

I’m quite interested in the fact that the movie was based on an actual incident that took place on May 15, 2001.

As described here and here, the initiation of the incident in the movie was pretty true to life, with the railroad employee (played in the movie by Ethan Suplee of My Name Is Earl) not securing the air brakes, jumping off the train to do some track switching, then unable to get back on the accelerating locomotive. This occurred, though, in Ohio, not Pennsylvania; the train (the 8888, not the 777) never got faster than 47 mph, not over 70; and by the time the event that ends the ordeal – if you read about it, I suppose it’d be a spoiler – the train’s going much slower in real life.

The single thing that I found most distracting was the too-close-to-the-action TV helicopter. Yet I did “believe” the nature of the “breaking news” reporting, and the next morning, Don Henley’s Dirty Laundry was running in my head.

The annoying thing at this particular theater is that it had four commercials BEFORE the previews, two for auto companies (Chevy and Acura), and two for personal care products, one for a body wash that was soft-core porn, and so ridiculous that most of the audience laughed in derision. (As opposed to a genuine laugh for a Johnny Depp line in the preview for the Angelina Jolie film, The Tourist.) There were also previews for the new Narnia movie and the Coen Brothers’ remake of True Grit, neither of which I’m likely to see, but the latter used a posthumously-released Johnny Cash song to good effect.

Ethan Suplee and Denzel Washington shared no screen time in Unstoppable, whereas Washington played Suplee’s high school football coach in Remember the Titans.


Sunday afternoon, I saw Tangled 3D, with my six (“six and a HALF!”)-year-old daughter at a theater within walking distance of our house. It is being billed on the screen as Disney’s 50th animated film, which seems appropriate because I’m feeling rather 50/50 about it.
+ Interesting and fresh setup for the Rapunzel story, with a psychologically mean stepmother type that worked for me
– But the story occasionally drags, especially early.
+ A couple of great Alan Mencken-Glenn Slater songs, for the Mother Gothel (Donna Murphy) character and some rowdy rogues;
– But the songs for Rapunzel, sung perfectly well by Mandy Moore, are mostly rather undistinguished.
+ Wonderful, occasionally stunning visuals, and moreover, great use of 3D, possibly the best I’ve ever seen, and I’m no big 3D fan. AT ALL.
– There is better chemistry between Rapunzel and her chameleon, or even between the lead male character, Flynn (Zachery Levi, who sings surprisingly well) and his nemesis, the horse Maximus, than between Rapunzel and Flynn.
Still, there’s enough story – plus, did I mention how great this movie looked? and probably even in 2D – to recommend it. It’s way better than the trailer suggests, that’s for certain, and better than I’ve described it, I suspect. I really did like it, as it had some excellent sequences. But I didn’t LOVE it.

BTW, my daughter remembers that in the very beginning of the story, Flynn talks about the day of his death; interesting, that, in the dark tradition of Disney stories.

This movie had about a half dozen trailers, all for animated 3D movies, including Yogi Bear (looks annoying), Cars 2, Mars Needs Moms (looks weird), and Gnomeo and Juliet; the latter had an audiovisual joke that more than one adult in the audience took as a reference to fellatio.
A Ken Levine post about Tangled and Leslie Nielsen jokes. Re: the latter, I was sad at his passing, as Airplane! is one of my Top 5 comedies, but I didn’t have anything to add except this: if you remember him as a serious actor, and I probably saw more than 75% of everything he was in between 1965 and 1971, his subsequent revealed humor was, if anything, even funnier.


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